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July 19, 2009

Inside Ben Mezrich's Accidental Billionaires

accidental billlionairesThe Baltimore Sun's Jill Rosen took a look at Ben Mezrich's Accidental Billionaires, a new book about the founders of Facebook. As we noted last week, he's taking some heat for writing a narrative that mixes fact and fiction, Here are excerpts from Rosen's take on Mezrich and his book:

Mezrich, who’s 40, says he likes to live vicariously through the capers of his over-achieving characters. But, he pretty much is one himself: He graduated from Harvard. He’s published 10 books, and like the last one, his latest title is set to become a movie.

His book jacket photo shows a boyish man with wire-rim glasses and a cool leather jacket at odds with an ever-so-slightly nebbish grin. “Part of it is I am a geeky kid at heart who couldn’t get laid,” he said this week by phone from a hotel in New York. “I’m kind of like that guy in a corner who’s watching it all go on.” ...

[A]s much press as Accidental Billionaires is getting, Ben Mezrich can’t seem to dodge the claims that his non-fiction is, well, a bit on the fiction side. No one’s denying his stories are fun reads. It’s that they say they’re a little bit too fun, that some of the most salacious details have an unfortunate tendency to be unprovable.

Accidental Billionaires has Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who didn’t talk to Mezrich for the account, eating koala meat on one occasion and leaving a party with a Victoria Secret model on another. In one entirely fictionalized scene, Mezrich imagines what it would have been like if Zuckerberg really did break into a residence hall to steal data, as he thinks he did but cannot say for sure. For pages, he has Zuckerberg sneaking around, crouching in the dark, hiding behind a sofa as a couple has paragraphs worth of foreplay.

And Mezrich pumps scenes full of descriptive elements, the sort of little things one wouldn’t necessarily remember from the day before, let alone from years ago. The way an incidental streamer drifted to the floor. How someone coughed slightly. A shrug. “You have to remember what you are reading,” Mezrich says. “You didn’t pick up a textbook. You didn’t pick up a documentary. You read it in that light.”

In the post-James Frey world, critics don’t seem as willing as Mezrich would like to accept that line of reasoning. A June 24 headline on a New York Times blog entry about his book reads: “A New Book on Facebook, Some of It Fact-Based.” “The (True?) Story Behind Facebook’s Founding,” Time magazine says coyly. “Often the details Mezrich makes up are juicier than the facts that inspired the scenes,” Jessi Hempel writes in “So far, even some of the details labeled ‘fact’ in the book have been disputed.”

Mezrich readily admits that bits and pieces of the story he might not know, he “imagines” to the best of his ability. He argues that he’s not making things up so much as taking artistic liberties to make the books readable. And, he adds, he’s disclosed those liberties in authors notes at the front of each book. “There’s definitely old-world journalists who don’t get what I do,” he says. “I clearly fall under non-fiction. I don’t think anyone in the book would feel differently.”

Some folks at Facebook apparently do feel differently. The company’s spokesman Elliot Schrage has been widely quoted lambasting the book, saying it’s as believable as a Hollywood bodice-ripper. “Ben Mezrich clearly aspires to be the Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele of Silicon Valley,” he says. “In fact his own publisher put it best. ‘The book isn’t reportage. It’s big juicy fun.’ ” (Schrage quotes Doubleday publicist Todd Doughty who made that statement to a New York Times writer.)

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 11:01 AM | | Comments (2)


An interesting piece. Jill Rosen is an excellent writer.

I hope that someone will give us a first-person account of the appearance of Mezrich at the library on Tuesday. If I lived in Baltimore, I'd definitely be there.

Hi.. I recently read Accidental Billionaires and it got me thinking. What is more valuable for a software company (like facebook). 1,000 paying users or 100,000 non-paying users? What are your thoughts? View my blog post here:

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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