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No, Lies Do Really Matter (Especially in Nonfiction)

No, Lies Do Really Matter (Especially in Nonfiction) post image

Earlier this week, 60 Minutes presented an extended expose accusing Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, of falsifying main anecdotes in his a memoir as well as mismanaging funds of the nonprofit, Central Asia Institute (CAI), he founded build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Journalist Jon Krakauer has also written a digital expose — “Three Cups of Deceit” — exposing the problems in the book and with CAI.

While I haven’t read either of Mortenson’s books, I’ve been following the discussions about this scandal because issues of truth in nonfiction are interesting to me. One particular article by Laura Miller in SalonWhy “Three Cups of Tea’s” lies don’t really matter — rubbed me the wrong way. While I agree with her central argument about the importance of the financial side of this story, Miller is too quick to dismiss the serious issues of Mortenson potentially fabricating parts of his story and discredits other hard-working and honest nonfiction writers in the process.

Miller’s central argument about the Mortenson scandal is this:

It’s unfortunate that the Mortenson affair is being presented as a publishing scandal rather than a philanthropic one, because the case against the author (the lying) is less compelling than the case against the nonprofit director (the cheating).

Certainly, the financial mismanagement of Mortenson’s charity, CAI, is a huge issue. The fact that money that is supposed to be going to schools might be being used to fund an author’s travel and speaking tours is a serious problem, and one that should be fully investigated. However, that doesn’t mean the potential lies in Mortenson’s story should be ignored, or that they don’t warrant a discussion about issues of truth in memoir.

Miller really loses me when she shifts to an analysis of Three Cups of Tea and a misguided argument about truthfulness in nonfiction. She says (emphasis mine):

Three Cups of Tea belongs to that category of inspirational nonfiction in which feel-good parables take precedence over strict truthfulness. Its object is to present a reassuring picture of the world as a place where all people are fundamentally the same underneath their cultural differences, where ordinary, well-meaning Americans can “make a difference” in the lives of poor Central Asians and fend off terrorism at the same time. Heartwarming anecdotes come with the territory and as with the happily-ever-after endings of romantic comedies, everyone tacitly agrees not to examine them too closely.

As someone who works for a living as a journalist and as an avid lover of nonfiction, I find this assertion insulting to the many nonfiction writers that write “inspirational nonfiction” while still maintaining important values of accuracy and honesty while weaving a good story.

There is a technique in some modern narrative nonfiction to compress events or even characters for the sake of narrative clarity. However, in almost every book that I’ve picked up that uses that technique, the author makes a clear disclaimer about what has been changed or altered for the sake of narrative.

For example, in the introduction to The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, notes that she changed the names and identifying details of many characters for their protection. She also explains, “I have worked hard to ensure the accuracy of the dates and times attached to their histories, but I admit that their precision may be slippery given just how much Afghanistan has seen in the past three decades and the years that have passed since this story began.”

In the acknowledgments of her memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto talks about changing names, omitting details, adjusting timelines, and even creating a composite character. She justifies the changes to the truth by noting, “Ultimately, this memoir is best read as a reflection of who I believe myself to be as I write these words.”

I never felt betrayed reading either one of these books because the authors were forthright about the narrative license they took with the story. There’s a sense of good faith and trust in nonfiction admissions like this, and I respect authors who are honest with the liberties they’ve taken with facts in order to make a more structured story that adheres to the spirit of what has happened to the people in them.

Although I haven’t read Three Cups of Tea, I suspect the same type of honesty has not happened. Already, Mortenson has thrown his co-writer under the bus, telling Outside Online that he was pushed aside during the writing process. Mortenson says:

It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything. …

What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. … So, rather than me going two or three times to one place, he would synthesize it into one trip. I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.

