Dear Reader

Random musings on reading and books from a librarian in training.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A shaky house of cards

I held off posting about Love and Consequences because I felt like it might not have been timely enough. Sadly enough, another non-fiction work is drawing criticism for possibly blending the line between truth and well, fiction.

Sunday’s Boston Globe leverages some damning charges against Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich, which chronicles a group of MIT students adventures in Vegas. According to sources the Globe interviewed, certain events described in the book never happened, events were exaggerated and characters created.

The author and publisher are defending the book, saying they had a disclaimer that some characters were composites and that the timeline was altered.

From the Globe:

"The idea that the story is true," he (Mezrich) adds, "is more important than being able to prove that it's true."


Yet "Bringing Down the House" is not a work of "nonfiction" in any meaningful sense of the word. Instead of describing events as they happened, Mezrich appears to have worked more as a collage artist, drawing some facts from interviews, inventing certain others, and then recombining these into novel scenes that didn't happen and characters who never lived. The result is a crowd-pleasing story, eagerly marketed by his publishers as true - but which several of the students who participated say is embellished beyond recognition.


"When the public learns that a small piece of a supposedly nonfiction story has been fictionalized, they begin to doubt everything in that story, and when they begin to doubt a particular story then the doubts occur in their mind about whether they can trust any work, or any work of nonfiction," says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute.

Just weeks ago Love & Consequences, which was supposedly written by a former gang member who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, bouncing between foster homes, selling drugs, was exposed as a fraud. After a glowing profile came out in the New York Times, her sister blew the whistle. Turns out Margaret did not have a hard scrabble childhood, was never in a foster home and went to private school.

I realize some might argue that you really can’t compare Seltzer and Mezrich, but I think both raise troubling issues. For whatever reason, it appears writers think it’s easier to pitch non-fiction than novels. I remember reading James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was originally pitched as a novel.

These kinds of shenanigans really make my blood boil. Have a compelling story, but don’t have the facts to back it up? Then write a novel.

What these writers are doing hurts readers, publishers and fellow writers.

It’s lying. Let’s not pretend otherwise. You can dress it up any way you like, but it’s a falsehood. Seltzer claimed she was trying to bring other’s plight to light. Then work with inner-city children, help them learn how to express their stories.

When the James Frey debacle started, I sold my copy of A Little Million Pieces to the local bookstore without even reading it. I just bought Bringing Down the House at a library sale and it’s going right on That may seem a little harsh, a little reactionary. But my interest in reading it has taken a blow.

There are so many wonderful books out there waiting to be discovered that I don’t want to waste a second on something that might be built, pardon the pun, on a shaky house of cards.

What do you think?

House of Cards,

Is Bringing Down the House a fraud?

‘Margaret,’ another memoir too good to be true,,0,7904690.story

An antidote to the Margaret Joness,,1,7387611.story

This Column Is Real, But Not All Authors Stick to the Truth, Fooled Again,

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