08/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Wages of Mendacity

In Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy asks his son why he's disgusted.

"Mendacity," comes the answer. "You know what that is. It's lies and liars."

It's the modern book publishing industry. Remember James Frey's "memoir" which turned out to be largely false? That is, the interesting stuff was false. The whole Oprah publicity machine stripped its gears over that one.

But we won't get fooled again, right?


This month, the liars are back, and lying continues to be a winning strategy. First came Chris Anderson's book, Free, The Future of A Radical Price. You know Chris Anderson. Editor of Wired Magazine, seer into the future, a muscular 21st-century thinker boldly looking around the corners up ahead of us.

That is, unless it's a lot of work.

Turns out that chunks of his book were plagiarized. And not plagiarized from good sources, like James Joyce or Albert Einstein or Vint Cerf. But from Wikipedia!

That's wrong in so many ways, but mostly because of the contempt it shows for his readers. Anderson steals material for "free" from an uncheckable reference source written by an anonymous committee of volunteers -- and he charges us $27 for it! Free for him, not us. Get it?

This writer was so lazy, so contemptuous, that he maximized the chance of his plagiarism being revealed by choosing the one source that was most likely to be consulted by readers. Why would he care? He's hot. He's cool. We're suckers.

Oh, yeah, his explanation? He HAD footnoted the book, he explained, but the publisher nixed the notes at the last minute. Anderson did a "write-through" of passages that were no longer going to be credited to other sources, but he missed a few.

I'm still working on the meaning of "write-through"? It seems to mean changing a few words in the stolen passages so no one catches the plagiarism. Sheesh. When you're in a hole, Chris, stop digging.

This week, we have entrant in the liar sweepstakes -- Ben Mezrich and his new "book" about the founding of Facebook, Accidental Billionaires. As entertainingly pilloried by Janet Maslin in the New York Times, Mezrich did not have access to the subject of his book, so he, well, he made up a lot of stuff.

But don't take my word for it. Let's enjoy Mezrich's own description of how he put the book together, as captured by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post:

"In some instances, details of settings and descriptions have been changed or imagined," Mezrich said. "Some of the conversations recounted in this book took place over long periods of time, in multiple locations, and thus some conversations were re-created and compressed."

Hey, are those, actually, conversations? Wait, there's more!

"'What I do [Mezrich explains] is I interview the people, I get the thousands of pages of court documents, and then I write it in this thrilleresque entertaining style." He creates dialogue, he said, based on "multiple people with multiple points of view" and then chooses the "most true" version.

There is a word for what he describes. It's called fiction. Gore Vidal wrote some great historical novels using that technique. Colleen McCullough, too. Another description of the technique is "making it up." But what it isn't, what it isn't close to being, is "true." Much less "most true."

Every non-fiction writer speculates a bit on what really happened, but she labels it as speculation. And every non-fiction writer lives in dread of making a factual mistake, getting it wrong in a way that budget-strapped publishers will not catch. But only the mendacious ones build their entire books on a technique that involves making stuff up.

So, what are the wages of mendacity? They are really, really good.

James Frey? Over 3 million copies sold. Chris Anderson? Sitting at number 21 on the New York Times bestseller list. Ben Mezrich? Number 5.

Who do we blame for this?

The ninny writing gurus who continue to peddle the notion of "creative non-fiction"? Please. Flay them publicly, right now.

The publishers and editors who have so little integrity that they will knowingly sell lies as truth (for the record, Anchor, Hyperion, and Doubleday)? Absolutely. Off with their heads.

The media that sponsors these fakeout artists and promotes their works slavishly? You bet.

But most of all . . . US! (Source note: This insight at least partially derived from Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo, which introduced the classic phrase, "We have met the enemy, and they are us.")

If these fakers couldn't make money by lying, they wouldn't go to the trouble.

There is only one solution. Don't buy the books. Please. Stop.