If there’s one thing I never want to be, it’s a liar.
I’ve said many times to many people, “I do not lie.” Sometimes they look at me funny. “But you’re a writer,” they say. “All writers lie.” Trust me, I’m aware of the contradiction, but I stand by my original statement.
Reality can be a fluid thing. Memory, a subjective, slippery lens. I often confuse dream memories with waking memories. I have, in the past, gotten wrapped up in whole universes built on other people’s compulsive lies and my own faulty perceptions. I have become almost phobic about lies and lying, which may explain why I gravitate towards writing fiction. In writing nonfiction, I’m often afraid of all the things I might accidentally skew.
A few semesters ago, I took a fantastic seminar with Greg Martin on works which blurred the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Among other things, we read Lauren Slater’s memoir, Lying. As the name would suggest, it is based almost entirely off of lies. Even though, throughout the seminar, we explored various ways of interpreting “concrete” truths, story truths, emotional truths, and everything in between to twist our stories for artistic effect, I never got comfortable with lying. I was no Slater. I admired her, but I knew I would never have the guts to go as far as she went. I had no reason to.
I was reminded of this class the other afternoon when listening to This American Life’s retraction of their story “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.” Turns out that Daisey’s monologue about the horrific conditions in Chinese factories that supply Apple is largely fictionalized, and that caused quite a stir since the story was put out under the journalistic standards of “truth.” Daisey came onto the show for an interview and, although the host, Ira Glass, kept fishing for a complete public apology and an admission of Daisey’s lies, he insisted throughout that everything in the monologue was “true.” Maybe some of the events didn’t happen in the order he presented them. Maybe some of the people were composites. But everything happened, he said, more or less. Everything was “true to his experience” in China, and he wanted to convey that experience in a way that would reach people. Really reach them. Emotionally and viscerally. He wanted to stir them to action. As a writer, I get all that. The monologue was originally meant for the theatre, and within the context of theatre, those are legitimate claims. But here, Daisey was in the clutches of a journalistic eye and a very pissed off Ira Glass. More and more of his lies were exposed by the minute.
Part of me sympathized, but I was also horrified at Daisey’s complete inability to express his thoughts on artistic license and emotional vs. factual credibility. Throughout the interview, he continued to lie himself into corners and sounded more and more insane. In the end, all parties concluded that the monologue never should have been aired on This American Life. It had no place within journalism. As a writer, I could care less what the monologue did or didn’t exaggerate, twist, or fabricate, but I was angry that Daisey discredited an entire community of writers who grapple with the ethics of their craft daily. I felt like any one of us who had taken Greg’s class could have done a better job of explaining ourselves than Daisey had, but more importantly, being already mindful of our forms, probably never would have fallen into the predicament in the first place.
(If you have the time, listen to the show, if for no other reason than to learn what not to do.)
Now, I’m not some kind of truth-Nazi or anything. I don’t know what “the truth” is any more than you do. So let us all go and experiment and explore and blur every boundary that we can and twist reality and excavate the story-truths from the happening-truth. But for God’s sake, when we lie, let’s just be honest about it.
6 thoughts on “Mr. Daisey’s Story-Truth”
Excellent post, Lenore! I’d gotten wind of the Daisey/NPR before reading your FB posts the other day, but you made the retraction link available at a time I was available to listen. I agree with a great deal of what you’ve said concerning “truth” in writing, but genre becomes all-important. I expect the memoirist, for example, to aim for accuracy and convey emotional truth and, where possible, to acknowledge gaps. I understand “theatre” and writing for dramatic impact. I prefer work framed as journalism to aim for factual truth. When so-called journalists starts accessorizing their material because they believe it lacks drama, I call that lying.
And yes, Slater’s bright, slender book has its fascinating meta-qualities. O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried is a work of fiction packed with emotional truth, and part of its beauty is the reader’s inclination to perceive it as nonfiction. Despite its title, Karr’s memoir The Liar’s Club didn’t work for me because its over-compilation of details made most of the action lack credibiliity, in my view. Capote called In Cold Blood a “nonfiction novel,” acknowledging its fictional possibilities even as he counted himself a reporter.
Bottom line: Daisey didn’t have to do that. Even the people who question the reliability of his interpreter in China should still be appalled at his unearned “license.” And like you, I find his inability to defend that “license,” well, indefensible.
You got my head to thinking even before coffee this morning!
Excellent post… have you been following the D’Agata kerfuffle as well?
What’s the D’Agata kerfuffle? (I wonder if I just wanted to type “kerfuffle”?)
Lenore, I think of Greg’s class all the time, especially when encountering these “truth” arguments! I actually really miss that class some (most) days.
As for the D’Agata kerfuffle (excellent word), you can read up all about it here:
I still think about that class all the time, too! It was my absolute favorite in four and a half years of UNM.
Wow, thanks for sending the link over on the D’Agata story. This post has enlightened me in more ways than one!