Greg Mortenson's best-selling book Three Cups of Tea has gotten into -- you'll excuse the phrase -- a bit of hot water. The non-fiction book recounts Mortenson's failed attempt to climb the world's second highest mountain, and his being nursed back to health by impoverished Pakistani villagers. To show his gratitude, the recovered Mortenson founded the Central Asia Institute, the stated purpose of which is "to empower communities of Central Asia through literacy and education, especially for girls, promote peace through education, and convey the importance of these activities globally." Funding specifically donated to the institute would be used to build schools in poor communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In a compelling sequence in Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson also tells of his being captured by the Taliban and held prisoner for eight days. His release came once the Taliban learned that Mortenson was on a mission to build these schools.
It's a terrific, nail-biting, heart-warming tale, and it may even be true.
Recently, however, CBS's 60 Minutes aired a report in which much of Mortenson's story was debunked. The piece set out to prove that many of the occurrences claimed as truth by Mortenson either did not take place or were grossly misrepresented by him in his book. Also, the piece contains claims of the personal use by Mortenson of funds donated to the Central Asia Institute. The situation has become so unstable and rancorous (including an investigation of the situation by the Attorney General of Montana, where the institute is based) that this month the American Institute of Philanthropy, in a lengthy, detailed and very condemning report, called for Mortenson to step down as head of the organization.
This stir over the truthfulness of Three Cups of Tea is very timely because it refers to a situation that has been taking place with some frequency in the last few years. Time will tell whether Mortenson's non-fiction memoir is deliberately untruthful. No matter the outcome in this case, the general dilemma remains.
In fiction, the invented story is everything. If you have a set of actual historical circumstances that don't serve the story you wish to tell, you sacrifice the circumstances. True fiction writers (which is to say, those novelists and short story writers who do not worry or ever assert that what they are telling is the literal truth) never have to worry about this. In fact, making things up out of airy nothing is their stock in trade. Their work is a set of lies artfully presented, in which facts don't necessarily matter. The emotional power (and therefore the truth) has nothing to do with actual fact. Anyone who has written fiction knows that you just change the facts if they don't serve the story, and that by doing so, you often make the story much better.
When a writer is sitting on a great non-fiction story that is indeed a lie, it's worth asking "Why not just write it as a novel?" It seems a simple question. But this is an era in which television and movies present dramatic plays, with actors, about people who are still alive or very recently dead, or whose lives still very much effect world opinion or politics. Various Kennedys, for example, the films The Queen, The Social Network, Nixon/Frost, Che , The Motorcycle Diaries and The King's Speech to name quite a few. In these, the script often skews the facts for dramatic effect, and it is accepted by the public and very seldom causes the kind of outcry that Three Cups of Tea is causing. This lack of respect for the actual truth is a bad thing, though, if your book, bio-pic, TV docudrama or whatever is presented to a gullible public as truth itself.
There is lucre in writing a book like Three Cups of Tea or in making TV dramas and films that assert they are true, but in fact are being made to titillate the public's wish for celebrity gossip. Whether Mortenson's book is fact or not will eventually be made clear. But most probably it has made much more money than it would have had Mortenson written it as a novel. As a general notion, non-fiction makes at least some money, while fiction (except in the case of a tiny cadre of very lucky authors) does not. This is also something that every true fiction writer knows.
The temptation to write a fiction and to claim that it is fact may suffer from the moral quandary that always occurs when there is a lot of money to be made.
Terence Clarke's A Kiss For Señor Guevara, a fiction about the last two days in the life of Che Guevara, was published last year.