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33 comments to The Inherent Falseness of Memoir

  • margosita

    I don't think of Three Cups of Tea as a memoir, exactly. It always had a political agenda, and as such I think it is a different breed of animal from most memoirs. I don't know what to call it, but I feel differently about it.

    Also, I think condensing and composite characters isn't lying, it's artistic truth. AND I think if the author is able to say, in interviews or blog posts, "This is where I changed things for the sake of the narrative" it demonstrates the honesty of the writing. If you say you were kidnapped when you weren't, or you were in rehab when you weren't, you try to keep those things a secret and any allegiance there once was to the truth is out the window.

    • meghancward

      I wholeheartedly agree with your last comment, Margosita. I'm curious, though, how you'd classify Three Cups of Tea. It's always been sold as a memoir; what else would it be? (Well, other than fiction, which we now know some of it is.)

  • Mark Williams

    "Conversely, all fiction is true. The question is, how true?"

    Our crime thriller was inspired by real events and drew heavily on reported news examples of similar crimes. Given the nature of the crime (pedophile murder) we had to tone down much of our disturbing research to make it palatable.

    Sure enough we got a negative review from someone claiming to have been a reporter, who was disgusted by our gratuitous violence and totally unrealistic scenarios…

    • meghancward

      That's interesting, Mark. It reminds me also of when I submitted my memoir as fiction in a fiction workshop and people said, "This part is totally unrealistic; it would never happen." Truth just isn't always believable.

  • meghancward

    I think it's hard to write a memoir and then call it fiction and sell it as fiction – because memoir relies more on the reality of the events and less on fictional narrative elements. When I was in my MFA program, I wanted to take a fiction workshop with a successful author, but I also wanted to workshop my memoir. I submitted it as fiction and she told me in a conference that she didn't think it was working. When I confessed that it was memoir, she said, "Oh, well then it's great!"

    • Kristan

      Oh, haha, I was talking about the Lying McLiarpants. 😛 If it isn't true enough to call memoir, I think it must be called fiction. (Or else revised to be truer.) I'm tired of these memoirs-j/k-we-lied scandals, that's all.

      • meghancward

        Oh, I knew what you meant. I just mean that if you've written a book as memoir but made up some events à la Lying McLiarpants, it's not as simple as just labeling it "fiction" and repackaging it that way. I think it would have to be completely rewritten to add even more drama and other fictional elements to sell. Then again, maybe Three Cups is fictionalized enough already.

        • Completely agree. I forget the book name now, but a one-time Ivy League sex columnist came out with a "novel" … about an Ivy League sex columnist that seemed a pretty clear case of not-quite memoir. It didn't work well that way.

  • Personally I thought that James Frey got sandbagged both by Oprah and by his publishers!

    • meghancward

      Really, Alta? In what way? What about Mortenson? What do you think? The exposé is a lot of fun to read, even though I haven't read the book.

  • I don't know anything about the other one. I think James Frey originally wrote and intended the book to be fiction loosely based on his life, at least that what he said. Then the publishers made it a memoir since they sell better. Oprah didn't think the distinction was even important until there was a backlash. Then when she threw him under the bus she was praised for "bravery." Kind of ridiculous!

    • meghancward

      It's funny. I defended James Frey on my blog back then and looked like a crazy person because it seemed so evident that he had lied his pants off. I think you're right that the publisher played a big role, but Frey, too, did tell a lot of lies.

  • Yes indeed. He said at the time that he had no idea the book would blow up like it did. It never would have been an issue if it wasn't a major bestseller. I think he was kind of a deer in the headlights. Maybe not an excuse, but I still felt bad for him at the time. Since then though I do notice when a memoir type book does not have "the ring of truth." In the big picture, the longterm publicity was good for him I'm sure.

    • meghancward

      I don't know about that – he ruined his reputation. He's still writing books like crazy, but I don't know how well they're selling. Did you know, btw, that Alex's friend was the editor of that book? I met him once when he was in town.

      • Don't get me wrong, he would still have to write a great novel BUT if he does, the name recognition would probably help even with the tarnished rep. I don't think he'll be going for another memoir anytime soon. I jet checked his wiki and apparently he's working on something for HBO abbot porn.

        • meghancward

          That's funny about the porn! I heard he was writing other books under pseudonyms, too, but I haven't verified it.

  • KLM

    I hadn't even heard of Three Cups of Tea until the controversy! I swear publishers do this on purpose to gin up publicity (that Tiger Mother book in another example).

    When I've written memoir (as I had to in grad school), we used to discuss this very subject all the time: altering facts is inevitable but what's OK and what's not? Generally speaking, bending dates and condensing narratives for the sake of brevity was viewed as all right. Changing key aspects of the story to make it more interesting? Eh, not so OK.

    Of course now I'm thinking of The King's Speech. That story took huge liberties with dates and facts to make the story more triumphant and uplifting but at the same time, the heart of the story about this very public figure having to overcome this speech impediment was true. And truly interesting. So if you believe in "emotional truth" then it's OK to monkey around with the facts a bit. I suppose that's where I draw the line.

    • meghancward

      KLM – I feel like we didn't discuss this enough in my MFA program – maybe because I was taking fiction workshops while I was writing my memoir! So glad to hear, though, that bending dates and condensing narratives is okay. Maybe Oprah will let me stay in her book club after all – oh wait, she doesn't have a book club anymore. And I agree with you that Three Cups of Tea will sell more now. We already own it (someone gave it to my husband), but I had no intention of reading it until now. The exposé piqued my interest.

  • None of the adjustments you have made seem unreasonable – if u put down every detail exactly as it happened – it wd be an autobiography – which read very differently from a memoir – yes, I heard abt the three cups of tea controversy, but not interested in reading it.

