May 17, 2012 § 12 Comments
Back when Mike Daisey’s stretching of the truth on “This American Life” was all over the blogs and airwaves, more than a few of us raised our eyebrows and asked, “What about Sedaris?” Even without investigation, it seemed obvious that David Sedaris stretches his truth regularly, not to deceive so much as to amuse. This is what humorists have done, of course, as far back as Twain, and no doubt further.
But if “This American Life” is “journalism,” then how does humor writing fit? The New Yorker manages to make the distinction nicely enough. Is it just another question of “truth in labeling.”
Here’s an excerpt from the recent Washington Post article on the subject:
The immediate question is whether Sedaris’s stories are, strictly speaking, true — an important consideration for journalistic organizations such as NPR and programs such as “This American Life.” A secondary consideration is what, if any, kind of disclosure such programs owe their listeners when broadcasting Sedaris’s brand of humor.
Then there’s this: Does it matter whether a humorous writer, working on a news or nonfiction program, makes stuff up?
Unlike a stand-up comedian or a comic literary stylist such as James Thurber, who engaged in obviously implausible situations, Sedaris’s stories fall into a gray area. They are rooted in real events and populated by presumably real people, with their humor derived from Sedaris’s comic “voice.” These exaggerations and comic interjections are evident to a listener or reader, and Sedaris has attested that they are essentially autobiographical. His best-selling books, such as “Naked” and “Barrel Fever,” have been sold as nonfiction.
Except it’s not that simple.
In a lengthy investigative article for New Republic magazine in 2007, writer Alex Heard fact-checked Sedaris’s output and found that he had invented characters and concocted important scenes in some pieces. In one story, for example, Sedaris described working as an orderly in a mental hospital with a co-worker named Clarence. Although Sedaris had once volunteered in the hospital, he told Heard that he hadn’t been an orderly and that Clarence was imaginary. The magazine titled Heard’s article “This American Lie.”
According to Heard, Sedaris also invented parts of a story called “SantaLand Diaries,” about his Christmastime experiences working at Macy’s. The story has become one of NPR’s most requested features and has been replayed on the daily “Morning Edition” program every year around Christmas since 2004.
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.
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.
March 3, 2012 § 5 Comments
Memoir without a Net / Dana Norris, Shannon Cason, Kevin Gladish, Kelsie Huff, Scott Whitehair
Slam reinvigorated public poetry; could the microphone reinvigorate memoir?
I’ve never been good at acting. Every time I tried, I could always tell I was pretending. On the other hand, I’m great at reading prose—Old Testament readings on Sunday, excerpts from essays in the classroom. Watching these five readers perform today, I feel like I might have finally found my theater, much the same way I found my genre when I stumbled onto the personal essay.
So if you think memoir has trended, get ready. The folk on this panel might just have the hashtag to turn it all around. They inject attitude into their nostalgia, take you to the ledge with their humor, then let you hang in the midst of their vulnerability. It’s like This American Life without Ira Glass, without music swelling in between, storytelling on the stage.
I’m ready to give it a try. If you are, too, and you’re in Chicago, check these venues out: www.storyclubchicago.com, www.thekates.org,www.thismuchistrue.com, www.heresthestory.org, www.essayfiesta.com.
July 17, 2011 § 6 Comments
Interesting reflection on the memoirist’s dilemma from Dani Shapiro, in The New York Times this morning:
On a recent weekend morning, I set out with my son to do errands. As we drove from the post office to the health food store, he began fiddling around with the radio, looking for NPR. I reached over and turned it off. He turned it back on. I turned it off again. He shot me a look, puzzled. After all, he knew I enjoyed the fact that, at age 12, he was a fan of public radio. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
“No problem,” I said. “I just don’t feel like listening.”
I couldn’t tell him that later that afternoon, “This American Life” would be rebroadcasting an episode with a reading I did years ago from my first memoir, Slow Motion. That I was afraid a promo would come on the air, and that suddenly, improbably, horrifyingly, he might hear his mother’s voice of more than a decade earlier, telling a story of events in her life that had happened more than a decade before that, a story no parent would want her child to hear.
Essay continues here.
January 13, 2011 § 1 Comment
Jessica Papin at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management has an insightful blog post about what makes a nonfiction narrative work (and what doesn’t). For much of the post she quotes from This American Life‘s submission guidelines, so credit goes to Jessica and TAL. Here’s a bit of it:
“The material we most often reject is writing that lacks a narrative. A lot of it is good, vivid writing, but without a real story to it. Often it’s recollections about some person the writer knew, or some time in their own lives. Often there are interesting anecdotes, but without any driving question, or real conflict. There’s nothing bigger at issue and nothing surprising revealed. In many of these stories, the characters are all the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. No one learns anything. No one changes.”
Why yes, I thought.
Elsewhere on the site, in an amusing essay in which she talks about having her own work rejected repeatedly from This American Life, regular contributor Hilary Frank writes; “Specifically, This American Life is looking for stories with two main elements: the narrative action, or plot (in which one thing happens to the characters, and then another, and then another), and moments of reflection (where someone says something surprising about what the story might mean).”
The blog post is two-years-old, it turns out, but still very much on target. You can read the entire entry here.