Monday, April 18, 2011

Another Day, Another Memoir Controversy

Let's add Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea to the list:

The CBS News report questioned, in particular, a central anecdote of the book that was as dramatic as it was inspirational: in 1993, Mr. Mortenson was retreating after failing to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, when, lost and dehydrated, he stumbled across the small village of Korphe in northeast Pakistan. After the villagers there nursed him back to health, he vowed to return and build a school.

The CBS report, broadcast on “60 Minutes” Sunday night and citing sources, said that Mr. Mortenson had actually visited Korphe nearly one year after his K2 attempt. Mr. Mortenson said on Sunday that he did reach Korphe after his climb in 1993, and that he visited again in 1994.

But he added a disclaimer in an interview with The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, saying that while he stood by the information in the book, “the time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.”

I feel like the discussion comes up a lot, but I don't think it's ever come up on this blog: what do we make of the false memoir, the "compressed version of events" that create a better pacing/story at the possible cost of fact? Personally, I'm at a point where I basically read everything as fiction anyway: I don't necessarily feel like I get more out of a story based on it's truth value.

With that said, as a writer, I like the idea of the "truth" as a formal constraint: how can I write this story in a way that engages a reader without having to compress time/make shit up? I think dealing in fact forces us to find innovative ways to work with what we have, to push on our stories and memories in more challenging ways.

In short, I like to write nonfiction because it's more difficult, but I wont hold it against you if you fabricate as long as you do so in a way that interests me as a reader.

What's your take on the false memoir?


  1. Just realized that Roxane Gay put up a post on this over at htmlgiant as well.

    You might want to check their comment section out for further thoughts on the subject.

  2. You might be interested, also, in Jon Krakauer's takedown (up for free, they say, until 4/20 as a pdf) @