The dispute between Himalayan mountaineers and writers Greg Mortenson and Jon Krakauer has been cast as a dispute between fact and fiction. Recently, Mortenson’s wildly popular book from 2006, Three Cups of Tea—which narrates his failed attempt to climb K2, his kidnapping by the Taliban, and his early efforts to build schools for Pakistani children—was debunked by Krakauer in Three Cups of Deceit. As you may know, this 89-page document systematically exposes Mortenson’s story as “an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact” and insists that both Mortenson’s “books and his public statements are permeated with falsehoods.” Though his publisher has launched in investigation into the book’s claims, Mortenson has insisted on its veracity.
Despite the antithetical roles they have assumed in this drama, Mortenson and Krakauer have much in common. Like Mortenson, Krakauer has parlayed his mountaineering adventures in exotic locales into a successful writing career. Into Thin Air, his gripping nonfiction account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, popularized and epitomized a genre that has in many ways become synonymous with Krakauer: the true-life extreme survival story. Stories in this genre follow a predictable pattern: an individual sets out on an adventure, things go horribly wrong, he or she confronts the possibility death, and lives to tell an incredible story. Disaster pushes man to the edge between life and death, and a lucky few live to tell about it. This plotline rarely changes; the details are grisly, the scenarios harrowing. Yet we can’t get enough of such extreme survival stories.
Take, for instance, Lauren Hillenbrand’s latest nonfiction bestseller Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, which relates Louis Zamperini’s improbable true adventures, from shipwreck and starvation to shark attacks and torture. Zamperini’s extreme story is filtered through Hillenbrand’s capable narration, but it has much in common with other first-person survival accounts, including Aron Ralston’s 2005 book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Ralston’s book chronicles his amputation of his own arm following a bouldering accident in a Utah canyon, and was adapted into a successful Hollywood movie (127 Hours) starring James Franco, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role. In 1974, Piers Paul Read published Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, which charted the grim ordeal of a South American rugby team after their plane crashed in the Andes mountains and they resorted to survival cannibalism in order to stay alive.
Why are we so fixated with such tales, gory and clichéd as they may be? The very gruesomeness of the material is an undeniable source of fascination. Yet our national obsession with extreme survival tales stems not only from their content but the fact that they are true. Ours is a digital age of “truthiness” in which so-called reality TV is scripted and the extreme situations that Bear Grylls undergoes on his TV show Man vs. Wild are revealed to have been surprisingly comfortable. As opposed to works of fiction, true-life extreme survival stories are granted a special type of immunity and cultural authority. How do you critique the truth? The difficulty of doing so makes the marketing of nonfiction under the banner of truth even more irresistible for publishers and authors.
But strangely, what makes the true-life extreme survival story so appealing is its fictional quality. Self-amputation, hypoxia at high altitudes, shark attacks, cannibalism: this is the stuff of fantasy. As the New York Times writes of Unbroken, “some of it sounds too much like pulp fiction to be true.” Reviews of Into Thin Air insist that it “reads like a fine novel” and admit that “though it comes from the genre named for what it isn’t (nonfiction), this has the feel of literature.” “Every once in a while,” another notes, “a work of nonfiction comes a long that is as good as anything a novelist could make up.”
While the unbelievable qualities of nonfiction survival stories prompt the comparison to fiction, the book that’s generally considered the first novel written in English used truth as a marketing device to legitimate the new form of the novel. And it also happens to be an extreme survival story. In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the shipwrecked Crusoe survives alone on an island for 28 years by planting crops, taming wild animals, and enduring battles with cannibals and pirates. In various advertisements and promotional prefaces, Defoe markets his fictional novel as an incredible true-life story. The preface to the first volume reads: “the Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” In prefaces to later volumes, Defoe (speaking in the voice of the fictional Crusoe) again insists that these are “real facts in my history.” Apparently, some eighteenth-century readers believed this claim. According to Theophilus Cibber, a writer contemporary of Defoe’s, the novel was filled with so many “probable incidents” that “it was judged by most people to be a true story.” Defoe capitalized upon this ambiguity, writing two more sequels to the Crusoe story after the phenomenal success of the first edition. A century later in 1822, Charles Lamb, in a letter to Walter Wilson, describes the technique (which the scholar Ian Watt later called “formal realism”) that helped make Defoe’s novel such a hit: “Facts are repeated over and over in varying phrases till you cannot chuse but believe them. It is like reading evidence in a court of Justice.” The effect, Lamb describes, is one of the truth and nothing but the truth.
