04/20/2011 03:32 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2011

Truth vs. Embellishment

Here's an idea: let's make memoirs true and put the made-up stuff in fiction.

Ain't gonna happen. Too much money in lying. And literary bigwigs think it's sorta okay.

This grumpy assessment is prompted by "Three Cups of Deceit," Jon Krakauer's eviscerating take-down of Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, and the 60 Minutes expose on the same book. We've yet to hear Mortenson's full defense, if he has one, but it's not looking good for a mega-bestseller who has garnered tens of millions of dollars for Pakistani and Afghan school building that may (at least in part) be ineffectual and fraudulent.

We've been here before. James Frey's Million Little Pieces, a fraud. Margaret Seltzer's fraudulent Love and Consequences about street-gang life she never experienced. Monique de Wael's memoir of Surviving With Wolves during the Holocaust, which she didn't do. Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence, who fabricated a story of his future wife tossing apples over the fence at him at a Nazi concentration camp.

All of us are suckers for stories too good to be true, be it Washington confessing to chopping down the cherry tree or Bernie Madoff promising investment returns no one else could match.

But in memoir-writing in particular, there seems to be a determination that accuracy shouldn't stand in the way of a good story.

I come at this from a newspaper journalist perspective. If a reporter made stuff up, to make the story better, he or she got fired. The publication depended on its credibility. That's what it sold. And that's what I tell my journalism students at Western Washington University.

But there is a legion of memoir writers from the literary side of things who don't see it that way. I remember listening to a seminar talk by Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness, who argued that reality can be enhanced to make a point, to strengthen story. You can make things up, she told us, and call it true, so long as it illustrates a higher "truth." I thought that was called "fiction." I and my wife were appalled at this cheerful endorsement of fictionalizing reality. Everyone else seemed to be nodding.

Why? Because real life isn't a movie. The working title of my own memoir is How to be Boring, and unless I start to fake it, I may be hard-pressed to find a publisher. So memoir writers, faced with the same dullness, fudge.

Embellishment probably goes back to the dawn of literature. There's an entire other book industry devoted to chipping away at icons, and we've learned more than we probably wanted to know about the "real" Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and on and on. Maybe the tear-down books somehow balance out the make-up-the-truth books to give some semblance of reality.

But boy, am I confused. My wife loved Three Cups of Tea and feels betrayed. Books tell us, simultaneously, that the most wildly improbable feel-good stories are true and that all our heroes, ultimately, are false; that we should believe the charlatans and doubt the achievers. Is this really what publishers want to get across?

The irony for me is that the working stiff journalists I've known my whole life often end up near the bottom of credibility polls despite their sometimes anguished labors to get it right. Meanwhile, phony memoirists get hailed (initially) on Oprah, and gasbag talk-show actors (they are not journalists, by a long shot) become millionaires as paragons of truth. It's a world in which the false is hailed as true, and the balanced is dismissed as biased.

I've written both nonfiction and fiction books. I try to make the nonfiction as accurate as I can, but reality is messy and inconclusive. Accordingly, I also enjoy writing fiction, where stories can be more dramatic, endings conclusive, and coincidences plausible. I research my fiction just as heavily -- the weirdest stuff is usually grounded on real happenings -- but to me there's a clear distinction. If you want to embellish, write a novel. Or at least admit up front that your memoir takes liberties with the truth. And then call it a novel, again.

The publishing industry is inexcusably lax about this, because people want inspiration to be true. Bullshit sells. But the long-term blurring of fact and fiction is turning readers into cynics. People seem increasingly unable to discriminate between real journalism and opinion gussied-up with cherry-picked facts. When there's no standard for accuracy, there's no basis for society to make informed decisions, and we come to political gridlock.

Sound familiar with what's going on in Congress today?

Mortenson's fiction is a bad enough problem in itself, but it's symptomatic of a breakdown in objective reality that ultimately could paralyze progress. It's past time for the people who publish complete claptrap to take some responsibility for checking it.

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