This American Slippery Slope

March 17, 2012 § 10 Comments


Numerous folks have pointed out how This American Life‘s retraction of Mike Daisey’s “reporting” on Apple resembles in some ways the recent rumbles and complaints toward John D’Agata’s fabrications and fact-shifting in About a Mountain and The Lifespan of a Fact.  Daisey, it seems, in making a claim to personal contacts and conversations that did not actually occur, agrees with John D’Agata that facts can be reshaped in order to make a nonfiction work more artful.

Here is part of an account from The New York Times:

… after hearing the radio story, Rob Schmitz, a China correspondent for another radio program, found holes in the stories Mr. Daisey told and worked with “This American Life” to disprove certain parts. The results will be broadcast by “This American Life” this weekend, as part of a full hour devoted to the retraction and the explanation.

In a report for “Marketplace” on Friday, Mr. Schmitz acknowledged that other people actually had witnessed harsh conditions at the factories that supplied Apple. “What makes this a little complicated,” he said, “is that the things Daisey lied about are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by hexane. Apple’s own audits show the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.”

… By being tarred as a fabulist, Mr. Daisey risks hurting the cause he is championing. For instance, in his theatrical show and on the radio, Mr. Daisey had described meeting mistreated Foxconn workers in southern China, relying on a translator to carry on the conversations. But in a later interview with Mr. Schmitz, the translator disputed some of the details of the meetings — like a worker whose hand was injured at a Foxconn plant seeing an iPad for the first time and calling it “magic” — and suggested that Mr. Daisey did not witness what he said he did.

When interviewed by Mr. Schmitz and Mr. Glass for this weekend’s program, Mr. Daisey said, “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work.”

Daisey’s liberties may in the end harm the case for improving conditions in China’s factories, because it gives cover to those who want to claim “none of this is real.”  This, we think here at Brevity, is the danger of D’Agata and Daisey’s slippery slope.

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§ 10 Responses to This American Slippery Slope

  • The challenge and beauty of creative nonfiction is balancing fact and art. Writing CNF is an aesthetic and ethical process, and the work carries a far different consequence in the world than fiction. I’m not arguing against the interpretation and dramatic shaping and structuring it takes to tell a good story–that’s a necessary part of the process. But you should cue the reader or audience, subtly or otherwise, when you are going to privilege imagination over fact (even questionable fact, and many facts are questionable). Fact matters. If it doesn’t, call it fiction.

  • Daisey had a “passion to be heard,” but by fabricating a part of the radio broadcast I agree he derailed the legitimacy of his entire argument. If Daisey could have been up front from the beginning that his piece on “This American Life” was based on both real and imagined events–it may still have been effective and would have avoided controversy. One of the most shocking books that helped change factory conditions in America–Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle–was published as a novel.

  • Everyone should listen to TAL’s retraction show: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction. I am especially interested in Act Two. Daisy gets very confessional (if we can believe him) before he moves toward the end of the act to take a D’Agata stand.

  • K.N. says:

    I wonder why we don’t feel similarly deceived when we find out a work of fiction is based on fact? Isn’t there the same breach of contract with the reader — the promise being “I invented all of this” — when lived experience has been presented as being imagined? Strange that we all (or almost all) so easily accept a sense of liability to which no other literary genre is beholden.

  • sandrabranum says:

    When you testify in court, you take an oath “to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I would expect nothing less from someone who claims to be writing CNF. The key word “nonfiction” implies you are telling the truth and thus you should. Anything else should be fiction and written as such.

    • K.N. says:

      The word “nonfiction” actually doesn’t tell us anything about what the genre is. It tells us what it isn’t — not fiction. Just because one is not writing fiction doesn’t mean one is automatically writing “truth.”

  • a. m. f. says:

    I just read the New Yorker’s blurb on this (they also drew the D’Agata card), stating that TAL maintains journalistic standards…. This caused me to pause, for unless things have changed from years ago, I always felt some of the stories had been tweaked for buzz factor. This made me question which parts of TAL pieces were true,and which were fiction; so, I just stopped listening. THAT, to me, is the danger of colouring outside the lines of truth. ~

  • […] story was of great fascination since I just blogged about truth in reporting after reading Brevity WP blog’s report on John D’Agata. Now, it isn’t just Brevity blogging about fact and creative […]

  • […] This American Slippery Slope « BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

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