Authors in Trouble

Jimmy Carter’s new book about Israel is provoking criticism on two fronts.

The first issue is that he’s accusing Israel of practicing “apartheid” against the Palestinians, a charge that is hardly new but which doesn’t usually come from a former U.S. president. (Carter’s position is hardly subtle; the book’s title is Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.) This has prompted criticism from the likes of Alan Dershowitz, who called Carter’s book “ahistorical.”

The book is also being attacked for a variety of authorial misbehaviors. Dennis Ross, the former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, says that Carter used maps that Ross created without Ross’s permission or acknowledgment. Much harsher, however, are the charges detailed in this article. It describes why Kenneth Stein, a professor of Middle Eastern history and political science at Emory University and a longtime Carter advisor, recently resigned from the Carter Center. Carter’s new book, Stein explained, is “replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions and simply invented segments.”

Ouch.

I haven’t read Carter’s book, and probably won’t get around to it. But I must say that I was surprised when I saw that he’d published a book on such a weighty topic so soon after his last book, which came out last November. That’s pretty fast work.

So far, the controversy seems to be either not hurting Carter much — or, in the magical manner that controversy sometimes performs, it may be helping: the book is currently at No. 7 on the N.Y. Times non-fiction list.

Augusten Burroughs is another author in trouble. According to Buzz Bissinger’s long article in Vanity Fair, Burroughs is the new James Frey. Bissinger recently told the Boston Globe that Burroughs’s signature memoir Running With Scissors “contains little strands of fact that were wildly embellished, and if you take those away, you don’t have much of a book.”

Double ouch. Of course none of this criticism would have seen the light of day if the books in question weren’t so successful. If we had to hear about the shortcomings of every single book that’s published, we’d all drown in bile within about 20 minutes.


bertrecords

Here is the citation to the New York Times review of "Running With Scissors".

Take my family, please: Two memoirs explore the mysteries of childhood in the 1970's.
Virginia Heffernan
New York Times Book Review; Jul 14, 2002 pg. 7

bertrecords

I read the Burroughs book. I reviewed it somewhere. My main criticism upon reading the book was that he obviously made up stuff. I can not understand how anyone would take what he wrote as literal truth. Consider this. Running With Scissors is his third or fourth autobiography! Many reviewers were rating it one star, mostly for political reasons-- the reviews were anti-gay. There were lots of five star reviews , as well, which I attributed to publicists. My own opinion? I gave it three stars out of five. If Burroughs is now even more controversial, I suppose it is good for sales.

If you go to Tom Delay.com, there is a thread about Jimmy Carter. Can you believe this? The right hates him. The left loves him. Apartheid is a polarizing word. I personally agree with the word, regardless of Jimmy Carter's sourcing. I stopped reading Jimmy Carter's books long ago, because though I admire him, I find his books dull.

Jimmy Carter and Augustan Burroughs should be thrilled with their publicists. Could it be publicist, singular?

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tim in tampa

I am absolutely baffled as to why Frey was labasted but Burroughs is being praised. Their books are about equal in terms of truth being embellished beyond recognition.

Ashton

Alan Dershowitz should be very careful when criticizing other authors considering the plagiarism in his own book "The Case for Israel". All of which has been well documented both by Norman Finkelstein in his book, "Beyond Chutzpah", & on his website (www.normanfinkelstein.com).

hbissinger

I am surprised Stephen that a journalist who supposedly cares about the truth would be so cavalier about it. Plus the story, which I don't think you have read, deals at length with what may be the more germane issue here, the absolute betrayal of the family not simply in what he allegedly embellished and fabricated but in the way he duplicitly pumped one of them for information without ever mentioning once that he was writing a book and then apparently twisting what he learned to heighten the story. They went through hell. Nobody, nobody, should ever have been put in the situation they found themselves in. As a journalist whose work I admire, I don't think under any conditions you would advocate what Burroughs allegedly did. Nor do I believe you somehow find it trivial.
As for writing about something that is well-known and successful, yup, guilty as charged. Whether we like it or not, that is the way the world works.
As for the facts, which seem irrelevant in blogs, Running with Scissors was Burroughs' first published autobiography. And the reviews were stellar ranging from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post. As for the literal truth, that is something Burroughs has steadfastly maintained. It is classified as non-fiction, not faction.

Buzz Bissinger
writer of "Ruthless with Scissors" in the January issue of Vanity Fair

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Stephen J. Dubner

@4 (Buzz Bissinger):

Hi Buzz. I didn't mean to seem "cavalier" in my post above in the section about Burroughs. I'm not at all in favor of what Burroughs did, and I guess you feel I've disparaged your efforts to expose him when I made the comment about how only successful books are scrutinized like that. Sorry if you read it like that; but I meant is as a simple observation of how visibility produces scrutiny. FWIW, I'm about halfway through your Vanity Fair article, and have found it to be very good and very persuasive. And I still think of "Friday Night Lights" as one of my favorite books ever. So I'm sorry to have ticked off an author I so admire, but I hope you'll consider that there's no reason for you to actually be ticked off at me. At least not for this. SJD

starbata

I haven't read the book, but I'm glad that Carter has put his notoriety to good use. We don't seem to be able to have a reasonable discussion or debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the US--something they are even able to do in Israel. (And by the way, didn't Alan Dershowitz defend O "If I did it" J?) Even on NPR, when discussing the book, they only interviewed people that disagree with Carter's position. The least we could do is have a honest, fact-based debate--something that I would imagine Freakonomicists could agree with. The facts speak for themselves: http://www.ifamericansknew.org/

bertrecords

I need to apologize. I read and reviewed Burroughs' "Magical Thinking: True Stories", not "Running With Scissors". (see comment 1.) I'm sorry. I got them confused. No need to berate me further. I berate myself.

