April 18th, 2011 / 1:45 pm
Random & Snippets

Writer Greg Mortenson has found himself in a bit of trouble as reports emerge that there are inaccuracies (lies) in his memoir Three Cups of Tea. 60 Minutes did a feature on the controversy last night. The author has responded. I’ve not read the book. Once again, this opens an interesting conversation about how much the truth matters where memoir is concerned.


  1. Lincoln Michel

      If the truth doesn’t matter, it probably shouldn’t be called non-fiction. A lot of memoirs would be better off just being called novels IMHO.

  2. kb

      Everything thinkable is make-believe (do I say “on some level” here, or do I just leave it at that? Not sure). I don’t read memoirs, but I wouldn’t care if it “happened” or not. Maybe if I read memoirs I would feel differently.

  3. Anonymous

      If you drink tea 3x a day- breakfast-lunch-dinner, I’m guessing- when do you eat tacos? Tacos+tea sucks. Fuck this book. This dude needs to get real.

  4. Mark Folse

      This ground has been covered so many times before I almost hate to encourage a thread, but given the fickleness of memory the memoir of anyone but a compulsive diarist or a work of non-fiction by a journalist conversant with the subject is going to be open to literal truth versus story truth. (Yes, I just finished The Things They Carried, probably 10 years later than I should have gotten around to it). Granted TTTC is sub-titled “A Fiction” but neither novel nor memoir. To assume anyone’s memoir should be considered in the same league as book-length journalism is a fallacy that is best put to rest.

  5. bobby

      “To assume anyone’s memoir should be considered in the same league as book-length journalism is a fallacy that is best put to rest.”

      Thank you.

      I die a little bit every time someone tries to point out to me that something isn’t true, that there were inaccuracies, as if that is a final and end-point, w/ regards to memoirs.

  6. R Ellis

      This is somewhat different from other memoirs because the guy uses the book to publicize his nonprofit and collects a LOT of money. I don’t care so much if he lied about/exaggerated his mountaineering escapades, but if the book is a pack of lies, is he also mishandling the money? Reports indicate this could be so.

      Also, saying a bunch of people kidnapped you when you were actually their guest? That’s outright slander — way worse than James Frey.

      Oh, the book is terrible, btw. It was obvious the guy is pretending to be something he’s not. But no one wanted to criticize the guy because he was, you know, doing good and all.

  7. Lincoln Michel

      The problem though is that memoirs tend to derive their authority from their supposed truth. This is why a poorly written book like A Million Little Pieces will be rejected by novel publishers, but become a huge hit as a memoir. People can ignore bad writing, if the “truth” is there to make it important. Which is not to say that there aren’t plenty of well-written memoirs, but that the public still sees memoirs as bound up in truth. And if you are getting status for being “true,” you risk losing status when people find out things aren’t true.

      I agree that the “if a memoir has false details it is bullshit!” line is bad, but the opposite idea, that since all memoir is faulty and no writing is every purely objective that means that memoirs can be completely filled with lies and fiction and still count as non-fiction, is equally weak.

  8. Lincoln Michel

      Oh course, that is something of a separate question form this scandal, as this seems more about allegedly scamming people for charity donations.

  9. bobby

      Well, let’s think about memoirs as hard copy documents that support your public persona; I think this is just as valid for James Frey as it would be for David Sedaris as it would be for Howard Stern (or, let’s be fair, even for Dave Eggers). And if we can “get” that having a public persona is still a fiction — regardless of whether it’s steeped partially in truth or not — it kind of rules out, in some cases, worrying about what is “real” or real, and frees us up to appreciate the writing rather than one would a biography or some other sort of truthy non-fiction.

  10. Franklin Goodish

      ha, the line about TTTC is nicely played.

  11. Daniel Bailey

      do people really still give a shit about this sort of thing?

  12. Daniel Bailey

      do people really still give a shit about this sort of thing?

  13. karl taro

      here is my solution: memoirs exist somewhere in between fiction and non-fiction. done. next!

  14. Samuel Sargent

      Isn’t it almost mandatory that you make up stuff in your memoir so that someone calls you out on it, thus garnering much more media coverage than the book would ever get otherwise? Incidentally, my first “novel” is pretty much 100% true with very little embellishment. I wonder if anyone will call me out on labeling my non-fiction work as fiction. I hope so, I could use the extra $5 it would probably net me.

