Sunday, April 1, 2012

Non non-fiction: How much does truth matter in storytelling?

Be forewarned: This post will ramble, is made up of thoughts off the top of my head and will likely provide more questions than answers.

A couple of weeks ago, I learned about two things that happened about five years apart but deal with the same basic topic: how much does truth matter? Or, in strictly literary terms (which is mostly what we're dealing with here): when does fiction become nonfiction?

Let's start back in 2007. I found this article from The New Republic about author/storyteller David Sedaris. If you don't know Sedaris, he's the author of many books of short, supposedly true, and mostly funny stories about his family, growing up in Raleigh, his adventures during and after college and dealing with his homosexuality. His books are usually labeled "nonfiction."

I've read two of Sedaris' books - Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day - and loved both.  I'm willing to give some license to a memoir when it's about a time many years earlier. The dialogue isn't going to be exact and the timeline of events may not be perfect.  But some of the stories seemed too good to be true.

Apparently Alex Heard at The New Republic thought the same thing. Heard went back and researched many of the stories and found that a good number were, at least, greatly exaggerated (read the article for specific examples).

Heard confronted Sedaris about it. Here's what he said.

"... he certainly doesn't see himself as a journalist. In interviews, he's groaned about the time Esquire sent him to cover life at a morgue in Phoenix. The problem: He had to restrict himself to what actually happened. "I couldn't exaggerate at all," he told an interviewer. "It gave me a whole new appreciation for people who can honestly tell the truth, because people just didn't always say what I wanted them to." For Sedaris, it's all about telling "good stories." During our conversation, he told me he wouldn't care a bit if he found out that Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes was written by "some guy in Montana who made the whole thing up," because the tale he spins is so beautiful.  
"OK, but last time I checked, you're supposed to call that fiction. Sedaris honestly doesn't see the difference, and his audience isn't complaining. Should that be good enough for the rest of us?"

To be clear, Heard and I are not comparing Sedaris to a James Frey or Jayson Blair. I still like Sedaris' work. He's a wonderful writer and storyteller. But now that I know some of his stories are, at minimum, bending the truth, I'm going to wonder about it with each story I read.

So my question is: Should these books be nonfiction? Does it change the stories if they are marked as fiction? If the reader goes in thinking the stories are real, does it change how he/she enjoys or understands them?

The same day, I heard a slightly different example of the same problem. The NPR radio show This American Life devoted an entire episode earlier this year to a story about factories in China that manufacture Apple products like iPads and iPhones. The story was adapted from a one-man show by Mike Daisey called "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."

To sum it up, the story talked about poor labor conditions in these factories, where workers were being overworked, hurt and exposed to dangerous chemicals. Daisey went to China and interviewed workers. He supposedly did his research. It's obvious that this is a subject he cares deeply about.

A few weeks later, TAL retracted the episode citing "numerous fabrications." The show devoted another hour to finding out the truth by talking to Daisey's translator and Daisey himself.

(Both of these episodes are online and worth a listen.)

Daisey claimed in his show to see things first-hand that he didn't. It's not to say they didn't happen, but it was hearsay. Host Ira Glass said in the retraction show that the show's staff stressed to Daisey that they were fact-checking this story as if it were a piece of journalism. The fact checking fell short when Daisey lied about his translator and the show's producers were not able to get in touch with her to corroborate his story. Another NPR producer found her and his interview with her can be found on the retraction episode.

The points Glass spends much of the show harping on with Daisey may seem minor, but his point is that when a piece is being presented journalistically it can't have any fabrications. Fabrications, no matter how small, undermine the journalistic credibility of the entire piece.

But Daisey isn't a journalist and never claimed to be, which is what he uses as his defense. He's trying to tell his audience what is happening in the factories in an engaging way. Sometimes that means stretching the truth or lying about seeing something.

Daisey runs into trouble when he repeats some of these claims in news interviews and later apologizes for the way the story was presented.

The fact is that much of his story is true and it's an important issue. It was easily the most popular episode TAL has had in a while. So do the fabrications take away from the story as a whole? Would his story had been weaker if instead of saying he saw things he said he heard about them? At what point do those small fabrications tarnish the whole story? How will the revelation of the fabrications affect the way the show is received in the future?

How much does the truth matter in these situations?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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