Just the Facts

Let me kick this off by saying I am a layman when it comes to the wild frontier of nonfiction—I’ve taken classes on the subject and have written a few essays, but I am still fresh to this territory. Other things I am not, include a troublemaker and a mouthpiece for editorial views of The Journal. But what I aspire to be in the following lines is someone raising a reasoned but passionate objection to something I heard the other day, from a man I have a lot of respect for: Mr. Ira Glass. I’m a big fan of This American Life, and of Mr. Glass in particular, and on the whole, in this dust up with Mr. Mike Daisey, I agree with Ira; Daisey submitted a segment of this theatrical piece The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to TAL as a piece of journalism when it was clearly not up to journalistic standards. After the fact, Mr. Glass appropriately admonished Mr. Daisey for this in a very public fashion, and he was in the right in this instance. Agreed.

Where I begin to object comes at the point in the conversation between our two misters, when Daisey, having admitted his mistake in submitting his piece to TAL, defends the work as a piece of theater (all quotes from TAL are taken from the transcript of “Retraction,” which is available on their website).

Mike Daisey: My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes—has made—other people delve.

Ira Glass: Right but you’re saying that the only way you can get through emotionally to people is to mess around with the facts, but that isn’t so.

Mike Daisey: I’m not saying that’s the only way to get through to people emotionally. I’m just saying that this piece, in how it was built for the theater, follows those rules. I’m not saying it’s the only way to do things.

Well, if they’re not going to say it, I am. The fact is, there are techniques that memoirists, personal essayists, and literary journalists employ that “mess around with the facts” to “get through” to people. The most obvious of these is dialogue. From fiction we know that having characters talk helps make an audience care about them, and that technique has been imported into creative nonfiction. While quotes need to be precisely recorded in journalism, it is understood that dialogue in creative nonfiction is re-created, though we trust the author to attempt to be true to the spirit of the comments. This is especially relevant to Daisey’s case, as he was quoting dialogue that was translated from Chinese, a language that neither he nor Glass speak. Since TAL wasn’t provided with recordings of the conversations that occurred in Shenzhen, Glass must have known that every time conversation was presented it was a re-creation, which would require a level of fabrication, though in a way that attempted to hew close to reality. Right there it seems to me, you have an element of the story that falls short of journalistic standards. (As it turns out, the dialogue between Daisey and a supposedly thirteen-year-old Chinese Foxconn employee, was one of the elements of the story that was later disputed—he says it happened, but his translator has no recollection of this).

Writers of creative nonfiction have other, more substantial means of muddying the waters of factuality—combining elements of multiple people into a single character or finding ways to reorder the timing of events (not necessarily fudging the dates, but using literary techniques like flashback or prolepsis to present events next to each other that did not actually occur as such)—and are not always hauled into the stockade for committing these acts in the service of a narrative. Annie Dillard famously invented a cat in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and yet she has not yet been stood up in front of the firing squad for it.

And the reality is that teachers of creative nonfiction encourage the use of these techniques, while admitting the gray area they create. Bill Roorbach, who was a teacher in the MFA Program at the Ohio State University for many years, wrote The Art of Truth, a wonderful creative nonfiction textbook that has been recommended to me in workshops here at OSU.

What the writer of nonfiction has is paper and a system of runny inked markings that somehow she is supposed to turn into a representation of reality that people will call true. But the marks on the page are never the reality they evoke or attempt to evoke, and never can be. A page of words is not your father, no matter how carefully those words are arranged to approximate him. A column of numbers is not last night’s baseball game. Only the game itself is the game, and the game is history, gone forever, irretrievably gone…

All writers of nonfiction use every tool at their disposal—voice, language, drama, passion, characters, literary talent—and every scrap of learning, to make their marks on paper create something in their readers’ minds that approximates experience, whether that experience be the writer’s father [or] a baseball game… (2)

But in the case of Daisey v.  Glass, trust is perhaps most important.

Readers do expect the writer to be true to something… Good faith is the key. And part of that faith is trust in a readerly understanding of the differing rules and traditions and emphases of the subgenres under the wide and inclusive and elegant rubric of creative nonfiction (Roorbach 6).

