'Three Cups of Tea': Is the publishing industry to blame for fabricated memoirs?

“In the age of Oprah and celebrity reality television ... everyone wants to be a spokesperson for some horrible incident or ... tragedy," says one book agent of the "Three Cups of Tea" controversy.

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    Greg Mortenson was long considered a "modern-day saint" of the publishing world.
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When news emerged Sunday that the veracity of parts of Greg Mortenson’s memoir, "Three Cups of Tea," was now in question, it became the latest in a growing list of falsified memoirs, an embarrassment that’s been of chronic concern to the publishing industry of late.

First there was James Frey, the most famous of the recent fabricators. When he admitted his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” was embellished – including a critical section in which he detailed a dramatic account of hitting a police officer with his car while high on crack – he opened the floodgates to a barrage of censure from his readers, the media, and of course, Oprah Winfrey, who lambasted him on her show. Still, Frey’s career continues, his books get more press than they ever before, and his young adult novel “I Am Number Four” was released as a film earlier this week.

And then there was Margaret Seltzer, who penned the boldly falsified memoir, “Love and Consequences,” under the pen name Margaret B. Jones. She wrote movingly about growing up in gritty neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles (she grew up in comfortable Sherman Oaks), about her foster brother getting gunned down in front of their foster home (she never lived in foster care), about running drugs for the Bloods (she didn’t), and about growing up half Native American (she isn’t). Seltzer even went on tour for her completely made-up memoir until her own sister outed her.

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Not only was Laura Albert’s book made-up, the author was, too. Albert, a middle-aged woman, penned a memoir under the name JT LeRoy, a young man, a pseudo-character who even showed up for interviews played by Albert’s friend, Savannah Knoop, disguised in sunglasses and a wig. The fraud fell through when Knoop forgot such details as LeRoy’s own supposed age.

Others, including Herman Rosenblat, Misha Defonseca, and Nasdijj, have also joined the reluctant ranks of outed memoir-fakers. In fact, inaccurate memoirs have enjoyed a very long history.

Now, thanks to CBS’ 60 Minutes exposé, Mortenson, the modern-day saint of the publishing world, seems to be yet one more besieged fabricator, though the extent of his fraud is yet unknown.

Monday, Mortenson’s publisher, Viking, announced it would conduct a review of his bestselling book, which has sold more than three million copies. Mortenson himself has stood by his accounts, although he has admitted at least one section of "Three Cups of Tea" was a “compression version of events.”

(Incidentally, author Jon Krakauer, whose accusations were the centerpiece of 60 Minutes' own investigation, has written a 75-page book on the same subject, “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.” No doubt, the 60 Minutes interview was a fabulous plug for Mr. Krakauer and makes viewers wonder about his own motives.)

Why didn’t Mortenson – and the other accused memoirists he joins – just write a novel?

The publishing industry, says Ira Silverberg, a book agent (and former agent to JT LeRoy, aka, Laura Albert), is to blame.

“The biggest problem publishers have is that the fiction category isn't as good as it used to be,” Silverberg said in an NPR interview. “In the age of Oprah and celebrity reality television and true tales, everyone wants a spokesperson for some horrible incident or ... tragedy. A lot of writers feel forced into making a memoir of something that might more accurately be called fiction.”

Then why don’t memoirs go through more rigorous reviews, the fact-checking that magazines, for example, conduct on many of their articles?

With hundreds and even thousands of manuscripts being reviewed and edited at any given time, it’s simply too much material to check – and far too expensive for just about any publishing house. In fact, publishing houses typically make memoirists sign a clause that states the author asserts the facts he or she has written are true and is not defrauding the publishing house.

In Mortenson’s case, anyway, it would have been next-to-impossible, and wildly expensive, to track down each of the towns and people he wrote about and confirm every interaction – although some publications, such as National Geographic, do continue to perform such complex fact-checking feats.

It's a process Viking will now be forced to undergo, even as the famously reserved Mortenson will also be required to examine his own lies, truths, and motives.

“I am awkward, soft-spoken, ineloquent and intensely shy,” Mortenson wrote in “Stones Into Schools,” the 2009 sequel to “Three Cups of Tea.” “The duties of speaking, promoting and fund-raising into which I have been thrust during the last several years have often made me feel like a man caught in the act of conducting an illicit affair with the dark side of his own personality.”

A dark side that has perhaps only now come to light – and one he may grapple with for years to come.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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[This article originally included Kaavya Viswanathan on the list of memoirists accused of inaccuracy and referred to "I Am Number Four" as a "forthcoming" film. Both were errors.]

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