Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TEMPESTS IN TEACUPS

Rather than try to organize this series of reflections on the current Krakauer/Mortenson controversy, maybe I’ll just list them.  Most important is the story at Byliner Originals.  I can find no info about “Byliner Originals” -- like who owns this online “long form journalism magazine”, who edits it, etc.  Byliner.com is a teaser splash page (bright yellow) rather than a complete website.  It’s my understanding that the “long form journalism” published here will be available from Amazon as a “short form” item for the Kindle.  The page allowed a download of the Krakauer article to my desktop MAC as a pdf.  I gather that Kindle will “play” pdf’s.  Amazon is keen to promote items on Kindle.  The writers who are “bylined” here are all authors of books that once were big sellers on Amazon, but could now use a boost.   It appears to me that the Sixty Minutes story is really advertising for this “Byliner Original” feeder for Amazon.   
By now there are many “Three Cups of Tea” posted interviews and original articles over the years.  I think I read most of them yesterday.  Some of the most interesting were articles from Outside magazine, which is dedicated to adventure, exploring, and exotic travel.   They know both men.   Also interesting was the video interview of the Pakistani man who is suing Mortensen because he realizes now that he was portrayed as a Taliban operative.

This backstage scandal is an old story that people, particularly Krakauer,  have known about for many years.   The original event around climbing K2 happened in 1993.  Mortensen began building schools in 1994.  There was a blowup with many resignations from the board of the Central Asia Institute, Krakauer’s organization, in 2002.  Why didn’t the story come out then?  Parade magazine published an article in 2003 that was the seed of the actual book.  Krakauer withdrew in 2004.  “Three Cups of Tea” was published in 2006.  Why didn’t Krakauer speak up then?  
Since “Three Cups of Tea” there have been two sequels, one by David Oliver Relin who is the co-author and probably the real writer of the original, which is in third person, very admiring of Mortensen.   Mortensen says at first he sent a query with first chapters to Viking Penguin and was told it was a great story but he was a lousy writer, so Relin -- an experienced journalist -- was recommended.    Later Mortensen also had writing help from Mike Bryan and Kevin Fedarko, who wrote the Parade mag article in 2003 that was Mortensen’s reputation maker.   Fedarko was the co-author of “Stones into Schools,” Mortensen’s second book.  Evidently Mortensen tells the story and then the co-authors ramp it up to suit the adventure standards of the publisher.  This is standard practice among many publishers.  Blackfeet authors tell me about it.  When it happened to me, I withdrew the manuscript and took it to a different publisher.  So this backstage view is pretty interesting.  
“Shelf Awareness” is one of the several book blogs that come to me daily via internet subscription.  It is about and for brick-and-mortar bookstores.  They say:  “Krakauer quoted a statement from Carolyn Coleburn, a Viking spokesperson: "Greg Mortenson's work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education. 60 Minutes is a serious news organization and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author."
Krakauer is donating the proceeds to the American Himalayan Foundation's Stop Girl Trafficking Project.”   Surely trafficking trumps schools??  Mortensen left the American Himalayan Foundation when his Central Asia Institute broke off from it.


"Using CAI funds, Mortenson has purchased many tens of thousands of copies of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, which he has subsequently handed out to attendees at his speaking engagements. A significant number of these books were charged to CAI's Pennies for Peace program, contrary to Mortenson's frequent assertions that CAI uses 'every penny' of every donation made to Pennies for Peace to support schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rather than buy Mortenson's books at wholesale cost from his publisher, moreover, CAI has paid retail price from commercial outlets such as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Buying from retailers allows Mortenson to receive his author's royalty for each book given away, and also allows these handouts to augment his ranking on national bestseller lists. (Had he ordered the books from his publisher, Mortenson would not have received a royalty, nor would bestseller lists reflect those purchases.) "

