When Edmund Morris, a Pulitzer-winning writer and biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, essentially punted the task of producing a book about then-President Ronald Reagan by fictionalizing his own pursuit of the man, he opened a can of worms for non-fiction writing in general, and for chroniclers of current events in particular. Raked over the coals at the time for mingling fact and fancy in an effort to portray an unknowable subject, Morris’ Dutch: A Memoir Of Ronald Reagan has quietly become the model text for a new generation of writers producing sensationalist “non-fiction” and hoping for a breakout hit.
Witness The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding Of Facebook—A Tale Of Sex, Money, Genius, And Betrayal, Ben Mezrich’s attempt to cash in on the Facebook phenomenon. Former genre-fiction writer Mezrich has made several runs at the market with books whose subtitles begin “The True Story Of” and continue with Mad Lib variations on “Ivy League,” “Casino,” “Millions,” “Markets,” “Wall Street,” and “Whiz Kid.” Mining his Harvard background once again, he weaves the story of Facebook’s origins as an idea for a hotornot.com-style dating website—but exclusive to the campus, like the university’s elite social clubs—into a hyperbolic techno-capitalist romance novel, complete with faithless lovers, spurned suitors, and jilted spouses. Mezrich’s chief informant is Eduardo Saverin, one of Mark Zuckerberg’s original partners in the creation of what was then thefacebook.com. But Saverin’s bitterness over what he perceives as a calculated campaign to devalue his stake in the company and write him out of the origin story soaks the whole book in self-pity. Maybe programmer Zuckerberg is the cool, heartless opportunist Mezrich paints him as; maybe he did screw over every friend he ever had in the quest to be seen as the absolute monarch of Facebook. But since Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for the book, Mezrich has a chance to portray himself as the reluctant truth-teller, clucking over Zuckerberg’s alleged malfeasance while cackling with glee over each juicy morsel of betrayal.
There’s a fascinating book in Facebook’s origins, no doubt—one that explores the near-instantaneous transformation of undergraduates to captains of industry and helps us understand why the world was ready for the kind of social networking Facebook was designed to facilitate. But Mezrich doesn’t want to write it. He wants to start every chapter with an overbaked recreation (“Tyler felt his fingers whiten against the crystal flute of champagne…”) and spice up the saga of stock options with metaphors right out of Creative Writing 101. (“He forced his pulse to return to a steady beat, like the steady bytes and bits of a processing computer hard drive.”) In the end, Mezrich seems to have gotten what he wanted; his extended-movie-treatment of a book was optioned for the big screen before it hit bookstore shelves. Meanwhile, the opportunity to illuminate this cornerstone phenomenon of Web 2.0 goes back into cold storage, waiting for a writer with faith in his material rather than his own creative pretensions.