Monday, April 07, 2008

Truthiness Triumphs

"The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true."
--Ben Mezrich, author of BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, in an article in today's Boston Globe, House of Cards by Drake Bennett.

Mezrich's bestseller (basis of the new movie, "21") is marketed as "nonfiction." Yet many of the characters and events in the book were invented outright.

"I don't even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they're so exaggerated they're basically untrue," said John Chang, an MIT graduate and one of the inspirations for the character Micky Rosa, who in the book is the team's founder and leader.

The book is vaulting back to prominence at a time of big scandals elsewhere in publishing, and low public trust in the media. Recent high-profile revelations of exaggeration and outright fabrication in memoirs have rekindled a long-running debate about how much massaging of the facts is acceptable in a nonfiction book. While memoirists are being publicly humiliated and dropped by their publishers for fabricating incidents in their own lives, the Mezrich empire is prospering, and the actor Kevin Spacey, a star in "21," is developing two more of Mezrich's books into movies. Yet some observers say "Bringing Down the House" - and other books like it - are precisely the kind of storytelling that most threatens the important line between what is real and what is not....

Both Mezrich and the book's publisher, Simon and Schuster's Free Press, see nothing to apologize for. The book, they point out, was published with a disclaimer (in fine print, on the copyright page) warning that the names, locations, and other details had been changed, and that some events and individuals are composites, created from other events and individuals. Nearly all the details and facts in the book were culled from his research, Mezrich says, and where they were compressed or creatively rearranged, the fundamental truth of the story he tells is undiminished.

"Every word on the page isn't supposed to be fact-checkable," Mezrich said. Most readers and writers, he said, have no problem with that.

It is of course impossible to say precisely what readers expect when they read Mezrich's book. Yet Mezrich freely admits that only one of the book's main characters, "Kevin Lewis," is based on a single actual person, an MIT graduate whose real name is Jeff Ma. And Ma's character does things that Ma himself said he never heard of until he read the book. Whatever readers expect from a work of nonfiction, it is unlikely to be this.

Interesting that Meyrich turned real Asians into invented Latins and Anglos.

In 2004 the Globe Magazine called Mezrich's work "imaginatively enhanced nonfiction." There's a word for that: FICTION; or better yet: LYING.

"I don't think narrative nonfiction exists without composite characters," [Mezrich] adds. Iconic nonfiction books like Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm," he says, would be impossible without them, and Junger is one his idols.

At least Junger has standards:

"It's lying," he says. "Nonfiction is reporting the world as it is, and when you combine characters and change chronology, that's not the world as it is; that's something else."
Read the entire article. It managed to raise my blood pressure up to normal.


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

I think that the problem is societal. For the last decade or so, honesty has been unpopular in the United States. From the federal government on down, so many lie, and that sets the tone in so many arenas, including writing and publishing.

Katie Alender said...

It really is just marketing fiction as non-fiction, because an offbeat story is more compelling if it's true. People will do or say anything, and if they can get away with it, they are able to convince themselves it's morally correct.

It really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

But it makes you wonder how much of this went on undetected before the internet made information so easily shared.