Saturday 10 December 2016

Stranger than fiction

Published 07/05/2011 | 05:00

Pleased to meet you: Greg Mortenson meets school children in Central Asia
Pleased to meet you: Greg Mortenson meets school children in Central Asia

In recent weeks, American author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson has been attacked for apparent discrepancies in his bestselling memoir, Three Cups Of Tea. The book detailed Mortenson's experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the charitable foundation he set up as a reaction to what he saw on his travels.

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Last month, the American news programme 60 Minutes alleged Mortenson had fabricated parts of his story (including being kidnapped by the Taliban in 1996) and that he used his charity as a 'personal ATM'.

Mortenson has denied all the allegations but refused to enter into dialogue with the media on the topic.

Whether the allegations are true or not, they do bring up what seems to be an increasing trend of writers being exposed for fabricating stories and passing them off as real life experiences.

The most infamous in memory is James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. Frey's debut book was selected as an Oprah Winfrey book club choice, which gave Frey -- then a first-time author -- a huge sales boost.

When it emerged that the details within his memoir of addiction were not entirely accurate, Winfrey expressed her wrath by inviting Frey on to her show so he could apologise for duping his readers (and her).

Memoir has always been an unreliable form. Ask two people their memory of the same event and you'll get two different accounts. That's the problem with memory: it's subjective, flawed -- that much is accepted in writing, as in life.

In America, a new genre called 'creative nonfiction' has sprouted up over the last decade or so, which is exactly what it suggests -- writers getting creative with the truth. A writer friend recently attended a conference in Washington on the subject and was shocked at the openness of attendees about what essentially was their career in lying.

One writer admitted to having penned a piece for a travel magazine where she had entirely fabricated places she had supposedly visited to make the piece more interesting. Imagine the poor reader who took that article as their guide.

One writer who has continued to cause controversy throughout her career as an admittedly excellent writer is Lauren Slater, whose stories are described as 'not technically inaccurate' but as 'pushing the boundaries' of truth.

"In fiction you're making it up and in nonfiction you're having to make it up too," she said in a recent interview with the journal Creative Nonfiction.

She went on: "People have said there are inconsistencies in my work, when, in fact, it's not so much inconsistencies as that I might decide to leave something out of the piece. An artist, I feel, has to make choices in each and every thing they write.

"You're never capturing the whole domain of the experience; you're never doing that. Even War and Peace doesn't do that. You're always making choices about which things to include and which to leave out . . . In this essay, it says this and in this essay it says that; so which one is true? They're both true."

Some have suggested this genre is simply the 21st Century version of the 1960s writing movement the New Journalism, spearheaded by literary giants like Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood was a definitive example of the genre. Those authors took true stories and put themselves inside the minds of the people they were writing about, hypothesising what they might have been thinking.

Truth in memoir is always elusive, but remembering something differently and fabricating something are two different things. A genre already exists for that. It's called fiction.

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