Laura Miller Is Wrong. Facts Matter.

This is what we’ve come to, people:

But what “Three Cups of Tea” provides is something else, 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. Pointing out that a couple of these stories aren’t true strikes them as self-serving nitpicking and pettifoggery that, above all, misses the big picture. “Greg is a man who has done more good for more people than anyone else I know,” read one comment posted to an interview with Mortenson about the controversy at OutsideOnline. “Yes, he’s fallible. But the work that CAI is doing literally transforms lives.”

Seriously? Does anyone see a problem with the idea of presenting a “symbol of plucky American virtue in the person of Greg Mortenson” by making up key incidents that demonstrate said virtue? But of course, American virtue is only real when it’s fake.

I blame David Shields. Heck, I blame myself. After all, I’m a huge fan of the writer Enrique Vila-Matas, who has done as much as any author to pioneer the “false memoir” school of literature.

But here’s the difference: If you read just one page of Shields or Vila-Matas, you’re immediately aware that you’re in the presence of a highly ironic voice that you must be suspicious of. Everything about this kind of literature screams “caveat lector.”

But if you read Mortenson (and I have) it’s precisely the opposite–every last rhetorical trick in the book is used to instill a belief that what you are getting is 100% true.

I understand what Laura Miller is trying to say. It’s misguided and it’s wrong. Facts matter, and, no, if your lies might eventually end up doing someone good, that doesn’t make them true. If a book (or a person) does all it can to make you believe that it’s giving you a good, honest, factual account, then you absolutely have a right to feel betrayed when you find out that you were being lied to.

If Mortenson’s charity is doing good work, then more power to him. But don’t lie to me. That erodes the trust that we should have in books published by credible publishers, and it ultimately makes the author look like a fraud. There is no excuse, nor justification.

And contra Miller, I don’t “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.” No. Actually, I love to read about astonishing works of literature that have nothing to do with assholes puffing themselves up and the publishers who enable them. I love to read about publishers who are doing the right thing, even though you can obviously much more easily make a buck by doing otherwise. Most of the things I love to read about will never cross the desk of a Salon columnist for the exact reason that these things don’t feed into a condescending view of the people I’m attempting to write for.



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I’ll say the same thing I said back after the Million Littlie Pieces debacle: I think the author needs to be held accountable but I also see a problem with a reading public that can’t understand that every memoir they read is essentially bullshit. I have not read Three Cups of Tea so I can’t speak about that, but Fray’s book could easily have been debunked by any reader with half a critical eye.

But really it’s a problem with our love of a true story. In a sense, I could care less if a story is true or not, so long as it’s good. I’m a fan of tall tales and whoppers, but I think our country has come to privilege experience over imagination. Thus, we’re ready to champion memoirists who allegedly live to tell the tale; we laud them for their story not their writing; we begin to measure books not as literary objects but as pieces of journalism. Not that this is bad all together, but if we did not salivate when we saw “Based on a true story” at the start of a movie we might regain some of our love of fiction, the loss of which has contributed to fake memoirs being peddled as truth. It’s sad and it’s wrong, but Fray and Mortenson might have sold these books as novels had there been a real market for them.

Just a thought.

As a memoirist and cultural anthropologist who believes facts do matter, I had a similar reaction to Miller’s piece on the TCT affair. Thanks for putting some of my frustration with her conclusion into words. I wrote about where I draw the line in my own literary nonfiction and memoir here: http://blog.elizabethenslin.com/2011/04/truth-and-lies/

Going past all the stuff he made up in the book (and I agree with your take on that Scott), it seems that his charity doesn’t actually do so much either. A lot not happening where things are supposedly happening, and a lot of him making money.

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