The Mortenson Debacle

I have to admit, I haven’t been following the growing furor over what 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer allege to be severe factual errors and downright fabrications in Mortenson’s super-mega-best-selling… humanitarian memoir (?) Three Cups of Tea that closely, nor have I actually read the book. So I don’t really have much to say about the specifics of the case — although Krakauer’s 78-page expose is available as a .pdf at Byliner Magazine (I’m going to try to squeeze it in at some point this evening).

What I do find interesting about the whole thing, though, is 1) how eerily it resembles the James Frey fiasco a few years back with regard to his “memoir” of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction A Million Little Pieces; 2) how the social ritual of fame/fall from grace/mea culpae/rehabilitation/resumption of fame (hell, even Frey is publishing again) is so ingrained into our entertainment culture (and yes, this book counts as an artifact of entertainment culture); and 3) the desperation of the publishing industry to find the next big thing to shoot to the top of the bestseller list — no matter how implausible the story — so long as it’s a page-turner, and tells a story that is (pick an adjective) heartwarming, uplifting, inspirational, profound, etc. Side thought: do publishers ever vet “too good to be true” stories?

Of those, I think 2) is probably the most interesting, as it’s a phenomenon that seems never to die. Every time one of these stories comes along, the entertainment media falls all over itself to shame the individual responsible, knowing full well what course the story will take, and exactly how efficiently they’ll be able to make bank off it. It’s a pattern of exploitation exploiting exploitation — in this case, media (amplified more than ever by its “social” variety) exploiting Mortenson’s exploitation of his sources, audience, publisher, and donors in order to create this lurid spiral of publicity that will end up serving both the media and — in the end, provided he plays by the rules — Mortenson, while sucking the rest of us into a simulacrum of an ethical lesson about artistic integrity. Entertainment propagates entertainment all under the guise of a misplaced moralism. The media gets paid, Mortenson doesn’t really suffer anything in the end, and the rest of us get to chatter about each step of the process, from downfall to renewal.

The real “lesson,” if there is one, is to take one’s art (broadly defined) seriously enough to practice it with integrity in the first place.

Addendum: It’s also worth mentioning that Krakauer went on 60 Minutes last night with an already-prepared 78-page article ready to be posted the next day. Even the accusers are complicit in the publicity game. (h/t Kathleen Schmidt @bookgirl96 for pointing this out)

~ by Benji on April 18, 2011.

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