April 21, 2011
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?