At the end of it, Mr. Daisey violated Mr. Glass’s trust, and the trust of TAL listeners (I can’t speak for his theatrical show as I’ve never been, and don’t know what, if any prefaces he gives in that realm). The degree to which Mr. Daisey fabricates and alters details, encounters, and even whole characters, does not fall into the gray, but is beyond the pale. So in this case, I agree with Mr. Glass. But there is something he says toward the end of the “Retraction” episode of that makes me squeamish:

Ira Glass: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true elements in it.

Mike Daisey: I don’t think that label covers the totality of what it is.

Ira Glass: That label—fiction?

Mike Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.

Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’

There is a black-or-white tone to Mr. Glass’ statements, that suggest that there isn’t a gray area here: it either all happened, as stated, or it’s a work of fiction. It’s the “strictly speaking” part of this that hangs me up, because there is some gray in creative nonfiction. I’m fine with the fact that Mr. Daisey included dialogue in his work, speaks as if he’s been in dorm rooms he has only seen from the outside, and guesses high on the number of workers he’d interviewed (since he says he doesn’t remember the exact number). And—this is where I’ll commit what some see as a mortal sin—if it made for a better narrative, I’d prefer to get the story that way, so long as he cleaved to the essential truths (not the facts) of his work. But Mr. Daisey went much further than this, and deviated from the facts in ways that actually seemed to twist the truth, and because of this I believe Mr. Glass is right to be upset. Again, Roorbach provides a clarifying gloss:

[V]erifiable accuracy is not one of the primary values of creative nonfiction, as it must be for traditional journalism or science. Verifiable accuracy is an important value in creative nonfiction, but sometimes, especially in personal essays, it must hold the door for the greater values of drama and character, and the peculiar artistic force of memory, and let them enter the ballroom first. And here we do run into ethics, which are as individual as voice. I believe that an overinsistence (as opposed to a reasonable insistence) on verifiable accuracy has about the same deadening effect on art as an overinsistence on conformity in style or subject. What’s verifiable isn’t always what’s true, and the writer of creative nonfiction will always err on the side of truth over facts. When verifiable accuracy takes over as the primary value in a piece of writing, we are moving away from creative nonfiction and back toward traditional journalism.

But the mores of writer of nonfiction are crucial to the trust of readers. A reader has a right to expect that what is represented as true and accurate is true and accurate (5).

This is where I am reminded of the John D’Agata hoopla, which has only just subsided. Now, I’m not a D’Agata apologist, nor am I here to re-herd any of the cat’s let loose in that discussion. But what I am reminded of is one of the most calm, well-reasoned, and insightful things I read during of all that (of which the tone of this post has been a pale and well-meaning imitation), that came from Dinty W. Moore:

Do I want a world where genre distinctions, the place of the essay in the nonfiction spectrum, and the role of artistry in nonfiction writing can be debated? Yes, I most certainly do.

But I am distressed by how John D’Agata is raising the question, by his seeming disrespect for the rest of us, his dismissal of legitimate concerns and questions, by the fact that even his discussion with the fact-checker turns out later to have been fabricated, and by his idea that art has to “trick” us (Moore).

To my eyes, the crux of that first paragraph is the word debate. And debate, is exactly what fails to happen when those who stick to old-school journalistic standards import those standards wholesale to the realm of creative nonfiction, or when it is suggested that a thorough enough fact checker (or an author who performs this function him or herself) could make the interesting and difficult questions surrounding creative nonfiction magically disappear. What the field of creative nonfiction needs—and journalists should have a voice in this, as an awful lot of them wind up writing creative nonfiction and controlling the outlets where it gets published—isn’t hard-and-fast rules, but a discussion about what is appropriate in what contexts. Since I have leaned so heavily on him until this point, I see no reason not to let Bill carry us off into the sunset.

Writers with a journalistic leaning will never be comfortable with memoirists… Memoirists will never be comfortable with science writers… Essayists will always disdain mere reporters of experience. But they are all laboring in the same salt mine, their divisions no deeper than those between formal poets and writers of free verse, which are deep enough (Roorbach 3).

Opposing camps are just camps no matter what weapons they pull out and no matter what casualties they cause or take; when it comes to literary genres, most wars turn out to be civil wars (Roobach 3).

Michael Larson was born and raised on a horse farm in the small town of Rainier, Washington. He earned his B.A. from Dartmouth College, before moving to Mutsu, Japan, where he lived and worked as a middle-school English teacher for two years. He is currently in the Creative Writing MFA Program at The Ohio State University, and serves as online editor for The Journal.