Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Fake Memoir

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a TimeToday I stumbled upon Steve Almond's excellent thoughts on lying in memoir or what he says is becoming a genre of its own: the fake memoir. I love his definition of creative nonfiction: "It is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place." The point is that they do need to have taken place.

Almond goes on to discuss some of the recent "fake memoirs," the latest being Greg Mortenson's best-selling Three Cups of Tea. Watch this 60 Minutes clip to see what lengths CBS went to in order to disprove the veracity of passages in Mortenson's memoirs Three Cups of Tea and Stones for Schools.

Almond points out something else about lying in memoir: "In all of these memoirs, the fake stuff is utterly, almost comically, cliché. It always involves lurid violence, which the protagonist valiantly withstands or transcends."

This reminded me of how some time ago a fellow writer in a writing class I was taking submitted an essay about how, as an adult, she ran into the former cheerleader who'd bullied her high school. They bumped into each other in their home town, in a card shop. The narrator was back in town visiting her parents. Both narrator and former cheerleader were in their early thirties, and the narrator was shocked to find the cheerleader had morphed into a somewhat disheveled and overweight thirty-something. She ended the story by telling us readers how she had told off this former cheerleader in the midst of that card shop, and had finally released all that pent-up anger from those years of being bullied in high school.

Each one of us readers commented on that ending. Something wasn't quite working there. Well, the writer later confessed that she had made that up, that in fact the encounter had been uneventful except for the typical "Hi, how are you? What are you up to?" exchange, and that she had actually left feeling sorry for her former tormenter. Now that change in feelings would have been the real story! Instead the writer had tacked on that wished-for ending, and all of us readers had felt that something was just not right with that. It didn't ring true for that narrator and that situation. It was cliché.

So: Don't do that. You know when you're making stuff up. That's fine in writing, but as Steve Almond points out, that's fiction. If you're aspiring to write memoir, to tell it how it was, then don't give in to that urge we all have of aggrandizing ourselves.


  1. Quoting Garfield: "They should be drug out in the street and shot." It makes everyone trying to come out with a memoir seem dishonest by default. Someone take away their pens and laptops until they learn to behave!

  2. That's so sad about Mortenson...a couple of my former students emailed me, feeling totally disappointed--we used Mortenson as an example of intervention. Kinda makes me look like an idiot…..but a lot of other things make me look like an idiot, too. I saw him speak at Loyola, and he was inspiring, as were his books. What a drag.

    However, in the 60 Minutes video, I was surprised Jon Krakauer called it a "lie"--I don't think "lying" is the precise term. Its connotations are much different than, say, "fiction" or "fabulation," especially when you consider the wider meanings of those words (and their Latin roots—“fiction” didn’t originally have the “untruth” aspect to it.). In addition, no shit! Of course Mortenson has done some things wrong—he’s a complex person. Focus on that.

    Don’t get me wrong: I think Mortenson grossly (and regrettably) overstepped his bounds, but the guy is a writer and there are technical, precise terms Krakauer could have used instead of throwing the word "lie" around, which has a different and longer lasting effect for the public. It’s just not as simple as him lying. At the risk of sounding Orwellian, I would argue that Mortenson took advantage of the investment readers made in his text. He messed with their expectations—but no nonfiction book has ever not done that. He appears to have done it to a degree much worse than others, and he may have done it for personal profit, whether that profit was cash or prestige, which is odious. But that’s not really “a lie,” is it? Given the Chief Justice’s characterization of Obama’s state of the union a few years ago as a “lie,” it’s about time someone checked the power of that word. Writing nonfiction (or fiction) is more complex than moral denunciation, which is what Krakauer and 60 Minutes did here, despite their caveats at the end that Mortenson has done more for female education in Asia than anyone. If the program really wanted to return funds to duped viewers, they could have focused on that, instead of insinuating that was the purpose of the piece. The purpose of the piece was to tear someone down with the complexity-destroying term “liar.” Krakauer himself leaves out plenty of things in his books (for example, many more locals thought Chris McCandless was monumentally foolish, immature or perhaps mentall ill than Krakuer ever reports.) Krakauer’s pamphlet attacking Mortenson could have wrestled with some complex issues, but it didn’t, and he chose to say “it’s a lie!” That’s what irks me. We're not little kids!

  3. Deenasafari - yes, scandals like this give memoir a bad name. Nevertheless many celebrities now title their autobiographies "memoir" because that seems more attractive.
    Jack - thanks for your long comment and thoughts, especially your thoughts on lying. I would define a lie as saying something that definitely did not happen, so if Mortenson says he was captured by the Taliban, and he wasn't, then he knows better and is lying. However, following the controversy about this in the blogosphere, I found this interesting info on 100memoirs:
    Apparently Mortenson had this memoir ghost written and is guilty of not paying enough attention to the developing manuscript. And that's plain sloppy and unprofessional.