Defoe probably based his novel on the real-life story of Alexander Selkirk, an eighteenth-century sailor who survived for four years alone on an island before being rescued. Jonathan Franzen recently visited this South Pacific island (now named, appropriately, Alexander Selkirk) to experience his own Crusovian adventure, which involved re-reading Defoe’s novel on the island. According to Franzen, one of the most interesting questions associated with the origins of the English novel is this: “should a strange story be accepted as true because it is strange, or should its strangeness be taken as proof that it is false?” The genre of extreme survival stories, which, by definition, deals in the strange, sensational, and unbelievable, makes this question even more problematic and acute—and subject to exploitation by savvy writers.
Over one hundred years after the publication of Crusoe’s novel and on the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and marketed it as a true story. Published in 1838, Arthur Pym was hailed as the American Robinson Crusoe, and, not surprisingly, it has much in common with Crusoe, including a bizarre plotline, “atrocious butchery,” and an insistence on authenticity. In one of his essays, Poe himself marveled at Defoe’s literary achievement, which lay in the fact that it did not seem like one at all: “Men do not look upon it in the light of a literary performance. Defoe has none of their thoughts—Robinson all.” What Poe admires here is Defoe’s sleight-of-hand, and he appeared to want to emulate it. Poe’s own work of extreme survival fiction pretended to be Pym’s first-person account of his strange seafaring adventures. For some commentators, Poe’s hybrid work reconciled generic opposites: according to the August 1, 1838 edition of Horace Greeley’s New Yorker newspaper, “it is a work more marvelous than the wildest fiction, yet is presented and supported as sober truth.” But for other readers, Poe was just a liar. Reviewers criticized the book as implausible and fabricated. One review admired the story as a work of fiction, but condemned its being “palmed upon the public as a true thing.” William Burton, the editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, huffed that it was “an impudent attempt at humbugging the public” and that Poe “puts forth a series of travels outraging possibility, and coolly requires his insulted readers to believe his account.”
In terms of what is at stake, the Mortenson scandal may have little in common with Daniel Defoe’s or Edgar Allan Poe’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manipulations of the public and the press. Mortenson’s book was required reading for the U.S. military and is the basis upon which his entire humanitarian organization was founded. If Krakauer’s claims are validated, then Mortenson could be said to have done more than insult and humbug his readers. But then again, the market for extreme survival stories, from the eighteenth century to today, has always been driven by—and eager to exploit—the same wish: the impossible desire for truth that possesses the flair of fiction and fiction legitimated by the veracity of truth.
Image credit: Pexels/Francesco Ungaro.
Betsy recently wrote in with this question:I’m looking for some good non-fiction titles about “People and Places That Interest Us” for a 7th grade reading unit at my school. I plan to introduce Three Cups of Tea and Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. Do you have any other recommendations for page turners that 13 year olds would enjoy? My students are, by and large, strong readers. I usually book talk about 6 or 7 titles each month.Garth writes: Most of us at The Millions are passionate amateurs, rather than experts. However, we boast an asset many experts don’t: the collective wisdom of you, our audience. We weren’t sure we were qualified to answer this Book Question on our own, so we turned to Cynthia Oakes, a middle school librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a Millions reader, and (not incidentally) my mother-in-law. You may remember her from our 2007 Harry Potter interview. Here are the titles she suggested, “off the top of her head”:Rocket Boys: A Memoir by Homer HickamBorn on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel TammetEleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery by Russell Freedman (and really, anything by him…)Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji Li JiangThe Diary of a Young Girl by Anne FrankHole in My Life by Jack GantosInto Thin Air by Jon KrakauerBand of Brothers by Stephen E. AmbroseDear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenhein (Well, of course I’d include this!)The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline AlexanderCounting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn by Larry ColtonMen of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold by Michael BenavevIf you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Betsy and thanks for the help Cynthia!
