Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Yes, Laura, It Matters

Laura Miller has a rather disturbing article over at Salon arguing that people criticizing Greg Mortenson for, um, allegedly making up large portions of a so-called memoir are missing the point:

Comparisons to fabricating memoirists like James Frey are misguided. An artful account of the memoirist's own experiences is all that the memoir has to offer its readers; if it doesn't approximate the truth (at the very least as the author saw it), then it's in bad faith.

But what "Three Cups of Tea" provides is something else, a feeling of comradely motivation and a symbol of plucky American virtue in the person of Greg Mortenson. If he has to massage some facts into a better story in order to create sentimental enthusiasm for his cause, many of his fans are more than willing to give him that. Pointing out that a couple of these stories aren't true strikes them as self-serving nitpicking and pettifoggery that, above all, misses the big picture. "Greg is a man who has done more good for more people than anyone else I know," read one comment posted to an interview with Mortenson about the controversy at OutsideOnline. "Yes, he's fallible. But the work that CAI is doing literally transforms lives."

Got that? You see, an actual memoir should be based more-or-less on the truth, at least as someone remembers it, but Mortenson is writing feel-good stories that encourage you to give to charity and feel better about yourself, so it's all okay. If you think he should be telling more-or-less the truth instead of just making stuff up, you're missing the point because he's a nice person and that's all that matters.

I call bullshit.

For a start, he's not presenting it as "heartwarming stories that are loosely based on events that may or may not be entirely true." He's presenting it as a memoir, as the truth. As what happened. Except he's lying. Doesn't that matter, Laura?

She does point out that part of the controversy is that the charity he runs seems to have been used as his own personal ATM (quoting a source in her story). Yes, that probably is giving it some legs in the media. But saying "he's doing it to raise money for charity so all is forgiven" is part of the problem. Journalism is supposed to be about the truth, not about well-connected people raising money for pet causes under false pretenses.

But you see, the fact that we're making a big deal about the fact that he lied to raise money for a charity that mostly benefits him proves that he's the real victim here:

Yet another mismanaged charity is not an especially buzz-worthy subject. But we love to read about lying authors and negligent publishers and all the other ne'er-do-wells who are dragging our literary culture to hell in a hand basket. ... Lying makes for a fun story full of opportunities for righteous indignation, but cheating at a once-esteemed charity is just a bummer. And the best story always wins.

You see? Those meanies are just picking on him!

Ugh. The classic tribal mentality.