From what I’ve read from journalists working to put together a narrative story, this seems like a relatively believable scenario for how events in a book could not quite align with reality. However, if this is the case — events were compressed or omitted for narrative clarity — there should have been a disclaimer in the book noting there were some changes it. Without it, critics of Mortensen have every right to question the truth of the book, regardless of whether this is “inspirational nonfiction” or not.

I don’t know what type of “tacit agreement” Miller is referring to when she charges that readers ignore factual accuracy in “inspirational nonfiction” so it doesn’t matter if writers do as well. It’s certainly not an agreement I have signed onto as an avid reader of nonfiction, and one I hope others will not either.

Accuracy, an attempt to tell a story within the framework of the facts at hand, is one of the paramount qualities of good nonfiction, regardless of what the theme or message of the book happens to be. We can be equally inspired by nonfiction that reveres the facts as we can be by fiction that eschews real life for a universe of the author’s imagination.

What is not inspirational is nonfiction that plays fast and loose with what has actually happened. It’s laziness to the supreme. Not only has the author been too lazy to research a true story enough to tell it accurately and well, he/she has also not been brave enough to write fiction from what is in his/her heart. Both of those types of writing take more effort than nonfiction filled with lies and distortions, and I don’t want to waste my time as a reader with writing that is lazy.

That’s why I find these charges so frustrating, and why I refuse to accept “feel-good parables” that “take precedence over strict truthfulness.”  I won’t dismiss the inaccuracies in Three Cups of Tea, and neither should other readers — doing so takes away the power of nonfiction and dismisses the skill it takes to write it well.

That said, I’m curious what you all think. Has the story of lies in Three Cups of Tea overshadowed a more important story about financial mismanagement? Are the articles about this issue being a major publishing scandal missing the point? How do you view truth in nonfiction — is alteration of the facts permissible if the story is “inspirational,” if the author admits and explains why, or never at all?

Photo Credit: andrewrennie via Flickr.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Helen Murdoch April 22, 2011, 6:56 am

    Ok. First off, I don’t like lying. That said, I think the issue of girls and education is so important and Mortenson has brought such HUGE attention to the issue that I can excuse some lies in his books.

    However, if the mismanagement of the non-profit is true I will be just so sad. I want to believe that all those villagers really are getting the schools, that all the donated money is making a difference!

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:06 pm

      Helen: I don’t disagree that Mortenson’s cause is a good one, and I hate that this scandal might put that in jeopardy. Had he been honest about the changes in the story, I’d be willing to cut him some narrative slack on the story. I hope the financial mismanagement gets worked out and the children don’t suffer.

  • Meghan April 22, 2011, 7:33 am

    I am completely with you on this – I never signed on to anything that said I didn’t expect non-fiction to be true, even in memoirs. Unless I’ve been told that some things have been changed, I do expect what I’m told to match the reality as close as the author can manage. Otherwise, it’s fiction, and to me that should be the end of it. Memory is a slippery thing, so it will never be exact, but you’re completely right in that it takes the power out of the memoir.

    The financial mismanagement of CAI is a huge deal, but for readers who have been inspired by Mortenson, how can they not feel betrayed? I haven’t read his books but I know I would if I were to discover that things in the memoirs I’ve read were made up without being told so.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:09 pm

      Meghan: I have a tough time with memoirs that have inklings of untruth to them. It’s one reason I never read Running with Scissors — I’m just not ok with truth bending in that way. I’m disappointed to read about this, and I’d feel betrayed if I were a donor or reader of the book.

  • Susan Ujka Larson April 22, 2011, 8:51 am

    “That’s why I find these charges so frustrating, and why I refuse to accept “feel-good parables” that “take precedence over strict truthfulness.” I won’t dismiss the inaccuracies in Three Cups of Tea, and neither should other readers — doing so takes away the power of nonfiction and dismisses the skill it takes to write it well.”

