Frank Sinatra Has an iPhone: On the Daisey Controversy

March 22, 2012 § 8 Comments

From former Brevity managing editor Liz Stephens:

The transcript of the interview between Mike Daisey and Ira Glass on This American Life is excruciating. Any relief I might have imagined I’d feel was absent. But I admired Ira Glass’s directness, and lack of theoretical abstraction about the issue at hand: Daisey had lied about the show he’d let Public Radio International air, letting the producers air the program as journalism.

You don’t hear Glass parsing intentionality, and he pretty much nips the genre-relevant argument in the bud.

Various blogs have pointed out wisely that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle changed workers’ conditions in America. Lincoln reportedly called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little woman who made a great war,” after she released Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Fiction is powerful stuff. It can be and is used to powerful advantage. Surely, as Lorrie Moore has argued, fiction has not lost its power, nor its cache. So why not use it more … openly?

The water is muddy over in D’Agata’s pool. I’ve read so much on both sides of the issue – his fudges were in the name of art, his fudges were justified by art whether he wanted that absolution or not, his fudges were arrogant and/or short-sighted and/or lazy writing anyway – that while I remain adamant about wanting nonfiction to be just that, I am conflicted in my feelings about D’Agata’s contribution to the conversation at large. Have I enjoyed this debate, found it fruitful as well? Yes. Do I fear he will deepen the mistrust of the form just as it is getting big enough to perhaps warrant its own shelf at the bookstore? Yes. Which is a point connected to: who is this hybrid form of writing for? College professors, who might dig critical theory and experimental whirligigs in their reading? Elite word acrobats of the written arts? Or…others? The great unwashed who just want a good read, and who’ve begun to untangle all the new wonderful long-form narrative journalism, and memoir, with a tentative suspension of disbelief? Because I like those guys.

And then there’s Mike Daisey. Maybe it’s because by reading the transcript I couldn’t hear his voice – I’ve intentionally avoided that as I wanted to deal with the facts, not my perceptions of someone’s personality – but I cringed just reading poor Daisey’s answers to Glass. “(Breathing),” the transcript reads, when the going gets tough. Daisey’s breathing, as he labors through trying to now, belatedly, tell a version of the truth that will put the blessing hand of NPR and the public back on him.

At one point, he as much as admits he’d wished that the program would pull the plug on him rather than run the show. He was stuck.

How’d he get there? One foot on safe NPR-sanctioned ground, one in the mire of a juvenile desire to get away with it?

Do you want NPR on your resume or vita? I do.

I wouldn’t lie to get it but, man, I can imagine the taste of it.

Daisey’s situation has been conflated with D’Agata’s a lot in the last few days. I’m not sure that’s fair, to either of them. D’Agata may have intended to stretch the form, or even be a sort of victim of packaging followed by aggressive self-preservation, and Daisey may have just fallen off the old truth wagon into a sea of temptation. But something in Denmark is not right here. Something about…the nature of our relationship to truth. The pure power of the real thing. The wait-for-it, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up, the truth is stranger than fiction, gosh darn it, isn’t it awesome in the world awe.

I’d hate to think we were jaded to the world. To the lesson in the tedium of days, of waiting for the right interview, deep curiosity about the facts. I wrote to a friend of mine about a week ago, on a rant about leaving complicated or clunky narrative stones unturned: “Why make the number of strip clubs in Nevada thirty-four instead of thirty-one? ‘More poetic’? Nonsense! Isn’t it perfect, really, that Nevada has no more and no fewer strip clubs than thirty-one? And how many women is that? How many customers? And if this is an averaged number, over how many years??? What kind of years make more strip clubs, which less? Couldn’t that then say something about the emotional or economic state of Nevada? And isn’t that relevant to your story…about Nevada? Don’t you want to know all this?”

Conversely, perhaps Mike Daisey’s first paragraph should have been a more hammered-out version of this: “The Apple factory looked boring. I should have been glad; I love my g#dd#mn iPhone so much I can’t remember life without it. But I also hoped for the worst, for the story that played well to crowds, and I didn’t like that in myself. So through my conflicted success-colored glasses, I could almost not see what was in fact really in front of me: the corporate version of a North Korea. The performance of a well-adjusted troupe of players. This in spite of rumors of child labor, hell-bad work conditions, even suicide. Then I walked into the front gate, and started to ask questions, and listen hard.” You know what he should have read first, right, nonfictioneers? Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.” How to write one of finest pieces ever made about not getting your lead, and still getting the story.

How worth it grappling with the facts is, for the sheer solving of it. How life is so interesting.

So. If Daisey and either D’Agata or D’Agata’s publisher (depending on what you feel the issue is there, either the author’s lyrical realism or the packaging of it) both wanted a story “better than” the truth, but both wanted to market under the label of the truth…is what we’ve got a quality control problem? Or a marketing problem? Or, most importantly and most likely, an expectations issue?