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Red Lights by Georges Simenon recommended by AndrewUntil recently, I had always associated Belgian author Georges Simenon with the Inspector Maigret mysteries. Then, on the front table of my local indie book shop, I began seeing a series of seductively glossy paperback novellas from NYRB Classics, each credited simply to Simenon, each with an introduction. Move over Maigret, this was something different.In the middle of last century, Simenon wrote a number of psychological novels, what he called his romans durs (literally “hard novels”). Red Lights is a novella set in the United States, as a white-collar couple from 1950s New York City drive to Maine on the Labor Day Weekend to fetch their children from camp. The novella tracks the ensuing 24 hours with chilling acuity. The narrator is psychologically ultra-aware, digging into the mind and mental state of the husband as his life is turned upside-down. His future with his wife, his life as he’s known it – everything he’s taken for granted – is suddenly in jeopardy due to the events unfolding on the journey to Maine. An altogether different kind of mystery from the man behind Maigret.The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson recommended by GarthWhile some of the “experimental fictions” of the 1960s have gone the way of the pet rock, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates deserves a place on that decade’s honor roll, alongside Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Barth’s Funhouse. Johnson conceived of The Unfortunates as an Oulippan departure from narrative convention: a “book in a box,” whose 27 bound pamphlets may be read in any order. Together, they tell the semi-autobiographical story of an English sportswriter dispatched the the provinces to cover a soccer match. As he wanders the streets, before and after the game, the narrator finds his thoughts returning to the death of a friend who was a native of the town. The novel itself achieves a similarly bifurcated effect: while its Oulippan form is good sport, the gently melancholic stream-of-consciousness narration builds to something positively moving. Johnson himself died in 1973, at age 40. Whether due to the production expenses or to the perceived conservatism of U.S. readers, The Unfortunates wasn’t published stateside until just last year. Thanks to New Directions for this act of resurrection.Perfume by Patrick Suskind recommended by BenFrom its grotesque first pages to its orgiastic grand finale, Perfume’s narrative is bizarre, compelling and never dull. The tale of a grand guignol perfumer and his murderous quest for the ultimate fragrance, Suskind’s novel is equal parts historical novel, inquiry into the nature of evil, and meditation on smell. It may be that the written word is the only medium that can even begin to approximate our olfactory experience, and Suskind’s genius lies not so much in his brave narrative choices (multiple points of view, a decidedly unsympathetic protagonist), but in his ability to bring vivid life to the world of scent.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee recommended by MaxJohn McPhee’s incredible facility with words is evident in his ability to make seemingly any topic fascinating. McPhee has mesmerized readers with accounts of shad fishing and oranges, so it seems fitting that his the masterpiece of his prolific career takes on arguably his most boring topic of all: geology. And as if raising the stakes, he goes on at length: 660 pages. And yet Annals of the Former World, in which McPhee describes the geology of a cross-section of the U.S. and makes use of ample digression along the way, is engrossing as only McPhee’s books are. The book includes equal parts anecdote, history, and hard science, the latter delivered innocuously and effectively. Underpinning it all is McPhee’s clear joy for learning and sharing his new found knowledge.Annapurna by Maurice Herzog recommended by KevinBefore there was Into Thin Air there was Maurice Herzog, who in 1950 became the first person ever to scale a mountain higher than 8,000 meters. It was, as you’d expect, no easy feat and Annapurna is Herzog’s first person account of the expedition. How incredible was Herzog’s ascent? While today the Annapurna Circuit is the most popular Himalayan trek going, with direct flights from Kathmandu virtually to the trail head, Herzog and his team of French climbers, attended by legions of Nepali porters, had to walk for weeks to even get within range of the mountain, and once there, it took them weeks more to actually locate the peak. Herzog adopts a sly, matter-of-fact tone in the retelling, but make no mistake, he knows how to spin a good yarn and he doesn’t skimp on the final ascent, which includes all the frost bite and near death experiences we’ve come to expect from the genre. Annapurna was a sensation when it came out in 1952, eventually selling more than 11 million copies. It has fallen a little bit from view since then, but now is as good a time as any to bring it back.(See links to more Staff Picks in the sidebar.)
Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at NYU, has taken a look at the journalism landscape and determined that the craft has moved an iteration beyond Thomas Wolfe’s anointing of a New Journalism in 1973. Boynton’s book, which he has titled The New New Journalism looks at the more recent crop of in depth journalists – well-known for their long pieces in magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and for their bestselling books. A review in the New York Times describes the destinction Boynton is making this way: “If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism’s calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism’s distinguishing mark, Boynton insists.” Though the boundaries of this “new new journalism” may be fuzzy, it’s exciting to me that someone is assessing these books critically as group. My feeling is that these days books of in depth journalism tend to be more readable than most new literary fiction, and, perhaps more importantly, this “new new journalism” is able to deliver more of an impact.Boynton’s book is a collection of interviews in which he encourages the writers to discuss their methods (The New York Times review likens them to the Paris Review “Art of…” interviews.) Included in the book are interviews with writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Eric Schlosser and Michael Lewis. Here’s an excerpt of his interview with Ted Conover. The collection is also well-received in the Columbia Journalism Review, which, however, expresses a wish that the book had come with a companion anthology. I agree that this would be nice, but, failing that, I though it might be worthwhile to list some of the books that these journalists have written (if only because I would like to refer back to it myself next time I have a hankering for some of the “new new” stuff.) So, here are the interviewees from The New New Journalism and some of the books they have written:Gay TaleseThe Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & EncountersThe BridgeThy Neighbor’s WifeJane KramerLone Patriot: The Short Career of an American MilitiamanHonor to the BrideThe Last CowboyCalvin TrillinThe Tummy TrilogyFeeding a YenToo Soon to TellRichard Ben CramerWhat It Takes: The Way to the White HouseHow Israel Lost: The Four QuestionsTed ConoverNewjack: Guarding Sing SingCoyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal AliensRolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s HoboesAlex KotlowitzThere Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other AmericaThe Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s DilemmaNever a City So Real: A Walk in ChicagoRichard PrestonThe Hot ZoneThe Demon in the FreezerFirst Light: The Search for the Edge of the UniverseWilliam LangewiescheThe Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and CrimeAmerican Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade CenterSahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the DesertEric SchlosserFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealReefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black MarketLeon DashRosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban AmericaWhen Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage ChildbearingWilliam FinneganCold New World: Growing Up in Harder CountryA Complicated War: The Harrowing of MozambiqueCrossing the Line: A Year in the Land of ApartheidJonathan HarrA Civil ActionThe Lost PaintingJon KrakauerInto Thin AirInto the WildUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithAdrian Nicole LeBlancRandom Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the BronxMichael LewisMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameThe New New Thing: A Silicon Valley StoryLiar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall StreetSusan OrleanThe Orchid ThiefThe Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupMy Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been EverywhereRon RosenbaumThe Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy EnthusiasmsTravels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual InvestigationsExplaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His EvilLawrence WeschlerMr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic TechnologySeeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert IrwinVermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political TragediesLawrence WrightRemembering SatanTwins: And What They Tell Us About Who We AreIn the New WorldUpdate: Jessa at Bookslut compiles a set of links to articles by the New New Journalists.