Writing non-fiction used to be hard.  Journalists would spend months researching a topic, pulling their hair out with the devastating thought that their careers might be over if they got the story wrong.  Memoirists would contact the subjects in their books, haunted with the idea that getting the facts wrong might damage someone’s life or career.

Thanks to “creative non-fiction,” though, those difficult days are gone.

In her recent article, Why “Three Cups of Tea’s” lies don’t really matter, Laura Miller exculpates author Greg Mortenson for allegedly lying about his abduction in Afghanistan by Taliban, stating that “Three Cups of Tea belongs to that category of inspirational nonfiction in which feel-good parables take precedence over strict truthfulness.”

She goes on to state that Mr. Mortenson’s book is valuable because “it provides a feeling of comradely motivation and a symbol of plucky American virtue in the person of Greg Mortenson. If he has to massage some facts into a better story in order to create sentimental enthusiasm for his cause, many of his fans are more than willing to give him that.”

In other words, if a helpful research scientist needs to be massaged into a Taliban terrorist in order to demonstrate plucky American virtue, so be it.

Of course, Ms. Miller’s cause du jour isn’t Mr. Mortenson, whose financial mishandling of a charity is truly a sin, but the publishing industry, which has been riddled with another unfair scandal.  Ms. Miller dismisses the public outcry with typically clueless literary snark, “we love to read about lying authors and negligent publishers and all the other ne’er-do-wells who are dragging our literary culture to hell in a hand basket.”


It’s appalling that the literary community no longer bats an eye when we hear the euphemisms, “compressing time,” “massaging the facts,” and “combining characters.” Creative non-fiction is the big buzzword in MFA programs, with instructors falling over themselves to inculcate young writers with the idea that facts are only useful if they serve the story, and that memory is so faulty that we have no choice but to simply make things up.

Not too long ago, we at least demanded meta—writers like Mary Karr in Liar’s Club, excusing herself from the truth by claiming the Texan habit of the tall tale, or John Krakaeur in Into Thin Air, recognizing the problem of reporting from Mt. Everest, altitude distorting his cognizance.  But we seem to see less and less of the meta, writers compressing and massaging and combining without even bothering to warn readers (who haven’t been properly trained in modern literary technique) that what they’re reading is a clever lie.

Recently, I attended the American Writing Program conference in March, at which a popular memoirist spoke, diva-like, about how she simply made things up in magazine articles.  The audience nodded at each other and roared.

Personally, I found the applause embarrassing.  Facts are important things, it’s how we know a person is not a kidnapper, but a research scientist; it’s how we know a person isn’t a trustworthy philanthropist, but a bumbling fraud.

When even the literary establishment has turned into FOX news, who is there left to trust?

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JAMES BERNARD FROST is the author of the novel A Very Minor Prophet, published by indie wonder-press Hawthorne Books, reviewed here by The Oregonian, recently optioned by Rocking Stone Media, and available wherever books are sold. He is also the award-winning author of the novel World Leader Pretend, published by St. Martin's Press, and the travel guide, The Artichoke Trail. His fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in venues as diverse as Wired, SF Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, The Official Magazine of World of Warcraft, Trachodon Magazine, and the Farallon Review. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his two children, the rain, and the trees.

51 responses to “Creative Non-Fiction is Lying. Lying Kind of Bites.”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    And all they’d have to do is call it fiction and they’d be home free.

    Of course, they’d probably take tens of thousands less in their advance.

    It’s clear that what Bellow and the like did in the second half of the 20th century–taking characters and situations whole-cloth from life and calling it fiction–isn’t good enough for most anymore. It’s good enough for me.

  2. Kerry Cohen says:

    I don’t entirely agree – but we can talk about that at home. In any case, I like your questioning of our willingness to accept these notions about nonfiction. But, I can tell you, as a nonfiction writer, that memoir is different from journalism in that it really isn’t about the facts. It’s about the truth, which isn’t a whole lot different from writing fiction. I compressed time in my memoir too. I had to (how many more years of mindlessly sleeping with boys did anyone really want to read?) I also had to compress a few characters so readers wouldn’t get lost between my rapid friend turn-over. But what I wrote was still the truth.

