Lying v. Fiction
Oh, if Plato and his good student Aristotle could just duke it out.
In 2002, David Hockney came out with a marvelous book, Secret Knowledge, in which he laid out his case for how many of the masters of painting – including but not limited to da Vinci and Velázquez – used special tricks and technology to compose their painting. The criticism of him in the art world can be summarized to a large degree as a choral response: “You’re saying they traced! You’re saying they cheated!”
This is a response that Hockney, a painter himself, anticipates in the writing of the book, and one which he unsuccessfully tried to stave off. His argument is that yes, they traced, but no, they didn’t cheat. They still composed those paintings. They still laid in the pigment and used color according to their own skill. They weren’t lazy, any more than someone who uses a ruler to create a straight line. They used the technology that was at their disposal.
His fundamental argument, however, is that they remained masters.
This past week Jon Krakauer set off a bit of a storm with his 60 Minutes interview and byliner.com release of Three Cups of Deceit, detailing his case for how Greg Mortenson, inspiring author of Three Cups of Tea, is a liar.
There are lots of things going on here. Laura Miller at Salon argues that the issue of deceit is secondary to the issue of whether or not he’s using his foundation, the Central Asia Institute, as an ATM. The press is going to run with the salacious front story (James Frey! James Frey!) at the expense of the important story, but whether or not it’s the misleading article title or bad writing on Miller’s part, her argument gets lost in the shuffle, outraging (amongst others) the otherwise level-headed Jessa Crispin at Bookslut (April 21).
The thing is, these guys aren’t just selling their stories. Inspiration, it seems, can only come from a successful and well-plotted dramatic narrative in which our heroes face their inevitable confrontation, with the outcome at least a little in doubt because it’s a true story.
The thing is, these guys (and ghost-writers, ahem ahem) are, like Hockney’s master painters, good writers. A memoir is, in theory, a history – a memory. Not all lives are dramatic. Why can’t we inspire without dramatic tension anymore? A good writer should be able to reach people without resorting to cheats, just like a good painter should be able to create a good painting without resorting. One question I don’t recall Hockney addressing was the proportion of paintings by, say, Velázquez in which he used a camera obscura. Was it just us, his descendants, who got worked up about those? Does anyone get upset with Shakespeare for composing not one single original story in his plays? Honestly, they’re all histories or folk tales or re-writings of other plays. Does that make him less of a great writer?
In fiction, the reader is with us in the game of untruth. In lying, I’m trying to deceive you. Jennifer Laughran says “Don’t do this.”
That’s part of the reason, I think, that we’ll focus on Mortenson’s untruths (which he denies, I should say). He didn’t lie to me about the money he might have taken. He lied to me about why he’s so great. One is an abstract betrayal, and one is personal.
P.S. The fact that Greg Mortenson’s parents were total douches to my parents and then-infant older brothers back in 1961 and sent them packing from Moshi, Tanzania in a cab bound for Arusha without so much as a “by your leave,” has no bearing on my interest in this incident.
P.P.S. True story.