Dispatches | April 22, 2011

Or maybe two cups. But probably not all three. That’s kind of how it’s looking.

Steve Almond, in Wednesday’s The Rumpus, wrote about the controversy blooming over the book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time. Almond’s essay provided this useful definition of creative nonfiction: “a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place.”

The subjective parts include our powers of observation and interpretation, not the existence of the event itself. Greg Mortenson, the subject of Three Cups of Tea, knows whether or not he was kidnapped. A factual answer exists. But as the program 60 Minutes set out to show last Sunday night, we don’t know it. How much of Three Cups of Tea was fabricated for the sake of making a better story? Were a few details tweaked, or was there wholesale invention? These questions breed further questions: How many schools were actually built? How much of the donated money found its way to those schools? How much money went to Mortenson personally? How much of the money that people donate to build schools ends up being used to support Mortenson’s book tour? These questions aren’t very kind to ask a man who has undoubtedly done a lot of good for a lot of people. Still, the questions are fair to ask. That’s the practical consequence of lying: the people lied to will wonder how deep the lies go.

Almond provides a likely reason for Mortenson’s alleged fictions:

“It wasn’t enough for Mortenson that he tried and failed to climb a tall mountain, then met some villagers and decided to help build some schools for the local children. He had to gin up the truth.

I suspect he set about consciously refurbishing his story, and told himself he was doing so because a better story would bring in more donations for the kids. I’m willing to grant that his motives for lying were, in part, noble.”

I’m willing to grant it, too—but so what? Don’t we all think our causes are noble?

Nicholas Kristof, in Wednesday’s New York Times, published a relatively gentle op-ed piece about the controversy, ending with an even gentler conclusion:

“Greg’s books may or may not have been fictionalized, but there’s nothing imaginary about the way some of his American donors and Afghan villagers were able to put aside their differences and prejudices and cooperate to build schools—and a better world.”

He seems to be saying that the ends justify the means—that Mortenson’s fabrications, if that’s what they turn out to be, serve a greater good. He also seems to be saying that the truth of a person’s statements in print only sort of matter. These are strange points for a journalist to be making.

Here’s how I see it. When you’re telling stories to friends at the bowling alley over a couple of beers, the truth only sort of matters. When you’re accepting tens of thousands of dollars per speaking engagement from universities across the country, fees that result from a demand created wholly by your published fabrications, and when you’re repeating those same fabrications in person as if they are fact, you’re committing fraud.

I’m not holier-than-thou. But here’s the thing: writing is hard. A key challenge of writing nonfiction is dealing with a true story that isn’t as prepackaged as maybe you wish it were, when facts aren’t uniformly compelling or even relevant, when cause and effect seem tenuous, when you haven’t a clue about your own motivations, when there is no obvious climax or resolution. Our “subjective accounts of objective events” are rendered meaningless when the events themselves are intentionally distorted. Mortensen took the easy way out, allegedly, by treating events as subjective, or at the very least malleable. In doing so he might have created a neater story, perhaps a more dramatic story—but he certainly didn’t make a better one. The better story deals with the facts as they are, not as you wish they could be for the sake of the story.

Otherwise, you’re writing fiction.

There are so many nonfiction writers who are meticulous in the ethics of their art and whose books don’t become #1 bestsellers, because their stories aren’t as blatantly dramatic as Mortenson’s. Their books aren’t too good to be true. But how many fake memoirs do we need before it finally dawns on us not only that a story too good to be true probably isn’t true, but also that a story too good to be true tends to be fundamentally reassuring rather than challenging, and therefore isn’t even a very good story?

One final point. Mortenson is everywhere referred to as the book’s author. He isn’t. (I wrote about this topic months ago on this very blog.) Mortenson is the book’s subject, as David Relin’s introduction makes perfectly clear. So it always strikes me as weird when Mortenson is referred to as the author, and weirder that Mortenson so readily accepts this designation. “When I wrote Three Cups of Tea…” he said over and over during his talk I attended last fall. And each time he said it, the writer in me felt slightly belittled. Writing a book isn’t the same as living an experience. Writing a book involves the act of writing.

If Relin deserved credit for writing the book when it was tearing up the bestseller lists, then he deserves some culpability now for writing a work of nonfiction without verifying the story’s most basic facts. True, the story takes place in remote regions that make fact-checking difficult, but come on. He signed on for the gig, and we’re talking basic facts: was Mortenson kidnapped or not? What year did he first go to Korphe? Maybe Relin got duped. Maybe he knew about the alleged distortions and wrote them anyway. If these major points of the book prove to be lies, then regardless of whether Relin was duped or complicit, he—the book’s author—shares the breach of ethics.

Everyone who reads Three Cups of Tea learns the symbolism of the shared butter tea: the first cup means you’re a stranger, the second cup means you’re friends, and the third cup means you’re family. But families too often bury their secrets and lie to protect one another. Sometimes one cup is better. The writer-reader relationship is a bit like two people sharing that first cup of tea, polite strangers whose burgeoning relationship is based entirely on establishing trust.

Michael Kardos (michaelkardos.com) was raised by wolves and speaks eleven languages. He has landed on the moon. Twice. He discovered uranium and the polio vaccine, popularized the expression “Boo-ya,” and wrote the book of stories One Last Good Time, which is wholly fictional and contains absolutely nothing factual whatsoever. It is available at your favorite online bookseller and a few brick-and-mortar ones too. Really.