    • Well, but it’s a modern conceit that memoir is different from journalism, and one that’s being both bent too far and improperly communicated to readers.

      If Mortenson was writing a heroes’ journey parable, then it should have been communicated that some events were compressed, and that some of it–especially that he was never actually abducted by the Taliban–was extrapolated from other people’s experiences. The problem is that a reader, when they see the word non-fiction, assumes the writer is being factual unless he/she has stated otherwise.

      • Kerry Cohen says:

        I agree with that. I wonder if memoir shouldn’t be filed under nonfiction. Or should be some hybrid of fiction and nonfiction. In any case, the Mortenson thing is distressing because of the issues with his humanitarianism.

  3. Once upon a time, this article had proper formatting. Sorry TNB. I swear I previewed it.

  4. Oh and by the way, a lengthier but similar view of the topic:


  5. Katie Schneider says:

    Making up events to create a better ‘story’ in creative non-fiction is lying. It’s one thing, as Kerry mentioned, to combine characters so that readers don’t get confused or to compress time so that certain events are left out. It’s another to pretend you’ve been kidnapped by the TALIBAN. It pisses me off that this whole debate (not here, but in other sources) has been so polite. The James Freys and the Greg Mortensons and that woman who pretended she was Jewish and survived the Holocaust by living out in the woods are sleazy, cynical opportunists who don’t have an ethical leg to stand on. I dare Mortenson to stand next to somebody like Jere Van Dyk, a journalist who really was kidnapped by the Taliban and thought he was going to be murdered, and justify the lie. It’s cheap, its cynical, its unethical and anyone like Laura Miller who defends it is full of crap. I also happen to believe that no one’s wholesale fictionalization of events gets to heart of what the experience really is – Van Dyk’s recent interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting about his experiences is like a slap in the face. It’s moving in a way the fake version can’t be. I can’t write about certain events in certain ways because I haven’t lived through them. They aren’t my tale to tell.

  6. Lance says:

    the only sources I rely upon for facts is TMZ, common sense and airport bartenders.

  7. Lance says:

    engrossed in fiction, it’s warm, cozy and Utopian in there.

  8. Richard Cox says:

    Despite my affinity for the scientific method, and how applying its principles has led to most of the advancements made by mankind, I am increasingly aware how the human condition is largely based on inaccuracy. We not only recognize inaccuracy in reporting, in recounting events of history or even in our own lives….we relish that inaccuracy. We remember fun times more fondly than they happened and we relive the bad times far more intensely than they actually happened. Even when the facts stare us straight in the face we often willingly turn a blind eye.

    I’ve done it myself. I remember Google Talk conversations one way, and then I go find them in the history tab and discover inaccuracy in my memory. I suppose this has something to do with the subjective experience of how our minds recreate the world through the five (or so) senses.

    Maybe this is why science is so unpopular among the masses. Who wants to be confronted with fact when we can live in a fantasy world of our own creation?

  9. Irene Zion says:

    I didn’t know that this was happening to non-fiction.
    How can it still be called non-fiction, when it is fiction?
    Perhaps I am too much of a fussbudget to understand this.
    (Or not young enough, where the new rules prevail.)

  10. Don Mitchell says:

    Great piece, James, and I’m really glad you pulled no punches.

    I’m with Katie. It’s no good pretending a lot of this stuff is anything other than lies, and it needs to be treated as lies. What Laura Miller said (I read her piece) is just simplistic bullshit.

    ” . . . facts are only useful if they serve the story, and that memory is so faulty that we have no choice but to simply make things up.” A sad comment, James, and in that territory of “facts” and “stories” lies some pretty rough terrain for people who can’t decide (or don’t know, or don’t understand) which one to start with.

