The Latest Literary Hoax

Given that my day job, as it were, is the writing of nonfiction, I wish I could express adequately the utter dismay I feel at the announcement yesterday that yet another “memoir” has been exposed as a fabrication, and that another prestigious publishing house which should have known better was conned into accepting a manuscript for publication without having performed so much as an elementary investigation into its veracity.

We might have hoped that the utter humiliation suffered less than three years ago by Doubleday with the acknowledgment it had been duped into believing James Frey’s best-selling “account” of beating drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces,  would have occasioned more aggressive fact checking in the industry. But now we have Herman Rosenblat, and the unmasking of Angel at the Fence, his “true story of a love that survived”--that’s the subtitle--being disowned by Berkley Books, a unit of Penguin, on the eve of its release in February.

In yet another twist of coincidental embarrassment (I won’t use the word irony here), it was two appearances Rosenblat made on the Oprah Winfrey television show that helped create a groundswell of interest in his story, which purports to be an authentic tale of love triumphing over evil during the horrors of the Holocaust. Unlike A Million Little Pieces, however, which was selected by Oprah as one of her top picks, Rosenblat’s fabrications were exposed before the book got into print, and before it could have been touted to Oprah’s audience as a love story for the ages. (I can only imagine what sets of the uncorrected proofs will be going for shortly on eBay.)

For those who wonder how Berkley might have gone about investigating the various claims made by Rosenblat in his manuscript, I suggest they take a look at the outstanding piece of hard-nosed journalism researched and written by Gabriel Sherman for the most recent edition of The New Republic, published on Christmas Day. It was this article--a tutorial, really, on how it should be done--that led very quickly to yesterday’s decision by the publisher to deep-six the work, and to demand return of the $50,000 advance he had been paid against royalties.

There is one bit bit of irony here, and it comes in the announcement by Hollywood film producer Harris Salomon that he will proceed with plans for a movie based on the book, with the caveat that it now will be pitched to a credulous public as a work of the imagination, not nonfiction. Hey, nobody ever said Angel at the Fence wasn’t a good story, which leads me to wonder why the author and his agent didn’t shop the thing around as a novel in the first place.

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