Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, is being sued, as announced yesterday evening. He allegedly fabricated significant portions of the book. The plaintiffs are demanding three times the money earned from the sales of the book and that everyone who bought a copy be refunded.
They aren’t suing (in this case) over the mismanagement of funds in his aid organization or over issues pertaining to the fact or fiction of schools he built or didn’t build in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are suing because they say he lied in his book.
*For a book to be sold as ‘true,’ what standards must it meet?
*What does the First Ammendment have to say about this? Does it even apply?
*If you ever read a memoir by a President or by a celebrity, do you believe every word is true?
*What does that mean, ‘true’?
*How far can creative license go in memoirs?
*What is the line between biography and memoir and fiction?
*Why are these people suing? How were they harmed by reading?
*Could nonfiction be called Not Fiction, in which case, it isn’t exactly claiming to be fact? Should there be three categories Fact – Not Fiction – Fiction?
*What are some other examples of this kind of book or movie or other ‘truth-telling’ gone awry?
In the case of A Million Little Pieces, which is now sometimes sold as fiction, the premise of the book remains true. Frey was an addict, now he isn’t. Does what happens in between those two facts change the nature of the book? And what, then, should it be called?
When I wrote in the Modern Love column that I decided to have a baby after Henry and Maggie stopped holding my hand, that was true. But not the whole truth. It was an actual event but it also captured well all the emotions involved in bearing children. Are memoirists obligated to tell the whole truth with no nuancing?
I believe that every book marketed as memoir needs to be read with a grain of salt. No one remembers word for word conversations from their childhood, or exactly what they ate at Thanksgiving dinner 1981, but the essence, the soul, of the story can be remembered. And if that core is true/accurate/the way the author recalls it, the book is a memoir. It isn’t a history textbook or a journalistic presentation, it is a story of the author’s experience told through the biased eyes of that author.
That being said, in a book like Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson was writing more than simply his story. He was presenting the development and progress of an international aid organization and with these facts, he should have been accurate. Also, it appears he fabricated events that were entirely made up. I do believe this is dishonest and bleeds over into the genre of fiction.
For example, the book I am writing is a memoir. It is true in the sense that every event, person, place, emotion, experience presented in the book actually happened. Did I write down exactly the words we said? Or exactly the time of day? No. But do I make up people and events for the heck of it or even to build a better story? No.
T o the absolute best of my ability and integrity, I am writing it as I remember it, focusing on capturing the core of it. As in the story of deciding I was ready for another baby. I believe this also lets the reader enter the story. If I had bored you with every detail of that decision, not only would the story never have been published, but it would also have alienated the reader from being able to relate his/her own similar experience. To me, this is a key goal in what I write; finding the universal in the specific.
However, if in the future, I decide to write a book about the founding of Resource Exchange International in Djibouti and highlighting the successes and failures of our work and projects there, I would feel (and be I believe) much more obligated to get the facts precise. Dates, times, wording, numbers, people.
What do you think? Do you even care or do you simply want to read a good book?
I would love to hear your thoughts.