    I mean, I’m a researcher who did fieldwork and wrote academic articles about it. Writing articles, I worked from my notes and surveying sheets and the like and I was as careful as I could be about what I knew and understood and had confirmed. Even so I knew I must have gotten some things wrong. But my mantra was always “if somebody went to my fieldwork site now, and asked about what I wrote, would the people confirm it?” If I felt certain the answer was yes, I’d go ahead.

    Then I started writing fiction and CNF in which the same group of people made appearances, and that was obviously a different matter. But even so I sometimes work at writing fiction with two windows open on my screen — one with the fiction, the other with my field notes, the notes just to remind me of how I saw myself and the people during the time I was devoted to being “objective.”

    Then there’s the matter of exaggeration. I went to the war-torn island of Bougainville in 2001, after most of the fighting had stopped. I went to see old friends and also to get a new village school started. To get to the village, I passed through a “no-go” zone, territory controlled by mostly young fighters with automatic weapons and a strong dislike of white people. I went through at night and the fighters were drunk or asleep at their checkpoint and I had no trouble. It’s easy to see how I could represent myself as more heroic (or reckless) than I was. M16s! Crazed revolutionaries! They could have grabbed me! But I got through and gave money for a school! I am so, so, fucking cool!

    Nope. I slid through a roadblock (I admit to having been nervous), saw friends, did the school thing, slid through the roadblock going out. The exaggeration part comes when I’ve sometimes been tempted to amp up the danger a bit while still being truthful (“Let me tell you about the time I went up against crazed revolutionaries in the mountains of a tropical island, unarmed . . . .” ). But that would be an unwarranted exaggeration. I was there, they were there — so what? So nothing.

    For years afterwards people wrote about the no-go zone and being kept out of it. And yet I knew, and others knew, that you could go through the zone pretty much at will, if you were careful. But out on the internet and in some publications it was represented as this frightening, dangerous place and, more importantly, who was going to check up on what the situation really was?

    I won’t speculate on Mortensen’s internal workings, but I will speculate that like the liar Simon Smithson’s writing about elsewhere on TNB, he must have thought that his story would never be investigated. Who’s going to go into Taliban territory and ask about it?

    Any asshole can lie when it’s unlikely he or she will be caught out. For me, the important thing is telling the truth when you can’t be caught out if you lie.

    It will be an awful thing if, as you put it, the literary establishment’s turned into Fox News.

    • Funny thing is, Don, the situation you just described–sneaking through a no-go zone to get a school started–is exactly the type of thing many writers would use as a means to play up their own heroism. It’s noble that you haven’t

      In my twenties, I traveled through the countries of Guatemala and El Salvador during war-time. I was on a bus that was stopped by the FMLN, Guatemala’s rebel army: it was really a bunch of teenagers with spray paint cans. I had another bus breakdown deep within communist territory, putting me in grave danger: really I spent 4 fond hours laughing about the whole experience with a native Mayan speaker in the back of a truck being used not to smuggle guns but gum. I did volunteer work in a resettlement village helping refugees return to normal lives: really I was a lost young man mooching off poor people’s limited resources.

  11. Great post, James. Laura’s piece really annoyed me too. Sad to hear that lies in nonfiction are becoming so widely applauded in MFA programs and conferences (two things I tend to avoid). Thanks for the link to my post on truth and lies. I wish it were as succinct as Katie’s comment.

  12. Laura Miller says:

    With all due respect, you misunderstand and misrepresent my article.

    I realize the headline might lead you to believe that I don’t think the truthfulness of Mortenson’s story is significant, but the article itself makes it quite clear that I do. I do not “exculpate” Mortenson.

    I clearly indicate that I don’t approve of Mortenson’s fabrications and that I consider them an ethical violation — i.e., “lies,” which are by definition wrong. (NB: Journalists don’t customarily write their own headlines, but we do hope that readers will go on to read the entire story with the understanding that it will explain a headline that at first glimpse might seem startling.)

