The nonfiction trade and market forces

It was a running joke in the early seventies to begin certain sentences with "In another drug related incident..." Well, it's a different decade but the news cliches nowadays point to "In another nonfiction publishing scandal..."

The author of a hilariously hokey, preposterously bogus, nonsensically sentimental, spuriously uplifting nonfiction bestseller called Three Cups of Tea has been busted. Here's an innocuous news summary; this one's outright grisly; knock yourself out, as Google news at this hour counts 524 news articles to choose from.

Consider this bust a publicity event where the cops have put the drug stash and associated guns, knives and paraphenalia on the table. The real story, not reported, is on the demand side.

The mass-market nonfiction reader is a kind of crackhead in search of fiction-quality narratives. The "kick" in nonfiction that reads better than a novel is that "it's like, real man."

We need sociologists to study these people. Instead we get Civil War authors who serve their segment of this market with elaborately contrived master narratives, books gushing with "novelistic" anecdotes ripped out of their natural context (of diaries and letters), and stripped down "stories" featuring "characters" who amuse and entertain. The crackhouse that is Civil War history has its corner in the larger slum of nonfiction publishing, with suburbanites cruising through to score their stuff on the way to the beach. Party on dudes.

What the hell.

There's so much money involved, the nonfiction dealer would be crazy to try to sell dry analysis, abstract compiled data, or mere historiography. This Tea Cups author is said to have sold four million copies of his utterly absurd insult-to-your-intelligence products. He should be given a prize in addition to his money. He understands the nonfiction reader like nobody else does. The Civil War author wants this level of success too.

Our tea dealer was willing to cross a few lines. I commend Greg Mortenson. I say sincerely, after reading enough mutilation of context, suppression of data, and the procrustean application of master narratives to Civil War histories that I am convinced that outright lying can do no further harm to that type of nonfiction. At the same time, outright lying can give the reader so much more pleasure. It's all about the reader, isn't it?

And until we get a different reader, we're going to keep getting nonfiction - and Civil War histories - with the same "three cups of tea."