Andromeda/Your Turn: Doubt-filled cups and the latest memoir scandal

My TBR list gets longer every day, and I’ve meant to read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea for several years now, most recently when his own sweet mother gave a public talk right here in Anchorage.

Well, I may not bother now. Yes, I’m late to this book-club discussion and only a little less late to the scandal, which broke about two weeks ago, in which Mortenson was criticized for fabricating lies in the book, but also (and more significantly, Salon’s Laura Miller points out) for how he runs his charity.

Is this another blow for the memoir and creative nonfiction? A different matter entirely? Have you read the book? Are you reading nonfiction differently these days, in the light of news about James Frey, Greg Mortenson, and even John Steinbeck (recently revealed to have fabricated quite a bit in his Travels with Charley)? If you write nonfiction yourself, and try to stick to the facts, do you find it increasingly difficult to establish trust with your readers? Do tell…

5 thoughts on “Andromeda/Your Turn: Doubt-filled cups and the latest memoir scandal”

  1. Why do authors call a work of fiction, nonfiction?

    I appreciate the vast difference in a reader's expectations of fiction and nonfiction. I like to know that nonfiction is what it says it is.

    On the other hand, I don't quite know what to make of this culture (maybe publishers) of ours that somehow demands that a story be fiction or nonfiction and that there's no hybrid.

    I question writers who can't tell the truth about what their story is.

    I question readers who can't enjoy a story unless they know "it really happened."

    Publishers and authors must be falsifying their work because they don't think readers will want to read fiction.

    That's a crying shame. Stories are meant to illuminate. I guess the multitudes don't trust story unless it's "fact" which has led to writers lying about "facts" which has further eroded trust.

    How unimaginative our world is becoming.

  2. I think part of the problem lies in the cult of celebrity. You're only a celebrity if you've really done what you said — or wrote — you did. It seems not so much the story that stands in the limelight these days, but rather the storyteller. Probably has to do with marketing strategies for books.

  3. Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger both managed to write best-selling and compelling books that were based on true incidents but which by necessity had to be filled in with parts that the author could not and would not pretend were verifiable.

    Both of these authors simply explained to the reader that this was the case…

    I think it requires a bit more finesse and work on the part of the author to tell a compelling story that is a mix of fact and fiction. I guess an author's integrity and self-respect help a great deal here. They don't get all screwed up about mixing story types in order to tell a full tale.

    Maybe they recognize that this is how most of life actually is.

  4. I read Three Cups of Tea a couple years ago and found it an interesting account even though a little too admiring – probably in keeping with the celebrity mindset that someone just mentioned. I wonder how the joint authorship was carried out, and what David Oliver Relin could tell us about the book? He must have faced all kinds of questions in the process of shaping the narrative.

    My gut tells me the book accurately conveys Mortenson's ability to forge relationships and deal with the many obstacles to building schools in rural Pakistan. I don't know whether Jon Krakauer is justified in his allegations. It's a flawed work of nonfiction that tells an important story.

    The accountability of his nonprofit concerns me way more. I agree with Laura Miller (thanks for the link, Andromeda) that the real issue is the way he runs his organization. Since the 60 Minutes story, Mortenson has stated that he is a poor manager. The book told me (mostly between the lines) that he has a strong ego and prefers to work with the Pakistanis alone. That can work in the short run but when millions of dollars are pouring in it's time to delegate some vital functions – like fiscal management and record keeping.

    I know firsthand the daunting nature of international development projects. It's a miracle that anyone accomplishes anything positive at all. I hope Mortenson gets his act together to continue his work. As one reader, I'll be watching.

  5. It happens that I'm 20% into (reading it on Kindle, obviously) The Tragedy of Arthur, a wonderful literary joke that so far seems to be keeping a straight face. This mix of fiction, drama, and memoir is a fascinating tease. Somehow I'm okay with this, but in other contexts it's not okay to make up memoir (as in various fake Holocaust memoirs as well as Three Cups of Tea). Not okay with me, that is–seems to be the reader's individual call.

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