Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Trouble

CBS News’s 60 Minutes has broadcast an exposé of Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling Three Cups of Tea, featuring interviewees who allege that Mortenson has lied in his books and has mismanaged the funds of his charity, the Central Asia Institute — see the transcript of the 60 Minutes program: “Questions over Greg Mortenson’s stories” — also see Mortenson’s response to the charges in this PDF.

This isn’t the first time an author has been called out and accused of lying in a published memoir. I’ve read the CBS transcript and Mortenson’s response, but from those sources I still can’t say that I know all of the details — far from it. I haven’t read any of his books and I haven’t been to Afghanistan or Pakistan, the settings for his accounts and the target areas for his charity.

But this scandal does cause me to reflect on some of the responsibilities of a writer. I’ve written stories that were fictional, stories that were true, and stories that were mostly true, and it seems to me that an author has a responsibility to his readers, to his editors, to his publisher, and to himself to make sure that everyone concerned knows what’s what with the piece of writing in hand.

How do inaccuracies creep into true-life accounts? I think you have to acknowledge that life and the events that make it up come at us in a messy way. When we construct a narrative after the fact, we run a risk of ignoring the nuances and ambiguities and portraying the story with undue certainty, or, worse, added details that improve the narrative as a narrative but at the sacrifice of absolute accuracy.

In the case of Mortenson, some of the ambiguities seem to rest around what it means to call someone a Talib, and the linguistic peculiarities of a remote cultural group in Pakistan. No doubt, further investigation will reveal whether the writer was dishonest or simply failed to portray the subtleties of some of the events he wrote about. And it wouldn’t be unheard-of for a news organization to overreach itself in its efforts to produce a story that gets eyeballs.

As writers, some questions we might ask ourselves include:

  • If the real-life events you’re writing about involve nuances, uncertainties, ambiguities — have you acknowledged these in the piece?
  • What’s your intent? When you examine yourself, do you see in yourself any intention to slant the truth so as to tell a better story or to make yourself look better?
  • How do you represent your work in your marketing efforts? Does the pressure to make sales color your communications efforts?
AB — 18 April 2011

About quriosity

Al Bredenberg is a writer, researcher, and consultant living in Raleigh, NC.
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