Though it was published in the before-times, if you clear your mind, you may remember Elif Batuman’s New Yorker essay about Japan’s “Rent-a-Family Industry.” In the piece, “A Theory of Relativity,” Batuman reported on lonely singles in Japan renting actors to pretend to be their family members, and focused on a widower who rented a wife and daughter from the family-rental company Family Romance, changing his life for the better. In 2019, The New Yorker was awarded a National Magazine Award for the piece, in the feature writing category, which honors “original, stylish storytelling.”
Now, according to New York Post, the American Society of Magazine Editors plans to meet on January 28th to discuss rescinding that award.
Last year, after the Japanese press discovered evidence that an employee of Family Romance had posed as a Family Romance client in a TV documentary, The New Yorker dug deeper into the claims made in the article and discovered that the widower and rented wife were lying about their identities and are in fact married to each other. It appears they were hired by Family Romance to mislead Batuman and portray Family Romance flatteringly.
An editor’s note, which now accompanies the story online, details its falsehoods but ultimately stands by the main thrust of the story: “The phenomenon of businesses in Japan that offer “rental” relatives to console the lonely and to provide other role-play services is well documented, and both Batuman and our fact checkers acted in good faith in their work. We remain confident about the value of “A Theory of Relativity” as an exploration of ideas of family in Japan and more widely.” Some ASME board members agree; the Post reported that several board members believe the award shouldn’t be rescinded, since Batuman herself wasn’t involved in the false claims. Others, however, believe the factual errors in the piece are too large to ignore.
If the award is revoked, this will be the first time a National Magazine Award has been revoked in the history of the award, which was started in 1966. This controversy comes on the heels of The New York Times returning a Peabody Award for its podcast “Caliphate”after a review revealed one of its main sources had fabricated stories of participating in Islamic State executions. Speaking to the Post, Sid Holt, CEO of the ASME, refused to give any more details beyond the facts: “The ASME board plans to discuss the status of the award at its next regularly scheduled meeting on January 28.”