    Where Mortenson’s lies are unlikely to “matter” is in the real-world consequences of this scandal. I am not saying that *I* do not care if he made up those two anecdotes; what I am saying is that many of his *supporters* do not care if he did. As evidence, I offer a quote from the comments to the Outside Online interview, in which the commenter says that since Mortenson does so much good work, it’s relatively unimportant that he fudged a few facts on a couple of stories in his book. I provide a link to that article so that readers can see that many more commentators at Outside Online share this viewpoint. Obviously, they feel that the ends justify the means (to a certain extent).

    However, that does not mean that I myself endorse that viewpoint. I don’t. It’s possible to write about what other people think without sharing their opinions.

    Because so many of Mortenson’s supporters seem to feel this way (I also received many emails to this effect in response to my article), I feel it’s important for the media to focus on the financial misbehavior first and foremost. This will neutralize the “because he does so much good work” excuse. This is the argument my commentary makes.

    While 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer reported on both aspects of the story, they detailed the factual problems with “Three Cups” first, signaling that these are the most important problems. News reports covering the scandal gave the made-up incidents greater emphasis than the financial management issues. Because the public has shown over and over again that it has difficulty holding more than one idea in its head at a time, there is a risk that the story will be remembered as “Greg Mortenson made up a heartwarming story to win people over to a worthy cause and a bunch of opportunistic gotcha journalists used it to take him down, not caring about all the poor Afghans he was helping.”

    Fortunately, developments after my article was published — namely the Montana state attorney-general deciding to investigate CAI’s financial affairs — have made that seem less likely.

    In closing, surely it is obvious that my description of “Three Cups of Tea” as being full of “feel-good parables,” etc. is not complimentary? When someone compares a book about a humanitarian crisis to the fairy-tale fluff of a Hollywood rom-com, that’s a pretty good sign that they don’t think the book is either realistic or worthwhile.

    I hope this clears things up,

    Laura Miller

    • dwoz says:

      This is such a minefield!

      I think the comparisons to Frey are apropos, but not because they’re similar situations. Frey spun his fancy yarn with the goal of, well, selling books. A more compelling story than it may have actually been in reality.

      Mortenson, on the other hand, uses the fancy yarn story he made up to promote a very worthy cause…to fund CAI, which does very good works, such as…um…using half it’s operating income to sell the books which sell the charity which sell the book…..err….

      So perhaps that’s enough linkage between the journalistic buggery and the financial chicanery to condemn them both?

      My gut feeling is that none of this was intentional…that a small series of unassuming events took place in Mortenson’s life, where this larger-than-life story took wings and a life of its own, sweeping him up into something he could neither anticipate or adequately manage. Not that he’s a victim of events, but more like someone who didn’t know how to put on the brakes once the car started rolling downhill.

      I have a friend who one day decided to do something in the world, and a few weeks later was in Sri Lanka (post-tsunami). His task was to go up into the northern NTTE controlled areas (tamil territory) and build some water purification facilities for some orphanages. He accomplished his task, far more successfully than any of us imagined or expected. But in the process, by his estimate at least 1/2 of the money went to ancillary costs that had nothing to do with water purification. He had to have them built TWICE because the contractors (that he was required to use) were ineffectual. Today, if you go back there, the gensets and purification units are gone, and the money he left behind to maintain the systems has evaporated. The children are still drinking dirty water and still getting cholera.

      Which is not to say that the effort was in vain. But it is to say that those kinds of efforts in that part of the world cost twice as much as they should, and have low long-term success rates.

      So I guess the point is, you can’t necessarily draw conclusions about what actually went down in those areas by what you see three years out.

      However, I don’t think this gives Mortenson a bye. The first, second and third rule of NGOs and charities is to not commingle funds. probably the fourth, fifth, and sixth rules too. You can’t chalk that up to incompetence or ignorance. He’s been cooking the books to sell the books.

      But back to the point: Laura, I think you are mischaracterized as being sympathetic to the literary fabrications, I agree with your rebuttal.