I think Colin Dickey at Los Angeles Review of Books gets it fairly right, when he says that many of us are presently “fed up with a world where facts have so little value.” But acknowledging that limitation we may presently feel due to cultural worry still doesn’t mean Daisey and D’Agata were justified, even in the name of art, in these specific pieces. Dickey makes clear that he is “not really interested in defending Lifespan, D’Agata, Fingal, or the structure of the work itself, as much as I am in defending the art form D’Agata so imperfectly represents: the essay.” I would, and do often, adamantly defend experimentation in the essay as well. Nevertheless, as the very first comment in response to Dickey’s piece attests (a thread I expect to blow up today as we all wake up), “No, I’m sorry. If we are talking about the two things as if they were equally valid ways of disseminating information, journalistic essays are not very much like storytelling. Despite using some — but only a few — of the same techniques, I am not convinced that the two genres (if each can be fairly termed a genre of one larger common thing, which I doubt) have the same aims or the same audience. How about this: I won’t fact-check your campfire story if you don’t fictionalize my 5000-word magazine essay?”

I think the debate is about “markers,” actually. About signaling the right form, in an era when we are getting twitchy about being lied to. If it looks and smells like journalism, I want it to be true.

I like the idea very much that those of us working in creative nonfiction, or other arts, might be called on to work in narrative journalism, when an evocative, metaphoric voice is desired for exploring a subject. But I don’t want to be glib about that responsibility.

Conversely, I have great sympathy for the other artists, and journalists, dipping their feet in the pool of essay experimentation.

In the meantime, I know that About a Mountain was labeled as Literature/Essay, but it was not marketed as such. I just like a little marker on the side. 4’. 10’. We’re diving in.

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§ 8 Responses to Frank Sinatra Has an iPhone: On the Daisey Controversy

  • mandylen says:

    Thanks, Liz. I have been thinking a lot lately about the timing of the D’Agata conversation (for lack of a better word) with Daisey’s forced admissions on TAL, and I also agree that they’re not the same thing, not quite the same problem. But it’s difficult to avoid conflating them when they raise so many similar questions.

    What I love about your response, and about the essay form in general, is that it doesn’t purport to have all the answers. Rather it weighs an issue, recognizes its complexity, asks questions that sometimes cannot be answered. I was really moved by the original TAL episode. But then, when relistening to parts of it when they retract Daisey’s story, I was really struck by Daisey’s delivery, how decisive it is, how his performance controls the listener’s emotional response. It is not essayistic, and now we know it’s not journalistic either. And in retrospect it comes off as rather emotionally manipulative, instructing us on how to feel. He certainly is a talented performer, but man, I don’t want to lose that “pure power of the real thing.” And I think your imaginary revision of Daisey’s piece very nicely captures how one can write a powerful, honest narrative that is as emotionally affecting as the one we’d wanted to–but couldn’t accurately–write.

  • Thank you. It’s been driving me batty that people keep bringing up D’Agata and Daisey in the same conversation when they are actually so different.

    I always think of Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir. When you choose a genre, you make a deal with the reader. D’Agata and Daisey made different deals with readers/listeners; they are not the same.

  • I love this essay, this exploration, this meditation. I especially love that you brought up Talese’s great “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” because it is THE perfect example of fidelity not only to supposedly boring and irrelevant “facts” but of going after and achieving Truth. The awesome thing about that profile is how, as you say, he wrote the real story about not getting the story. Because Sinatra was a brute and a bully.

    You show this well in what Daisey MIGHT have written. The humdrum reality crosscut perhaps with what he pictured and what he wished–the guards with guns, overtly evil, instead of humdrum capitalism, China style. Talese’s work and cnf itself have opened up such possibilities for personal reportage that goes after the story but doesn’t forget that a Self is on the trail.

    This is what I thought D’Agata was doing in About a Mountain. The strip club example you use is a good one because it is arrogant about whatever meaning resides in that exact number, whether the writer chooses to explore it or not. He was not transparent about this arrogance, even though some things (not that) were cited in the notes, which very few readers would bother with reading. So who were the notes for? For those hip enough to know that what appeared to be a sincere and righteous inquiry was at least in part a joke? On whom?

    I have hated feeling like to defend nonfiction’s status as just that, nonfiction, is not artistic, but others outside the cnf world are far more conservative and always will be. Those who police our genre range in severity in this order: practitioners of it, fiction writers, traditional journalists, and regular readers.

  • wren says:

    Since we’re discussing facts and fictions: This American Life is not an NPR show. It’s a PRI show.

  • […] Stephens at Brevity points out that Daisey could have taken Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” approach: the […]

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