Another Memoir Meltdown

Why the book business can't seem to guard against authors who deceive

04.18.11 3:32 PM ET

Also on The Daily Beast, Mortenson’s hosts in Pakistan say his stories are lies, and Lloyd Grove and Mike Giglio cover the media fallout from the 60 Minutes revelations.

The publishing industry’s motto seems to be like the old joke in newsrooms when a particularly juicy rumor surfaces: “Too good to check.”

Time and again, when authors of big blockbusters are found to have conjured up facts to embellish their tales, the publisher’s response, almost invariably, is don’t blame us.

Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea, is the latest case study. In the wake of Sunday’s 60 Minutes expose that poked serious holes in his uplifting and inspirational tale, Viking said it relied on its authors “to tell the truth, and they are contractually obligated to do so.”

Let’s examine that for a second. The publisher signs an author and pays an advance. The company purports to edit the book. Then the promotional department kicks into high gear, sending the author on tour, booking the author on talk shows, taking out ads, and generally telling the world that this is a fine piece of work.

All without conducting even rudimentary fact-checking, it seems.

It’s no accident that such scams occur most often with little-known authors spinning first-person accounts that are difficult to verify. The classic example is James Frey, who made a huge splash on Oprah with his 2006 memoir A Million Little Pieces, only to later admit he had made up whole parts of it. Little details like his claim to have been jailed for three months, when it had actually been just a few hours.

How did Doubleday respond? First, denial: “We stand in support of our author, James Frey, and his book which has touched the lives of millions of readers.'”

Then, backtracking: “We decided A Million Little Pieces was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections.”

Then, rationalization, from the publisher, Nan Talese: “Memoir is personal recollection. It is not absolute fact. It's how one remembers what happened.”

Except some of those memories turned out to be lies.

The problems can go beyond fabrication. A Harvard sophomore named Kaavya Viswanathan got a reported $500,000, two-book deal after publishing a critically acclaimed novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. It turned out she had plagiarized dozens of passages from another author. In that case, at least, Little, Brown responded by pulling Opal from the bookshelves.

And how much more deceptive can you get than JT Leroy, the novelist whose fictional accounts of struggling young people were said to be inspired by his own escape from a life of drug abuse as the son of a West Virginia prostitute? It turned out he was a she, Laura Albert. Viking’s response? “We stand by our authors.” Whoever they turn out to be.

Mortenson is quite real, but parts of his story are questionable. At the heart of his book is the account of how Pakistani villagers nursed him back to health in 1993 after he was dehydrated and exhausted from a failed attempt to climb the world’s second highest mountain. But 60 Minutes reported that he actually visited the village of Korphe a year after the mountain-climbing excursion. He promised to return and build a school.

Mortenson admitted to Montana’s Bozeman Daily Chronicle that the story of his time in the village is “a compressed version of events” that was done “to simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story.”

In other words, he took substantial liberties with the facts to improve the yarn.

Oh, and Mortenson’s tale of being kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban? CBS’s Steve Kroft talked to members of the Taliban who said it wasn’t true. If I were the publisher, I'd want to conduct my own investigation. But that rarely happens.

Whatever the precise facts surrounding Three Cups of Tea, it’s clear that verifying what it puts between hard covers isn’t the publishing industry’s cup of tea. Every other media outlet—newspapers, magazines, networks, Web sites—are expected to stand behind what they publish. This one, too often, passes the buck.