  • Great points.

    As a memoir writer who lived and worked in a nearby country (Nepal), I've also been following the controversy closely, It's a great opportunity for all of us writing literary nonfiction to reflect on what we do. I pondered some of that in "Truth and LIes: Where to Draw the Line":… "…Not inventing things that happened" as well as being transparent when we do compress time or use pseudonyms seem especially important.

    • meghancward

      Thanks for this, Elizabeth. I'm anxious to read your post about Where To Draw The Line.

  • Boy, all this makes me think a major shortcoming of Sexless in the City was that I didn't edit for narrative effect sufficiently! (Also a consequence of being an untrained memoirist, I suppose.) My strategies were perhaps more editorial:

    – I included or excluded events based on how they advanced the central conflict.
    – When there were disclosures I didn't feel comfortable making (e.g., because they weren't my secrets to tell), I generalized them to a group in which I was circulating, rather than describing the specific person.
    – I also used descriptive pseudonyms (e.g., "Hippie the Groper," "the Harvard Lickwit," "5% Man")

    The other thing I did, though this didn't go perfectly, was to invite the review of any person I wrote about at length. While I didn't feel that my characterization was debatable, I did give them room to veto which details I shared, since so many were things I learned in the course of a relationship, rather than because I was writing a memoir. In all but one case, I got buy-in (even from those who were portrayed in a less-than-flattering light). The one person who didn't like my write-up did not object to any facts, however, and did not ask me to turn back from publication.

    • meghancward

      Anna – as a former journalist, I've been trained to never show my stories to my sources for review. Turnaround time at a newspaper is quick, and if we had to get approval from sources, we'd never get our stories completed/published (especially because people are so often written about in a negative light in news.) That was risky to show the people you wrote about your book to get their approval. I understand the impulse to do it, though. I would LOVE to know NOW that no people I wrote about are going to come after me later with lawsuits or angry e-mails. And I did show my book to my dad, who, to my surprise, wholeheartedly supported my book. I'm curious what the person who didn't give you buy-in said. If he/she didn't object to facts, what did he/she say? I guess the rebuttal to someone who objects to facts in a memoir is, "Well, that's the way I remembered it."

  • I still want to read Three Cups of Tea and I enjoyed A Million Little Lies reading it from a more fictional standpoint. I think what really makes me mad is when people change stuff not to protect people or simplify (i.e. combining two trips to one) but to make themselves look cooler or tougher or smarter. I read My Friend Leonard and it was crap. The entire book was how cool he is, and how succesful and how hot chicks dig him without any effort blah blah blah. And knowing that he made it up makes it so sickening and pathetic. I think some changes are needed, lives need editing.

    • meghancward

      I agree Anastasia! And I love your last line – "I think some changes are needed, lives need editing." Ha. And I did enjoy A Million Little Pieces, although I read it before knowing how much was untrue. I'll read Three Cups now, just because the quotes from the Krakauer expose really drew me in – memoir or fiction. (Krakauer did some good advertising for Mortenson!)

  • Thanks for an interesting post and conversation.

    I recently published my memoir Big in china and I must be the squarest memoirist ever to exist. I had to get over feeling guilty about condensing even two events or conversations that were closely related, for instance two concerts by my Beijing blues band… I got over that but felt a huge responsibility to tell the big picture truth.

    Krakauer's piece was great and is quite different for a couple of reasons: He alleged and I believe made the case that Mortenson made up two central parts of the story – that he stumbled into the village on his way off a failed summit of K2 and was inspired to start building schools because of the kindness showed to him there as residents nursed him back to health, and that he was kidnapped by the Taliban. Not incidentals, and not mere condensing.

    Furthermore and more damning, the charity – which has received millions in donations – seems to have major accountability issues, to pay for his book promo but not reap royalties, etc. This apparent misuse of funds – which were largely given because of the heartwarming tall tales told – is a game changer, and makes it easy to look a bit more cynically at the lies themselves. And I do think it's fair to call them lies.

  • meghancward

    Oh Alan Paul, you must be Diana Kapp's friend. She told us at the Grotto about your book. It sounds great. I'm curious how you divulged to your readers that you condensed the two concerts. Did you have a disclaimer at the beginning of the book? What did it say?

    And thanks for that summary of the expose. That's exactly right from what I've read (I haven't finished the 89-page expose, but read enough to know those facts.) And yes, one source said Mortenson was using the Central Asia Institute "as his personal ATM." NOT okay.

  • Yep. I am Diana’s friend. I have an authors note in front saying some events and conversations are condensed. It is pretty minimal and if I pointed things out to you, you would shrug and ask why I was telling you.

    I have some excerpts up on The stuff up there is very literal btw.

  • Just FYI, for those interested I posted two very different excerpts of my China memoir this week – one about traveling to remote Guizhou with three young kids, and one about playing in mobbed-up bars in Changsha, Hunan and feeling the ecstasy fo the evangelist.


    • meghancward

      Thanks for the update, Alan Paul. Btw, your previous comment somehow got stuck in my dashboard, so I had to post it myself, which is why your picture didn't show up. Intense Debate is a little buggy sometimes. Looking forward to checking out your chapters.

  • Genny Lim

    Three Cups of Deceit! I love it! I agree, there are lesser, mundane inaccuracies that are sometimes necessary in the interest of craft or confidentiality, which is totally different than outright lying with the intent to distort or misrepresent truth to elicit publicity and notoriety. Sensational memoirs are hugely popular, but if they're filled with half-truths or lies, that flies in the face of the meaning of memoir and to pass them off as such, does a great disservice to those of us, who are splitting moral hairs, trying to do justice to the facts as we understand and remember them. Thanks, for your thoughtful blog, Meghan!