    I agree whole-heartedly. James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea) have hurt the credibility of all non-fiction writers. In her recent memoir (Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir) Kay Redfield Jamison tells her readers that she provided evidence to her publisher for all that she wrote to verify her truthfulness. As you write, if it’s not 100% truthful, then include a disclaimer (or write it as historical fiction). It’s that simple.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:10 pm

      Susan: I’ve been curious about how publisher verify and fact-check memoirs and other books — it sounds like there isn’t much, at least in this case, but I wonder if that will be changing.

  • Christine Ashworth April 22, 2011, 8:51 am

    I was hugely disappointed by this scandal. I have read Three Cups of Tea, and really enjoyed it, as did many of my friends. Knowledge that there are things in the book that never happened just totally dismays me.

    What I find almost worse, however, is Laura Miller’s assertion that, “Heartwarming anecdotes come with the territory and as with the happily-ever-after endings of romantic comedies, everyone tacitly agrees not to examine them too closely.” This is beyond insulting both from a reader perspective and a writer’s perspective. Readers aren’t spineless wimps who want to be fed pap. We want the truth and will happily understand if the timelines/stories/names had to be changed/altered to make a coherent story, or to protect someone from retribution, as long as it’s made completely clear up front.

    Writers (especially of romantic comedies) have to work hard to get their happily-ever-after to make logical sense. That another writer would even put that up as a defense leaves me speechless.

    On the financial side, that is only another major disappointment. It must be a given – all our idols end up having feet of clay.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:16 pm

      Christine: That’s the part of the article that most annoyed me as well — it feels so very insulting. You’re exactly right; I think readers are willing to go places with an author — accept changes or whatnot for narrative — but only if they’re told about it ahead of time. It’s very frustrating for someone to be so dismissive of how much work it takes to write nonfiction well.

  • Care April 22, 2011, 10:28 am

    FABULOUS post, Kim. I love your pic of the three empty tea cups…
    I have not read, nor have I wanted to read this book.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:17 pm

      Care: Thanks! I liked that photo too — Flickr has some great Creative Commons options if you spend some time looking 🙂 I’ve not been interested in this book either, and I’m glad I haven’t invested the time.

  • Teresa April 22, 2011, 12:36 pm

    I do think Miller’s right that writers of socially conscious nonfiction sometimes get a pass from readers in some respects because the cause is good. For example, I saw a reviewer get pretty much raked over the goals because she just didn’t like Mortenson’s book much; some readers seemed to equate criticizing the writing with criticizing the cause. Still, I agree with you that readers expect truth from nonfiction writers, with the understanding that memory is tricky and not always accurate. The thing that’s frustrating in this case is that some of the inaccuracies would not be such a huge deal if there were a disclaimer explaining the compression of the timeline. I do think the alleged mismanagement of funds is a bigger deal than the fudging of facts, but that doesn’t mean the facts don’t matter. As a reader, they matter to me.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:19 pm

      Teresa: “… Some readers seemed to equate criticizing the writing with criticizing the cause.”

      That’s a great point. I think that also happens with memoirs a lot — reviewers think criticizing the memoir is equal to criticizing the person, which it isn’t at all.

      I think a simple disclaimer would have saved a lot of the problems from the writing side of this scandal. I’ve read lots and lots of nonfiction with altered timelines or even conversations that are speculative — with the acknowledgement, it seems ok to me (or at least not a scandal).

  • Phaedosia April 22, 2011, 1:46 pm

    I just keep thinking of the “Pennies for Peace” project that the Children’s Dept. ran at my library. Kids were bringing in pennies for weeks and were all excited about the prospect of building schools. Utterly disheartening that their efforts may have just gone to pad Mortenson’s book tour expenses.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:19 pm

      Phaedosia: Ugh, that’s terrible! I feel sad for all the people who have invested in this charity, especially if the financial accusations turn out to be true.

