Fabricating author Ben Mezrich isn't another Margaret Seltzer or James Frey, instead he's part of a far more serious deception. It has emerged that Mezrich invented most of the card-sharking characters in his supposed "real-life" biography, Bringing Down The House, the basis for the hit movie 21. He also appears to have manufactured the bloody beating of a gambler, the smuggling of cash at the airport using hollow crutches, the theft of a safe and the very existence of an MIT instructor. The thing is, his editors knew all about it. But they decided to market his book as a true story, and label it that way on the cover.
Inside the book, in small type, they placed a small, incomplete disclaimer that contradicted the labeling on the dust jacket. Free Press and William Morrow are shamelessly stripping the label "non-fiction" of all meaning, at least when they're the ones affixing it. That sort of institutionalized lying is far more pernicious than the freelance deception Frey and Seltzer engaged in.
The Boston Globe dug deep into Mezrich's book, about blackjack-playing MIT students, on Sunday.
Mezrich openly admitted that five of the six main characters from House are not real at all but amalgams of two decades worth of blackjack teams. And who knows whether to trust him even on that, given that he appears to have outright invented other book elements.
The one character in Mezrich's book who is not a composite, the team leader, is portrayed teaching at MIT, which he never did.
The blackjack players in Bringing Down The House smuggle large amounts of cash through airport security using "fake umbrellas and laptop computers, plaster casts and hollow crutches" and eventually by strapping it to their bodies, according to the Globe. But the blackjack team leader said he has never even heard of those techniques, much less used them.
A blue-eyed security guy following the blackjack team supposedly beats one player up in a casino bathroom, but none of the MIT blackjack players contacted by the Globe remembered such a thing happening, or such a security guy.
The best part of the Globe story is easily the weasely quotes from the author and his editors. Here's Mezrich:
"I took literary license to make it readable... The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true."
That sounds familiar.
The editorial director of Bringing Down The House's publisher, Free Press, said fabrication was neccesary to protect some players' anonymity. "There was an obvious need for privacy of some of the people involved," he told the Globe.
The editorial director seemed caught off guard that his author had stretched the truth for narrative purposes — he said that sort of thing is not OK. But he must have known he was marketing as "real-life" biography a work of fabrications, since his company included the disclaimer above.
Mezrich's new publisher, William Morrow, is even more brazen. The company is marketing supposed nonfiction from Mezrich that includes, buried at the end of the author's note, a disclaimer "that warns readers about changed names, compressed time periods, and altered identities and backgrounds. Certain characters, it goes on, 'are not meant to portray particular people.'"
Mauro DiPreta, the book's editor at William Morrow, says the disclaimer was inserted simply "to let the reader know what to expect in the book." What Mezrich does, he argues, is clearly nonfiction. "Sometimes reality is messy," he says. "I think it can be fine to streamline a story for narrative purposes."
Not everyone is happy that the idea of true nonfiction is being destroyed before our very eyes. Narrative non-fiction pioneer Gay Talese and WW Norton editor Robert Weil are quoted rebuking the practice.
But everyone actually involved with producing and potentially profiting from Mezrich's projects seems quite comfortable labeling fiction as nonfiction. They get to potentially profit from deals for movies like 21, and all they have to do is define truth the way one of Mezrich's characters does at the end of the Globe story:
"It's 90 percent true if you count things that happened to anyone," he says. "It's only about half true if you define it as actual things happening to the actual people they happened to."