      Also…memoir is NOT autobiography. I’m a little sauced myself about all the indignation.

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      First off, Laura, thanks for taking the time to visit our little neck of the woods. It’s not usually so prickly in here.

      I guess what I don’t like about the article is the implication that this is another publishing scandal of no real concern. It’s a problem that publishers are taking fictional accounts like Frey’s and Mortenson’s and calling them non-fiction, and not only failing to do any fact-checking before publishing them, but being actively complicit in the misrepresentation.

      I *get* that our focus should be on the failures of Mortenson’s charity, but I also think that’s putting the cart before the horse. If Penguin hadn’t published a false tale as being factually true, Mortenson wouldn’t be a cult hero getting $100,000 checks from Barack Obama.

      • Laura Miller says:

        Actually, this is very civil compared to Salon’s comments threads!

        As an update: From the Guardian, here’s an example of how this story is evolving into a story about a lying memoirist rather than a cheating philanthropist:


        You’ll notice that the financial misdeeds get exactly one sentence out of maybe a 1200 word story, buried halfway done. The fabrications are described in detail; that one sentence doesn’t even touch on most of Mortenson’s questionable use of CAI funds.

        Now, here is an example of how a Mortenson reader (seems like a very typical book-clubbing mom) has responded to the scandal:


        Saying, essentially, if he’s doing so much good, I’m willing to forgive him for telling a few fibs. We writers and journalists might not like it, but I don’t think our fulminating is going to change this attitude.

        On fact-checking: This is term tossed around a lot by people who have never actually done fact-checking and have no idea what’s entailed. The kind of intensive fact-checking done by, say, the New Yorker, takes about as long as actually writing the piece (not counting the research) and is a full-time job for that period. So, essentially, it doubles the labor costs of the piece of writing. Also, any writer who’s been fact-checked can testify that even when you are trying as hard as you can to get things right, there is always *something* you’ve gotten wrong.

        With “Three Cups,” it’s apparent that checking the two anecdotes in question would require sending someone to Afghanistan and Pakistan and having them track down the parties involved (presumably with a translator) and trying to reconcile that account with Mortenson’s. This is what Krakauer did, or had done.

        You don’t have to know all that much about publishing to see that this isn’t going to happen. Publishers, having been burned, now do the basic stuff of making sure the memoirist is who s/he says and that the basic US records can be produced to verify the outline of the story. But they are not going to send a researcher to Central Asia or do the kind of intensive fact-checking a glossy magazine does.

        We can say that maybe they *should* and that if they aren’t willing to do that, then they shouldn’t publish the book, but this would mean that many books that ARE truthful will not get published simply because the anticipated returns on the title will not cover high costs of the verification process. A lot of the people posting here write nonfiction. Would you be willing to accept the fact that your books probably wouldn’t be published for this reason?

        Of course, all of the above may not apply strictly in this case, since it seems like Mortenson’s co-writer worked with the book’s editor in “jazzing up” his book. Or, at least, that’s what Mortenson says, but he’s not exactly a reliable source, is he? At present, we don’t really know that the publisher is complicit in his fabrications and misrepresentations.

        • Hi Laura-

          I get what you’re saying about how the media picks up this story, though if you look at the growing list of links at Good Intentions Are Not Enough you’ll find plenty of buzz about the misuse of charity funds too. Every story has many dimensions and readers will always pick up the one they want to hear or the one that most interests them.

          And, of course, there will be those who defend lying for the sake of a cause just as there are those who will defend lying for the sake of a good tale.

          Yet as someone who writes creative nonfiction and has also worked with nonprofits and NGOS, I think the interconnections between the narrative and the humanitarian practice are a huge part of the story here. And my fear is that saying one is more important than the other (rather than that they’re interconnected) overshadows an even more fundamental dimension: the great white savior premise of both TCT and CAI and why such work has captured the imagination of the Americans and the US military. Nosheen Ali questioned this months ago in “Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian Development and the Narrative of Terror in Northern Pakistan” in Third World Quarterly. These are profound concerns that are getting even less play in the media than the publishing and charity scandal angles.