  • Trisha April 22, 2011, 9:45 pm

    In short, I believe that fiction can reveal a “greater truth” just like nonfiction can, so if an author can’t get his/her point across accurately in nonfiction, he/she should write a novel. I prefer my nonfiction to be fact.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:20 pm

      Trisha: Well said, well said. That should be on a t-shirt or something 🙂

  • softdrink April 23, 2011, 10:29 am

    On a shallow note, I no longer feel so bad about not liking the book (I thought it was poorly written).

    Absolutely, a non-fiction book should not lie (unless, like you mentioned, the author is upfront about what they are doing, and they have good reason for doing it). Especially if you are accepting money/charity. Then I think really think all the i’s need to be dotted. Because you gotta expect you’re going to scrutinized someday. And you have an obligation to those who donated the money to act responsibly…otherwise you just turn into a big wanker.

    And to blame the omissions on the co-author was in especially bad taste, I thought. I mean really…the book has your name on it dude…accept some ownership.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:21 pm

      softdrink: I thought it was extremely tasteless to blame the omissions on a co-author. In most nonfiction, there will be mistakes — even from the most honest and well-intentioned writers. The classy thing to do is accept mistakes as your own and deal with the consequences. Mortenson playing the blame game makes me even more certain there’s something fishy going on.

  • Gwen April 23, 2011, 10:38 am

    I find the whole thing disheartening, both the lies in the book and the financial scandal. The cause is a good one and to create untruths to gain financial support for that cause only to pad your pockets contributes to us all being cynical and not wanting to support any cause, even the good ones.

    As a non-fiction reader, it offends me, but like you mentioned, it isn’t the first time. I have developed a tendency to choose my non-fiction subjects from the past because writers that take on the issues of today often turn out to have ulterior motives and disappoint me.

    Feel good parables may be fine for some readers, but they don’t appeal to this one. I have learned that they are often laced with untruth, vile motivations, and have contributed too much to my unlikeable cynical view of our future.

    Anyone that excuses a false work because it made people feel good is wrong in my world. They are as bad as the writers that wrote the untruth in the first place.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:24 pm

      Gwen: I agree with you — accepting as a given that inspirational books can play with the truth because it makes readers happy is frustrating, and I simply don’t accept that.

  • christa @ mental foodie April 23, 2011, 12:35 pm

    I have read both of his books, and if the accusations are true, I’ll be very disappointed. I am still processing the info – reading 3 Cups of Deceit now, so don’t want to write a post before I know more about it.

    I have no problem with authors compressing events or merging people together, if they made it clear. But in this case, it’s not really compressing events, if the events never happened. And they seemed to be too significant of an event that he “forgot” about.

    That’s why I liked Jeanelle Walls’ 2nd book title: Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel. She made it clear in the book also why she called it a novel even though they were based on true events.

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:26 pm

      christa: I need to read the Krakauer piece. I tried to download it, but it didn’t work earlier in the week. I’ll have to grab it from Amazon and check out everything in more detail.

      I like the connection to the Walls book. I haven’t read any of those, but it’s nice to hear she went with a novel format when nonfiction might have been disingenuous.

  • Kathleen April 23, 2011, 4:47 pm

    I read Three Cups of Deceit this week and have to say that Krakauer builds a compelling case against Mortensen. I haven’t read Three Cups of Tea but have read Stones into Schools. I think the importance of this story is both that Mortensen lied and called it non-fiction and also that he may have misused funds from his charitable organization. I kind of wonder why editors don’t do more fact checking. It doesn’t seem like Krakauer had to work that hard to find people to dispute the facts in Mortensen’s books. It is disappointing to me as a reader of non-fiction to think that I can’t trust the “facts” that are being presented to me but I guess I can’t!

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:27 pm

      Kathleen: Krakauer is an amazing journalist — I would not want him investigating me for something because he is thorough, honest, and writes very well.

      I’m very curious about whether this story will mean and changes in the way publishers fact check stories; I don’t know what the process for that is, but from what I’ve gathered (just a bit) it seems like not much.

