April 26, 2011

What Would You Do to Sell A Book?

"60 Minutes" recently ran a piece on Greg Mortenson, best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea, the story of his failed attempt to climb K2 and subsequent encounters with a tribe that nursed him back to health when he got lost during the descent. Mortenson later created the Central Asia Institute (CAI), which claims to have built 140 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Now it appears that the original tale may be false and people who have donated money to the CAI are questioning whether it's being used for Mortenson's personal benefit.

You can read the full story and decide for yourself (link below). In the meantime, let's talk about an author's obligation to readers.

With fiction, you can build as wild and improbable a story as you want.  Non-fiction readers expect the truth. Sure, some artistic license is expected; no one wants a dull recitation of facts. Just don't lie to us.

Maybe you're shrugging. So what if he fudged the facts? His intent was good. Why should we care that he may have embellished the most dramatic parts of his books? The CAI has helped hundreds of children, particularly girls, get an education in a war-ravaged area. Surely that counts for something.

Except for the allegations that he spends more CAI money on book tours than schools.

Other writers have fabricated stories. Other charitable founders have used contributions for personal gain. Why get upset?

Because we deserve better. Because the minute we lower our standards and absolve non-fiction authors of any moral or ethical obligation to tell the truth, we invite abuse. If we don't insist on credibility, who will?

You can get the full CBS story here: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/04/15/60minutes/main20054397.shtml


  1. I have no problem with embellishing fiction - as long as you don't call it the truth! Mortenson though seems to have gone way beyond embellishment as in flat out lied. I understand that no one has a perfect memory, but when you create events that simply did not occur - and you know they did not occur (you can't forget that you didn't get kidnapped by the Taliban), that deserves the moral lashing Mortenson is getting. It's interesting though, that Jon Krakauer weighed in on this with his searing expose. I remember reading Into Thin Air and finding out about some of the accusations he received from family members of those who perished in the ill-fated climb that he was not as accurate as he should have been because of his hurry to exploit the tragedy. I read Krakauer's written apology that what he wrote was his recollection and that he did not intend to be hurtful.

  2. I think if it's made-up, it has to be called fiction. Nothing wrong with fiction - it can make the point just as well as a true-life account. I think there is a difference between "making stuff up" and writing as best you can from memory, as I think Krakauer did. I was just a juror on a trial (see my current posts) and 8 witnesses had 8 different accounts of what happened.

  3. Stephanie: I'm amazed that he would write about being kidnapped and think no one would ever call him on it. But I guess he figured if he could get away with lies in one book, why not in another?

    Interesting info about Krakauer. I was very moved by Into Thin Air. But there's a world of difference between lies and hazy memories.

    Melissa: I appreciate creative non-fiction, books like In Cold Blood. Mortenson's books were pitched as true-to-life when they weren't. Pity the poor publishers who bought his work in good faith.

  4. It is true that our perceptions and the quality of our memories differ. But lies are lies, and lying for profit is not acceptable, regardless of whether part or all of that profit goes to a good cause. The ends do not justify the means.

    This story saddens me because the truth is likely to undo much of the good Mortenson has done. But you're absolutely right. We deserve better.

  5. VR: It is sad. It's also maddening that he did it under a charitable veneer.

  6. Wow!! I JUST wrote about this on my own blog!! We must be in synch this week. :)

    I understand that some "creative non-fiction" writers utilize the process of compressing events - putting several events into one in order to make the book flow better. I get that it makes the book neater, and more organized, and tighter. But then it just seems like it's no longer non-fiction.

    And clearly Mortenson (and Reslin) went far beyond this. And an event told through your own eyes and memory is far different than what he did. His lies - especially about the kidnapping - hurt people. Those individuals in Pakistan who took him in and showed him hospitality have now had their reputations tarnished. That's inexcusable.

    Add to that the misappropriations of charitable contributions.... what a shame.

  7. Heidi: Yes, he's hurt and deceived a lot of people Makes you wonder if he has a conscience.

  8. Wow, I hadn't heard this story! It reminds me of the Oprah guy (I forget his name) who trumped up the facts. If it's nonfiction, I expect complete truth. If the writer embellishes the truth, or adds stuff for dramatic impact, I think they should call it fiction. Just my opinion! But you're right...readers deserve the truth.

  9. Julie: Oprah's guy was James Frey, who fudged facts in a memoir. I think what Mortenson has done is much, much worse. Not only because he lied, but because he used those lies to prey on people's sympathies so they'd contribute to his foundation. And from what I've read, most of that money ended up in his pocket.

  10. I haven't yet read the 'facts' of this case, but I have heard about it.

    That's one thing we all need to understand...once we become authors, we fall under public scrutiny. Everything we do needs to always be done with the best intentions.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  11. Angela: Good point, Angela. Even as bloggers, we have to remember everything we write is "out there" and available for dissection.


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