          You make a good point about many readers not being able to hold more than one thought in their heads at a time. Yet in this case separating out the sensationalized narrative from bad nonprofit practices also reinforces the idea that this is simply a technical or managerial problem that could be fixed with better oversight and accounting practices. Then we can all start looking for other great white heroes, saviors and saints.

        • Hi Laura-

          I understand what you’re saying about how the media picks up this story, though if you look at the growing list of links at Good Intentions Are Not Enough you’ll find plenty of buzz about the misuse of charity funds too. Every story has many dimensions and readers will always pick up the one they want to hear or the one that most interests them.

          And, of course, there will be those who defend lying for the sake of a cause just as there are those who will defend lying for the sake of a good tale.

          Yet as someone who writes creative nonfiction and has also worked with nonprofits and NGOS, I believe the interconnections between the narrative and the practice are a huge part of the story here. And my fear is that saying one is more important than the other (rather than that they’re interconnected) overshadows an even more fundamental dimension: the great white savior premise of both TCT and CAI and why such work has captured the imagination of Americans and the US military. Nosheen Ali questioned this months ago in “Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian Development and the Narrative of Terror in Northern Pakistan” in Third World Quarterly. These are profound concerns that are getting even less play in the media than the publishing and charity scandal angles.

          You make a good point about many readers not being able to hold more than one thought in their heads at a time. Yet in this case separating out bad nonprofit practices from the sensationalized narrative also reinforces the idea that this is simply a technical or managerial problem that could be fixed with better oversight and accounting practices. Then we can all start looking for other great white heroes, saviors and saints.

  13. D.R. Haney says:

    Are we sure we can handle this kind of controversy? This is TNB, after all.

  14. Gloria says:

    I read this with fascination, James. I agree with a large amount of what you say – especially the part about the basic literary critical thinking skills of the average reader.

    However, what I’m enjoying most are the comments…

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  15. Emily says:

    Well said! I was recently in a room of people young to writing; one said “I love that with the internet you don’t really have to check facts or cite sources anymore, things are much less strict now.”

    I was horrified.

  16. Simon Smithson says:

    Interesting stuff, James. And depressing, also – just as much as the other recent insta-classic, John Kyl’s “not intended to be a factual statement” – although, obviously, these are very different contexts.

    I couldn’t agree more for the need for a separation of truth and fiction; after all, once we accept a malleability to truth, we’re officially tobogganing down a slippery slope, and dross like this can be taken as fact.

    However, I wasn’t as taken aback by Miller’s article as you seemed to be. Another, closer reading may change that, but she didn’t, to me, seemed to be defending Mortenson’s position, rather, analysing and commenting on the surrounding responses.

  17. Laura Tims says:

    Interesting perspective. I’ve always thought there was something to the idea that truth can be told through lies, that sometimes reality isn’t always the right vehicle with which to express the actual meaning of what happened, but I do think clarification for the audience is the distinguishing point here.

    If you take liberties with the truth, you tell the audience you’ve taken liberties, or it’s lying. What Mortenson has done? Lying. It’s true that some of the stories that enlivened the book are those accused of being untrue, but as we all know from regular fiction, it’s quite possible to have a powerful impact on an audience despite their knowledge that the events never happened.

    Incidentally, when I read the book a couple years ago, I thought it was boring as all sin. So maybe those embellishments didn’t help much after all.

  18. This particular case epitomizes why a certain segment of of blogosphere writes about the effectiveness of aid programs and charities. Most DIY aid organizations don’t like partnerships or collaborations because they are afraid of scrutiny. They want to create their own standards and rules to follow. Everyone wants to be a hero. The founders of these DIY organizations fear that someone else may get credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I call this the “Nobel Syndrome”. Being transparent might jeopardize their egotistical dreams of standing on a stage in Oslo and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding contributions toward humanity.

    These are some of my observations regarding the subject.