  • Colleen April 23, 2011, 8:55 pm

    I could maybe see giving Mortensen a pass in consideration of the social value of his work BUT only if he has been transparent about the potential inaccuracies of his story. The book was presented as a work on non-fiction and I was quite inspired after reading it – I admit that I feel quite cheated now.

    Excellent post!

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:28 pm

      Colleen: I think I agree with your assessment — had he been honest about changes, I would have probably been fine with the idea that the story is true in spirit if not exactly in reality. But it seems that isn’t the case, and that makes me mad (even though I’ve not read the book myself).

  • Kirsten April 23, 2011, 8:58 pm

    I haven’t written Greg Mortensen’s book – but I have to say that I am less inclined to do so now. It isn’t the cheating scandal – although that is reprehensible. However, regardless, what kind of non-fiction book you are writing – it is supposed to be factual and truthful. If you think your facts may be suspect, you MUST note that!

    What is more disturbing that it seems such actions are more and more common. Or is it that they are caught out more now? Any thoughts?

    • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:30 pm

      Kirsten: I considered reading it awhile ago, but have no inclination to do so now. At least not until it becomes clear what was true and what was not.

      I’m not sure if it’s more common or just more caught. I do think it’s probably easier to catch people in lies now — there are so many records of actions and it’s easy to find things online. However, uncovering a story like this one took a lot of work, and I’m sure a lot of investigation on the part of 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer.

  • Aths April 24, 2011, 3:06 pm

    I read the Laura Miller article last week and was literally shocked to see her arguments. Since when has lying in nonfiction been one of the lesser crimes? If people want to lie, then there’s another genre for it, and it’s called fiction. I sometimes can’t believe that I read such articles in these “renowned” sites. I thought both the lying and the cheating were equally bad.

    And Mortenson giving the lame excuse that he isn’t a reporter! So it’s ok to tell lies because he was not what we call a professional journalist? What a distasteful episode overall!

    • Aths April 24, 2011, 3:10 pm

      Also, I do think I should give Mortenson credit for the work towards girl education that he has done. He wrote a book, probably told a bunch of lies, made money and hopefully used that well. In almost every article on this topic that I have read, no one has discounted the work he did and I think that’s good. I do hope that all this controversy doesn’t end up stabbing his efforts, but I do think it’s necessary that it should be made clear that the lying/cheating isn’t good, whatever the intended motivation.

      • Kim April 24, 2011, 5:32 pm

        Aths: Yes! I agree entirely. I can’t see how anyone would make the argument that readers are willing to accept lies of it’s inspirational. I just don’t know anyone like that.

        I do think her point is well taken that the financial scandal may get buried, and that’s a problem. But I don’t think it’s ok to just dismiss the rest of it either.

        And agreed — no one I’ve read dismisses the work he has done, but I’m not sure the outcome is necessarily worth it, you know?’ I hope someone steps up in his place to continue his important work if he’s not able to because of mismanaging his non profit.

  • Ash April 29, 2011, 11:24 am

    I totally agree with you here. Narrative license is fine and sometimes appreciated, but when you’re marketing something as true and know that it is not that is a problem. A little note is all you need and you’re good to go.

    • Kim May 3, 2011, 9:24 am

      Ash: I think it’s especially upsetting since the book is so much the basis for his charity work, which is almost universally accepted as a good thing. Lies in the book will probably hurt that, which is unfortunate.

  • Katrina May 4, 2011, 3:26 pm

    Kim! I completely agree. Quite a while ago I did read the book (unlike a few here), and kept having these knee-jerk reactions. A “Did this really happen?” sort of a thing. I must say, there are plenty of nonfiction stories about charities and good causes that I cannot forgive Mortenson for playing with the truth. Just because his book is “inspirational” does not give him license to mislead his readers or the general public (who are now more inclined to give him donations). I guess it isn’t a big step to go from misleading readers to misappropriating funds. What a disappointment.