  15. deadgod

      That point about Frey is exactly right – he (initially) got a truthiness pass: ‘searing vigor carries the story when technique can’t etc.’

      And I think you’re spot-on with respect to the false dilemma that some seem to be projecting onto even the possibility of “fact” as a writing and reading criterion in the case of “memoir”. It’s not a matter of either ‘intersubjective undeniability’ or ‘hell, let expedience guide your conscience’.

      One doesn’t accept ‘creative storytelling license’ in the case of even a child boosting the family purse/wallet. Why should the difference between remembering and lying be allowed to be smeared because of the fact of misremembering?

  16. deadgod

      teabaggers don’t – standing tall, standing proud

  17. Sean

      It’s funny, the Orwellian term “inaccuracies.” I saw Junot Diaz recently and he started wading in on the Frey scandal years ago and said, “You white people say Frey has a flawed memory. Where I am from they call that being a liar.”

  18. R Ellis

      Actually… I just recalled that this book is actually NOT a memoir at all. It’s in the third person, told by the co-author. Weird, I know. But it really does set itself up as non-fiction.

      So, memoir doesn’t have to be true… but does non-fiction?

  19. Anonymous

      We accept ghostwriting as a given when anyone barely literate writes a novel or memoir. I can’t understand why our integrity alarm goes off whenever there’s a lie told for narrative purposes.

  20. Anonymous

      Today I filed my taxes and sneaked into the afternoon showing of ATLAS SHRUGGED.

  21. deadgod

      – but that’s two different issues: ‘ghostwriting’ isn’t a synonym of ‘lying’ (or even of ‘inaccurate’).

      If a ghostwritten memoir is at least factually accurate – Smith was in Singapore on that date – , then its partiality in support of its co-writer/interviewee is “accepted” (while perfectly open to partisan challenge) as a norm in memoir literature, as it is in actual memoirs.

      But ghostwritten books that claim for historically real people untrue exploits – ‘Smith survived Auschwitz, and here’s how: . . .’ — those books (the ones that get much noticed) are exposed as nonsense.

      And again, it’s not a matter of “whenever there’s a lie”; it’s a matter of a self-celebratory, or sensational, or income-generative, or however-effectual tissue of prevarication that constitutes much – or the whole – of a book.

      Regardless of whether they’ve been ghostwritten or not, when declarations of fact in memoirs are successfully challenged, publishers change those assertions in later printings/editions (as they do for journalism of any length). In the case of Frey’s ‘memoir’, a more, eh, comprehensive alteration was needed, right?

  22. deadgod

      ha ha

      memoir v fiction

      or, good fiction v bad fiction

      did you have to sneak back out?

  23. William Owen

      “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” Its all perfectly cromulent.

  24. NotaBlogger

      Frey’s a punk, Mortenson’s a punk, and ANYONE who’d rather read OR write literary nonfiction than take a risk with a novel (or a poem) is a punk-by-association.

  25. Anonymous

      Nah. They don’t care. Mostly kids. My day-off usual is paying for one movie (today: HANNA- an American action thing made by not-Americans. Pretty good! Some dialogue spins waaaay out, and the sets are fantastic.) but staying for two.

  26. Glue

      The editors and the publishing company want a compelling story, they don’t want the slog of reality. Reality isn’t always dramatic, even in dangerous lands. The writer takes liberties to placate the publishing company and the publishing company gleefully accepts these liberties to placate the hack-hungry audience that wants to emote while watching Oprah. Who cares. It’s garbage writing anyway. 60 Minutes knows the drill and shouldn’t act shocked.

  27. darby
  28. Sean Carman

      I think an important point here is that Mortenson’s (and his co-author’s) exaggerations and conflations didn’t make a mediocre story good, they made a perfectly good and beautiful story sensational. It’s the sensationalism that drove the book to such astounding success. If you have a good story, or a unique or personal angle on an otherwise ordinary incident or event, you don’t need to make things up to tell a good story. You only need to sometimes make things up if you want to write a blockbuster.

  29. deadgod

      Well, I just wondered if that’s one of the movies that costs more to escape once you’re in than to get in to see in the first place . . .