Be on the lookout for a sharp contrast between Random House's defensive response to initial reports that James Frey's best-selling "A Million Little Pieces" was built on a fabricated house of cards way Simon & Shuster reacts to the possibility of a purloined book proposal. The heads-up, as so often happens, came from my colleague, the increasingly famous and reliable Jim Romenesko who caught my interest with a report from Women's Wear Daily about a book proposal based, allegedly, on quotes lifted from other writers.
The writer, Emily Davies, a former fashionista for the Times of London, fessed up to WWD about sticky fingers as she shopped a proposal for a memoir, “How to Wear Black: Adventures on Fashion’s Front Line,” that reportedly won her a $900,000 advance. As plagiarists go, her excuse reaches a new level of self-delusion.
"Davies...responded to WWD’s questions with a statement defending her actions in the proposal. Saying it was “not intended for public consumption,” Davies claimed, in effect, that it was easier for her to give prospective publishers the flavor of her memoir by appropriating other writers’ words than by relying on her own memories. “The first thing I did when I began putting together my proposal…was to dig out a mass of notes, cuttings and stories I had assembled over the years.…Although I used these notes in the proposal, there would be no question of my using any unoriginal material in my finished book.”
But WWD's Jeff Bercovici quotes an unnamed " agent in the memoir market (who) said it was by no means standard practice for memoirists to borrow the work of other writers, uncredited, in their proposals. The agent predicted that Simon & Schuster, having watched Random House take a drubbing in the press for publishing Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” would drop the book: “People are just so on-edge about this kind of stuff now.”
They don't have to be. There are scrupulously honest memoirists out there who make it clear that there are ethical ways to summon the past in print. They're the kind of memoirists that publishers need to hold up as examples to writers, editors and agents. It would be one way to swing the pendulum away from scandal.