'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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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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(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.
[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.]