To be clear, I was not criticizing Burroughs for making things up. He has every right to be as entertaining as he wants. He is trying to tell entertaining stories. I felt he "jumped the shark" and told stories so absurd that I did not enjoy them. He is an outstanding writer, though.

hbissinger

Stephen--
Thanks for the clarification. I am not ticked at you at all. Because of the small item that was in the Globe, the thrust of the story has gotten lost I'm afraid. This was more than just the usual case of a writer selling out his subjects. Plus there have been dozens of comments in other blogs posted by people, none of whom have read the story. Most distressing is the fact that to many at least, the truth seems irrelevant. Maybe that is indigenous to the memoir, but you and I both know how hard it is to get at the truth and how much work it takes.

Stephen J. Dubner

@8:

Buzz: Is it possible to link here to your Vanity Fair article? I tried to find a link online and couldn't. If that were possible, people here could read for themselves what you had to say about Burroughs's exploitive maneuvers.

meomaxy

When it comes to debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it might be interesting from an authorial integrity perspective to argue about what is original, what is copied, and what is used without attribution. But, if an author writes something that is true, it is no refutation to respond, "Ah! But you stole that idea from somebody else!"

So, if you want to know what Carter believes, even if somebody else wrote it first, read his book. If you want to know what Dershowitz's problem with the book is, whether he defended OJ or not, go read his article:

http://www.law.harvard.edu/news/2006/12/04_dershowitz.php

Charles Bronson

be careful defending Jews, anti-semitism is back in vogue around the world; thinly veiled by political agendas. The Jewish people are the new scapegoat for everything that's wrong with the world. I live in a bubble of tolerance in California (I assume New York is similar) and was amazed this past summer when I traveled Europe and learned what people had to say about the 'Zionists'.

hbissinger

Stephen: Unfortunately Vanity Fair did not post the story online.

fergusmacdonald

Can't claim to know that much about the Isreal/Palestine situation, but it is refreshing to hear that an ex US president seems to be taking a controvertial stand.

ray

Sorry but its hard to take anything the creator of the "Index of Misery" (circa 1979 Carter added the inflation rate and prime rate together)says seriously.

bertrecords

My wife read "Running With Scissors" and tells me that she felt the author exagerrated greatly. She also tells me that the New York Times review of "Running With Scissors" tipped her off that the story wasn't entirely true. Those who remember "Fargo" might recall that "This is A True Story" is displayed on the screen at the opening of the movie. I think Burroughs follows that model. He tells you that his stories are true, and then assumes you will figure out that every precise detail is not true.

I also find it curious that Burroughs borrows his titles. "Running With Scissors" is an album title previously used by Weird Al Yankovich. "Magical Thinking: True Stories" is a match for titles from Joan Didion and David Byrne. I was once told that I could use the title, "Gone With the Wind", if I liked. So, I realize there is no legal requirement to come up with a unique title.

bertrecords

Having now read the article, I think Buzz strongly makes the case he summarizes in comment 4 (above). The question we should focus on is the author's lack of morality.

A side note on the fiction vs. non-fiction question: I met a library scientist who told me that the first librarian who receives a copy of book is charged with classifying it. The remaining libraries all classify the book thusly. Virginia Heffernan in her original New York Times review states that even though the book is not factual, that is properly classified as non-fiction. Do the author and publisher even get a say at where a book gets put within the Dewey decimal system?

bertrecords

Here is the citation to the New York Times review of "Running With Scissors".

Take my family, please: Two memoirs explore the mysteries of childhood in the 1970's.
Virginia Heffernan
New York Times Book Review; Jul 14, 2002 pg. 7

bertrecords

I read the Burroughs book. I reviewed it somewhere. My main criticism upon reading the book was that he obviously made up stuff. I can not understand how anyone would take what he wrote as literal truth. Consider this. Running With Scissors is his third or fourth autobiography! Many reviewers were rating it one star, mostly for political reasons-- the reviews were anti-gay. There were lots of five star reviews , as well, which I attributed to publicists. My own opinion? I gave it three stars out of five. If Burroughs is now even more controversial, I suppose it is good for sales.

If you go to Tom Delay.com, there is a thread about Jimmy Carter. Can you believe this? The right hates him. The left loves him. Apartheid is a polarizing word. I personally agree with the word, regardless of Jimmy Carter's sourcing. I stopped reading Jimmy Carter's books long ago, because though I admire him, I find his books dull.

Jimmy Carter and Augustan Burroughs should be thrilled with their publicists. Could it be publicist, singular?

Read more...

tim in tampa

I am absolutely baffled as to why Frey was labasted but Burroughs is being praised. Their books are about equal in terms of truth being embellished beyond recognition.