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.

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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