    Slactivism in Africa | Independent Global Citizen

    • dwoz says:

      not to put too fine a point on it, but I find this an arbitrary, ad hoc position that seems to bear little relationship to reality on the ground.

      You seem oblivious to the actual issues and day-to-day tribulations of operating an NGO.

      While nobody would argue against the notion that divergent organizational missions and goals and operational structures can prevent effective collaboration between NGOs, arguing that the NGOs don’t collaborate because of the petty reasons you mention, is…well…nope, I don’t buy it.

  19. J.E. Fishman says:

    Right on, James. Way to speak truth to power.

  20. Quenby Moone says:

    Dude. You and I wrote the same essay! Seriously, it was funny. I spent all morning on it, and then I came here to post it and realized you had already written it!

    Even the Fox analogy:

    “There is something desperate about someone who needs to make up sections of their own life and present it to the world as the God’s honest truth. There’s a television station which has mastered this art and they’re probably looking for writers. I hear Glenn Beck just got canned. Maybe try there.”

    So I’m thrilled to share the town of Portland with you.

    Also, my feelings about the situation comes down to this: All these lying liars and the liars who let them are ruining it for the rest of us.

    I’ve just finished a memoir; are people just going to glaze over when I pitch my “memoir” because they think it’s another piece of made-up crap? Do I need references who can vouch for the veracity of the tale? I didn’t get kidnapped, so maybe the fact-checking won’t be as rigorous.

    Although as we’ve seen, the fact-checking has been a little loose and fast, hasn’t it?

    This totally enrages me because I thought the James Frey debacle would have made it virtually unheard of afterwards. Who would want to stand up to Oprah to explain their actions?

    But when I mentioned this whole new event to Lars, he said something which depressed me even more: “It’s like the music business. Milli Vanilli got completely torn apart, but no-one would think twice about it now. I guess I expect people to not tell the truth now, which is a statement about our culture.”

    Jesus. Way to make my fucking morning.

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      But the article about your cluttered house was WAY funnier.

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      It does make it difficult to write an honest memoir when you feel that the time you take to get things right isn’t going to be appreciated, that a publisher might prefer it if you simplified it and made it more heroic.

      This is why I’m sticking to epic fantasy novels these days.

    • Quenby, I’m having similar worries about the ethnographic memoir I’m finishing on Nepal. One consolation for me now is that perhaps when friends ask me what my book is about, and I say “Nepal…”, they won’t interrupt with, “hey, have you read Three Cups of Tea. You’d love it. It’s about this guy…”

      • Quenby Moone says:

        Interesting! I’m interested and I imagine you didn’t even have to make things up about it.

        The thing that pisses me off about this whole thing is that a story well-told doesn’t need sensationalism. The story is its own reward. My memoir is about my father dying; talk about pedestrian! But if anyone is concerned whether or not he’s dead, no question. I have the death certificate.

        On the other hand, just because we’re all going to die, and all know people who’ve died, it doesn’t mean that everyone has the ability to make it meaningful. That is the skill of a writer. And I didn’t need to embellish Dad’s prognosis and diagnosis with anything because HE was the story, not the rather banal event of his death.


    • Kerry Cohen says:

      Quenby, Loose Girl came out right after the first wave of false memoirs happened (Frey, the woman who said she was in a gang – Love and Consequences -, and the false Holocaust survivor.) A ton of press wanted proof that my memoir was “true.” I have an essay I wrote about that experience in the Washington Post. I won’t post it here (would be rude to Jim, I think). But I’m happy to share if you contact me elsewhere.

      • Quenby Moone says:

        Kerry, I’d love to read about it! I’m intrigued about all the implications of the recent rash of non-non-fiction. It’s a really interesting conundrum. Truth in memoir is, of course, subjective because unless you interview all the members of your story, how could it be anything else? On the other hand, it needs to hold the seed of truth at its core, throughout the story.