But it’s important to note that Mortenson is not the only one getting royalties:  David Oliver Relin gets some portion of the profits, however the contract is written.  His website doesn’t list Mortensen as an author of “Three Cups of Tea.”  And maybe  Viking Penguin got more money this way.  Relin is “unavailable” so far.  He is one of the founders of bungee jumping and out of the same community of journalist adventurers as both Mortenson and Krakauer.  I would be interested to know who set up the arrangement with the US military for every soldier in Pakistan to read this book, if that’s a true allegation.  I'm not sure it was Mortensen's idea, given his feelings about war, but military and adventure cultures are closely tied.
Mountaineers (I’ve known at least one) are by definition grandiose narcissists who live in a tension between team effort and their own passionate goals.  This often leads to trouble, hopefully not while on the mountain, where it could be lethal, but good for book plots, as Krakauer knows.  In his books he is more cynical than enthusiastic about these traits.  Mortensen’s wife’s father was an even more prominent climber (not writer) and his wife is a strong supporter of the schools project.
In the rubble of the publishing industry, the publishers are trying desperately to maintain the myth that they are gentlemen in tweed jackets with idealistic aspirations.  In fact, they are now money-making corporations who pander to sales.  Even chain bookstores are going out of business in part because publishers make wholesale deals with Big Box stores like Walmart who sell on the cheap.  (Not everything is the fault of the internet.)   Behind the scenes there are cutthroat arrangements about promotion, pressure on writers to change what they say, and inventive contract agreements.   Awards accrue to the Big Six, reinforcing the illusion of quality.   So far the agents who have been interviewed, including Mortensen’s, have been very diplomatic about the wonderfulness of publishers.  Viking Penguin is one of the remaining Big Six Manhattan publishers.  Imagine the dilemma of the agent:  alienate the publisher and possibly lose future deals or get Mortensen -- a major money-maker -- mad at him!  One agent said that the poor publishers simply don’t have the resources to do the background fact checking that newspapers and magazines can do.  HA.  Maybe they did decades ago.  Now newspapers and magazines throw it at the wall to see whether it sticks, the same as everyone else does.  
There’s another interesting parallel here which the radio and blog reporters not catching.  (They don’t READ.)  “The Bookseller of Kabul is a non-fiction book written by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, about a bookseller, Shah Muhammad Rais (whose name was changed)” ...  The man took her into his home for a few days and she wrote about him.  He also became very angry at the way he was portrayed and started a lawsuit against Seierstad.  People in the Third World are not so out-of-touch as they once were.  The bookseller is working on his own book.  The point of contention this time is not uneducated girls, but the patriarchal way that the Kabul bookseller treated his daughters.  Since women buy and read most of the books, it pays to have a mistreated female in the story!
And since many of those female readers are teachers, schools are also a good subject.  The problem with Mortensen is not so much that he’s lying about the number of schools or even that he didn’t provide money for teachers and materials, but that he was imposing big concrete bunkers (the illustration on Byliner.com shows a Soviet-looking building snowbound in a mountain valley) on a group of people (all those “isolated villages”) who were nomadic with good reason.  Pakistan’s high valleys are practically uninhabitable in winter, but excellent pasture in the summer.  We folks here on the east slope of the Rockies recognize the pattern.  The Pakistani government does provide schools in yurts that travel with the people.  Maybe Mortenson ought to just send yurts and books.  Or, better yet, iPads.   People sit on the ground and write in the dust because then you don’t have to pack classroom paraphernalia around on your yak.  
I’m not through with this, but I’m going to stop here today.  The Valier library had multiple copies of “Three Cups of Tea” and now I’m reading one of them.  Then I can write about the BOOK instead of author chatter.  To sum up this part:  “follow the money.”

1 comment:

Mary Scriver said...

"Byliner has raised just under $1 million in funding from Freestyle Capital, SoftTechVC and other individuals including Andrew Anker, Karl Jacob and Russ Siegelman. The company officially launches in May."

http://techcrunch.com/2011/04/19/byliner-launches-with-a-splash-aims-to-disrupt-long-form-journalism/