Tuesday, March 09, 2010

More Fallout from "Last Train to Hiroshima"

Charles Pellegrino's Editors More Out of Touch with Reality Than He Is

Much has been written in the last week or so about the book "The Last Train from Hiroshima," and how Henry Holt & Company after author Charles Pellegrino confirmed he was duped by his primary source who claimed to have been a last-minute replacement on one of the planes that escorted the Enola Gay, which dropped the a-bomb on Hiroshima.
So, the book, which was originally going to be corrected in future editions, is now kaput. Holt said it acted not only because of the lies told by that source, but also because Pellegrino may have fabricated other sources in his book, which he vehemently denies.
Beyond this pathetic case of he said, they said lies a larger issue, namely getting facts straight before the book goes to press.
It is what editors do, after all, besides checking that you used the serial comma and didn't split infinitves. But maybe not.
As Robert Gottlieb, the famed editor who worked at Knopf and helmed The New Yorker -- known for its annoyingly fastidious fact-checking department -- told The New York Times:
"It would not be humanly possible to fact-check books the way magazine articles can be fact-checked, just because of length."
So, by Gottlieb's standard, if a 500-page manuscript at least smells right, that's good enough. Facts? We'll just cross our fingers and hope for the best. What twaddle.
Even worse is Pellegrino's editor at Holt, a 15-watt bulb named John Macrae, who told the Times "the difference between fact and fiction is a very fine line."
Come again?
To be sure, the Times article by Motoko Rich does state that Macrae questioned more than 250 parts of the book, but he was more interested in survivor stories and less focused on how the bomb was dropped, the fabricated story of which led to the book's demise.
But let's go back to Macrae's whopper just above. "The difference between fact and fiction is a very fine line."
Here's a guy who has trouble distinguishing between the two and yet he's a high-ranking editor at a major publishing house. How sad. Maybe that's why the book industry has to undergo a ritual humiliation every couple of years.
Macrae sounds like he's channeling Nan Talese, who got burned in 2006 by James Frey in the "Million Little Pieces" debacle. Back then, she said: "At the New Yorker and Time and Newsweek you have experienced people who know where to go and what's right and what's wrong. We don't. There's been a traditional dependency on the author."
Talese was also the one who insisted that memoirs should be held to a different standard than an autobiography, but that's another sorry issue.
So what we're left with are publishers unwilling to spend a little extra money and time vetting a book like "The Last Train to Hiroshima" that sheds a different light on a pivotal moment in history. Instead supposed publishing pros offer lame mea culpas for a massive FUBAR like this one.
Holt paid a steeper price than what fact-checkers would have cost because of the hit its reputation took over this embarrassment. It's a stain that won't wash away anytime soon.
But what's even sorrier are excuses like the ones coming from Gottlieb, Macrae and Talese, and why it's only a matter of time before I'll be blogging about the next dubious manuscript to get pulled from circulation.
We're supposed to learn from our mistakes. Too bad the book industry is a little slow on the uptake.

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