        The memoir I wrote follows a pretty strict chronology because of its structure; it’s literally built into the design of the book. But because I wrote a few of the pieces after the fact, while the rest of it as the events unfolded, I’ve had to rejigger the structure at the front of the book. I struggle with this little niggling detail; a breach of truth like “I was kidnapped” or “I’m Jewish Holocaust survivor” is so far beyond the pale it’s difficult to understand the writer’s ability to label themselves as “non-fiction.” I mean on a personal level, not a marketing one.

        But Lars also raised the other problem: we’ve become so accustomed to the Hollywood magic of trickery and effects, we expect that everything we see is in some way manipulated. And my mother was a curator of photography for years where as long as there’s been photography, there’s been fakery. It’s a part of the very history of the form. And just because we have more resources to debunk frauds doesn’t mean that the history of memoir is any less polluted with people making their lives more interesting on paper than they were in real life.


        • Kerry Cohen says:

          Yes. I think there’s something else here at play – something about the mainstream desire for replayed narratives, and without that narrative, the story won’t get read.
          Anyway, Quenby, here’s that essay, already almost three years old -http://wapo.st/iekFlp

  21. dwoz says:

    it appears from reviewing the current literature, that this story is coming unglued at all the seams. The lid is going to get ripped away, and it’s a big can ‘o stink no matter which angle or lens you use.

    On the journalism angle…it’s interesting that the co-writer of “three cups of tea” has thus far not tossed his 2 cents into the ring, but I think when he does, it’s going to put some serious sting in the sauce.

    i.e. the loose-and-fast with the facts inside the book may well not be the only part of the publishing process where loose-and-fast was employed…

    that’s hearsay, and I don’t vouch for it…but it fits the emerging pattern.

  22. I would argue that it’s especially crucial to get the story right when you’re writing about a dangerous part of the world. Not that an author is completely responsible for the actions of boneheaded readers but there is a moral obligation to be truthful about a war zone.

    I think part of the problem stems from the fact that many readers of memoir don’t know what the rules are. I understand the notion of composite characters, and stretching and minimizing moments to serve the story you’re writing. But many readers don’t this, and expect what they’re reading is some sort of absolute objective truth. And where does this education responsibility lie? Is it just caveat lector?

  23. I know I should be outraged and have all these ranty things to say about the issue, but I’m just going to lay my cards on the table: I think literary scandals are fun. I love ThreeCupsGate, (the worthy successor to A -Million-Little-Pieces-Gate), I loved FranzenfreudeGate last summer, and of course, my all time favorite, Shirley Hazzard and Stephen King bitch-slapping each other about commercial vs. literary fiction at the 2003 National Book Awards. Without high class arts and culture scandals, I’d have to go get my drama fix on Gawker, and then I’d have to rip my eyeballs out of their sockets on account of reading too many articles about LiLo and CharSheen sharing the same probation officer and Snooki just being Snooki.

  24. Becky Palapala says:

    In a general sense, I believe in literature-as-ruse. A lie doesn’t so much bother me. I sort of have to ask, and maybe I’m just waxing a bit too philosophical–maybe it’s a notion fit only for a snort and a wave of the hand–but DOES it matter whether he’s a scientist or a terrorist? I mean, to whom?

    I agree, I guess, that the man lied. I disagree that it is some new and troubling example of the decline of Western literature. I’m thinking, in this case, of the captivity narratives and other truth-stretching or “creative” non-fiction/memoirs of the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries. All works predating the fictional novel proper as a genre. Creative non-fiction is, in fact, the parent of fiction as we know it, not its half-breed bastard child.

    I can’t help but wonder if Mortenson was thinking along those same lines.

    Maybe fiction and research-based “factual” non-fiction writing bastardized creative non-fiction and it’s just now reclaiming former territory… It really is a matter of a selective vision of the history of literature. How do we determine the gold standard for declaring how literature or non-fiction “has always” worked?

  25. dwoz says:

    The actual WRITER of “three cups of tea” seems to feel that journalistic integrity is quite important:


    Not sure what to make of that, considering recent events.

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