Sunday, September 21, 2014




Greg Mortenson, they say, is considering re-entering the controversial field of book-writing for the purpose of fund-raising, which -- naturally -- will cause an equal and opposite move from Jon Krakauer who always knows better than anyone else.  Somehow in our culture we have let “truth” become a kind of ownership.  Mortenson has the “truth” of having been there and having founded and funded the Central Asia Institute.  Krakauer has the truth of a fact-checker.  Female writers used to get their start checking facts for Time magazine.

The Great Falls Tribune, which is convinced that interacting with their readers is good for circulation (and drums up content they don’t have to pay for), runs a little quiz every day asking people’s opinions about some news subject.  Often the people split right in half.  Other times they are totally predictable.  Once in a while they are surprising.  That’s the nature of the beast.

WHY are people voting the way they are?  We’re told that Greg Mortenson, the putative author of “Three Cups of Tea” has been asked by the Central Asia Institute to return to a more active role with them, now that they’ve been reorganized, Mortenson has been audited and paid back a million dollars, and -- most crucially -- their previous $20 million level of giving has subsided to a tenth of that.  In the meantime Mortenson has had heart surgery but otherwise remained quietly in Bozeman, where a lot of mountain climbing people live.

So the vote was 7 people saying he should have a second chance, 27 saying no, and 14 people saying it all depends.  In the comments people frame their responses in terms of a choice between the credibility of Mortenson and that of Krakauer, the moral scourge of the “Outside” magazine crowd.  In a way, this is a choice between a Puritan and a Universalist, a rigid purist and an ambling nice guy.  It’s religious.  Religions of the Abramic origin all love books, so that’s where these two meet, one insisting on the literal truth and the other trying not to spoil a good story.

Most people don’t know sic ‘em about books.  I’m talking about college-educated nice people who read books all the time.  People who are trying to live moral lives and who base much of their morality on books.  They think the Bible is a book in the modern sense, but it’s not.  It’s a compendium of writing as found and edited by political patriarchs in about 350 AD.  It’s as though someone back then collected blogs into a manuscript.  If you get hold of a “Rainbow Bible”, you’ll see that some of it has been edited and added-to quite a bit.  (Each suspected author in a different color.)

What you read on this blog is NOT edited and has one author.  It is REVISED, sometimes three or four times over the course of day.  No other person looks at it and says,  “This antecedent does not agree.  This statement has no basis in fact.  You use too many commas.”  Some people like that feedback, depend upon it, and crave it as a form of attention -- but not me.  The experience I’ve had with editing has not been good.  Editors live second-hand lives.

“Three Cups of Tea” was not even WRITTEN by Greg Mortenson, who was a mountain climber and adventurer -- not a wordsmith.  He supplied information that was composed into words and sentences by a second writer hired by the editor Lee Kravitz with orders to make it exciting.  In the middle of the scandal that second writer committed suicide.  Why doesn’t Krakauer explore THAT??  There’s the mischief.  It’s a two-part source of trouble.  Kravitz himself wrote a book of penitence over mistakes he made but does not include this.  ("My Unfinished Business.")

First, the co-writer was David Oliver Relin, who did at least manage to get his name on the cover and title page, though why I don’t know, since no one pays attention to it.  He had a hard time pinning Mortenson down to specifics.  There was no journal, diary, or other guiding document.  We don’t know how much Relin deduced or guessed or invented because he committed suicide.  Not many relentless critics trigger suicides.  

Second, publishers are there to make money and push hard to do that.  Whatever it takes.  Lies, sex, exaggerations, sensation -- that’s what they think sells books and therefore that’s what they urge on authors.  Were they wrong?  Clearly they gave the public what they wanted, faux reality full of emotion.  Then they went invisible.  Along comes Krakauer and recapitulates the whole thing, adding his inquisitor’s twist, and publishers cash in again.  A burning at the stake, media-monitored and fanned.  Krakauer did not investigate the publisher.

Now the next religious element: the morality of doing good.  Everyone knows that if people are rich, they have an ulterior motive if only to get their name on a building.  So do-gooders hide behind organizations, which can offset such blood-suckers as publishers and even tax men.  We loved Mother Theresa in her so-plain sari, until we found out she had a secret hoard of money worth millions that she did not spend on the suffering, nor on herself either -- simply hoarding.  Jesus would have rebuked her.  (The proverb of the Talents and all that.)  Krakauer has no do-gooder organization behind him -- just publishers and their checks.  Plus righteousness.  And a public that loves scandal.

Another element is more submerged.  It’s charisma.  By all accounts Mortenson is a friendly, likeable, big-dog guy -- happy-go-lucky enough to make careless record-keeping quite believable.  Krakauer becomes less and less the handsome mountaineer and more of a lean-and-hungry reformer.  Which would you trust more?  How do you like your clergy?  Scolding or embracing?

Mortenson in Pied Piper mode

Of course, larger events have changed the context.  We don’t feel the same way about little girls in Afghanistan that we used to -- I mean, not with the urgent intensity we all had for a while.  It may be that if Mortenson goes back to the Central Asia Institute -- whatever that means, since they’re all sort of socially related in a relatively small town and he’s still on salary -- the moment will have been lost anyway.

“Books” are in a context more changed than that of charity.  What was once published by gentlemen on good paper, beautifully designed and bound, worthy of careful thought and line editing for perfect grammar and spelling, is now an ebook read by youngish women who work long days and need a cheap outlet, even if it describes a lot of sex -- which she is not getting.   She’s probably a high school grad, but not much more than that. Her fav kind of book is, frankly, a movie video, maybe adapted from a book.  Even bound books are infested by typos and the content is little more than extended magazine articles.  Cheap gaudy books pushed around and piled up, waiting to be read by people who have forgotten they still exist in that dark corner.   No one edits them or fact-checks.

When I first returned to Montana to be part of the then-trendy category of Montana writers, I thought I would write about the environment.  One of the first articles I wrote was informed by having ridden in the Moiese Bison Range roundup, getting to know the beasts up close and personal while helping to sort them for culling so as not to overgraze the range.  But the female editor of the enviro mag I sent it to wanted me to be against hunting buffalo near Yellowstone Park.  She did not understand “carrying capacity.”  She wanted me to say that shooting a buffalo was like shooting a Buick -- no sport in it, because they are big which she interpreted as unmoving.  (They can turn on a dime and run like a griz.)  She told me to change my article -- I did not.  So she changed it herself and printed it her way.  People who want to go into editing are into control.  People who write have a certain investment in being out-of-control.

What she thought was right was as much political as it was moral.  She belonged to a certain kind of environmental organization.  Her morality was obedience to the party line.  Along with having a few bon mots for cocktail parties in elegant mountain homes occupied a few weeks out of the year.  Liberal morality -- a status marker.  Krakauer's readership.

Krakauer in lecture mode.

Krakauer likes to write about people who are out of control so he can point out their mistakes.  Mortenson is a little out-of-control.  I see that as a plus.  I think he should self-publish or maybe blog.  The hell with making money.  Consider the lilies.

Giant Himalayan Lily


Anonymous said...

The great Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins always argued that the book belongs to the author. It was an editor's business to enhance what the author was doing, but not alter it or twist it to fit the editor's perceptions. He had trouble with his own precept when editing the prolix Thomas Wolfe, but otherwise adhered to his goal, and is revered for it even now.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

More recently, Raymond Carver -- much praised for his terse prose which was said to revitalize the short story -- turned out to have been nearly created by Gordon Lish, whose editing was so extensive that it nearly amounted to co-writing. This was kept hidden until after Carver's death.