Saturday, April 19, 2008

Thomas Kohnstamm: Lonely Planet Writer Sparks Controversy

A dilemma faced by publishers and editors of non-fiction is that the writers they deal with have much in common with those who pen fiction. Both are good at spinning bullshit.

Those who chronicle "real" events and happenings in the world normally filter what they see through the narrative lens. They focus on certain angles, sensationalize events and try to fit the facts into a neat storyline that appeals to readers. Most people understand that what they read has been hammered into a glamorous version of reality.

But in many cases, the facts as they exist are too bland to qualify for an entertaining non-fiction story. Or the writer in question lacks what it takes to present the situation in a compelling way. Either way, the temptation to simply "make shit up" proves too much for many.

The most egregious types of fraud, incompetence or corruption in any industry are a mirror image of the talents and successes of the people drawn to that particular career. Just as some of the skills that make a successful police officer are also evident in the bent copper who lays beatings on homeless people for kicks, a writer with some degree of talent also has the potential to be a skilled fabulist.

Literary Fraud

Literary fraud in various non-fiction genres has been rampant in recent years. Or more likely, the explosion of the internet has increased communication and the ability of the average person to come forward to point out inconsistencies and make claims. The "autobiographical confessional" that recounts a difficult childhood or other traumatic experience that the author courageously overcomes seems to be a type of book that attracts a disproportionate number of bullshit artists.

Who would or even could question the details of another person's life? Well, many have, and while the fallout has not been pretty for the writers who are caught out, the publicity and book sales that flowed their way probably wouldn't have been achieved otherwise.

Travel guide books also present themselves as a category ripe for abuse. The internet is awash with information on various locations and there are plenty of books already in print which cover most destinations in the world. The ability to paraphrase and confirm facts with people on the ground makes it possible to offer up supposed fresh descriptions without having ever set foot in the country in question.

Apparently, the rather disingenuous "toe touch"--in which a writer makes a one day trip to the place he is writing about so he can claim his coverage is legitimate--is no longer even necessary.

Lonely Planet Writer Confesses

Lonely Planet writer Thomas Kohnstamm claims that he made up huge swaths of the books he wrote for the travel guide publisher and boasts that he never visited many of the locations. Timed to coincide with the release of his new book, many are saying that it is simply a publicity stunt. If that is the case, no doubt it has succeeded to some degree.

However, on the heels of many non-fiction books being exposed as pure fantasy and in the midst of the internet's "gotcha" culture, Kohnstamm may find his book getting more scrutiny for authenticity than he had hoped.

A quick Google search shows that he has a penchant for getting involved in wild, nearly unbelievable situations more suited to a Hollywood script:

"In March, Thomas Kohnstamm, a 30-year-old Seattle native on assignment in Caracas, Venezuela, for Lonely Planet travel guides, walked out of a bar in a neighborhood called Sabana Grande and quickly found himself in trouble. A group of young men emerged from darkened doorways and set upon him. He was pistol-whipped and knocked to the ground, and the bandits began rifling through his pockets. Angered to learn that Mr. Kohnstamm had the equivalent of just $8, the thieves demanded his belt, his shoes, and eventually his pants.

It was at that point, Mr. Kohnstamm recalled in a telephone conversation last week from the Netherlands, that the police arrived. Armed with submachine guns, they ordered the bandits against a wall and retrieved Mr. Kohnstamm's possessions — including his ATM card. They then explained that for purposes of their investigation, they would need to know Mr. Kohnstamm's PIN. In the end, Mr. Kohnstamm said, the police shook him down for just $25,..."
Hmmmm. Certainly makes a person wonder...

Expect some kind of mea culpa from Kohnstamm in the coming weeks that is both ironic and self-deprecating, that both deflects and makes a virtue out of what he supposedly did. After all, he is appealing to the hipster wannabe set, many of whom think any attempt to romanticize your life or get attention is something worthy of admiration. Or he may just offer up one of the classic trapped-in-a-corner responses along the lines of "I was misquoted" or "taken out of context."

To be fair, he does state that the corner-cutting tactics were used because of unreasonable demands made by Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet's Response

Lonely Planet has offered up a few quotes regarding the controversy in which they come off as offended and defensive. Their immediate goal is assuring their readers that this is some kind of aberration. And how exactly do they know this? Of course, they don't. It's the first move from the playbook of "The Wrong-Headed Response to Bad Publicity."

The follow up, as demonstrated on their website, is mostly silence. However, while there is nothing on the main page about the story, Lonely Planet management is at least responding in their discussion forums. Though the integrity of that is being called into question by some posters claiming mass censorship of comments related to the uproar.

This is all in the wake of the buyout of Lonely Planet last year by the BBC. The image Lonely Planet built up over the years as the bastion for independent travelers has started to waver and depending on how they play this one, could take another hit. The BBC itself has been embroiled in a major league shitstorm of its own making regarding credibility over the past few years, so their response to this will be interesting.

Lonely Planet Seeking Authors

A few months ago Lonely Planet put out a call for travel writers on its website. Now I'm thinking that instead of submitting travel pieces and other non-fiction writing, those seeking to get a foot in the door should send in wild tales of adventure and mayhem worthy of the most over-the-top Hollywood movie.


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