There Is No Such Thing as a 'Larger Truth': This American Life's Rich History of Embellishment
Mike Daisey has been roundly and justly castigated for selling his bullshit stories about visiting the Foxconn complex in Shenzhen, China, to This American Life. But even some of his harshest critics are buying into the idea that, in some contexts—just not "journalistic ones"—it's OK to tell little lies in service of a "larger truth."
This is dreck. All truths are the same size.
The indictment against Daisey rests in large part on the venue in which his lies were presented. Though The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs debuted in theaters January 2011, it wasn't until Daisey's monologue was retrofitted for a "journalistic" radio broadcast by This American Life a year later that the sins of his fabrications became material. As the New York Times' David Carr put it in the course of flaying Daisey, "It was a fine bit of theater. It worked less well as a piece of journalism, which is how it was represented when it was broadcast on This American Life." That was basically Daisey's defense, too: "My mistake," he told Ira Glass, "is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it's not journalism. It's theater. It uses the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc." The filmmaker David Wain, writing on his blog, sympathized, wishing that Daisey had availed himself of the "100 percent true, except for the parts that aren't" tradition of memoir.
The message is clear: We get it. We're not truth Nazis. We understand that sometimes you have to fuck with what happened a little bit to make your narrative work. You're just not allowed to do it as a journalist. Carr, again: "I am a longtime fan of This American Life, but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true. The writer and monologist David Sedaris frequently tells wonderful personal yarns on the show that may not be precisely true in every detail, but this was not a story about a family car trip gone bad."
Let's call this the Sedaris Exception. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Sedaris is permitted to "tell wonderful personal yarns on the show that may not be precisely true in every detail"—a roundabout way of saying "tell falsehoods"—without an agonized retraction. When Alex Heard, writing in the New Republic, set out to catalog the fabrications in Sedaris' too-funny-to-be-true recollections five years ago, he was literally laughed off the internet. So what? He's funny!
The Sedaris Exception is tough to argue with when it's limited to David Sedaris. He's a silly little Greek man, and anyone who would apply the standards of stringent truth to his work comes off as a pedantic dullard. (I am, by the way, a pedantic dullard.) But what about David Foster Wallace's campaign reporting? As John Bohrer points out, Ira Glass' story factory published excerpts from a 2000 Rolling Stone piece by Wallace that plainly included made-up bits—12 alpha-male political reporters who all wore uniforms of crisp blue blazers and Cole Haan loafers and who repeatedly mistook Wallace for a hotel bellman. Wallace eventually admitted as much to John McCain's campaign consultant Mike Murphy: "At one dinner, he admitted under my teasing that he made some of that stuff larger than life for comic impact," Murphy told Bohrer.
If you doubt that, go back and read "Shipping Out" and "Ticket to the Fair," two seminal nonfiction pieces Wallace wrote for Harper's Magazine in the 1990s that established his hyperliterate-self-loathing-academic-lost-among-the-diabetic-hordes schtick. In both pieces—one an account of Wallace's time on a cruise ship, the other of his day at the Illinois State Fair—Wallace encounters pitch-perfect characters who speak comedically crystalline lines and place him in hilariously absurd situations. When I taught magazine writing to undergraduates at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, I used both stories as examples of the inescapable temptation to shave, embellish, and invent narratives. I had no evidence—aside from the preposterous stories themselves—that Wallace had done so until his friend Jonathan Franzen bluntly revealed last year that "those things didn't actually happen."
It's hard to get around "those things didn't actually happen." But proponents of the Sedaris Exception—and defenders of Daisey's lies in a "theatrical context"—argue that there is something called a "larger truth." Daisey, Wallace, and Sedaris are artists—storytellers—and the narratives they construct reveal literary, artistic truths that may be undermined by a strict adherence to the mundane facts at hand. They ought to be guided in building their stories by the demands of art, not of stenography.
The problem with this argument is that the only people who ever appeal to "larger truths" are storytellers. And the reason they appeal to "larger truths" is that the ordinary, regular-sized truths with which most of us live make for boring stories. When Daisey says "that's what drama is; it's dramatizing" and explains that he invented characters because he "just wanted people to hear the story," he's saying that his monologue wouldn't have been as moving, as arresting, as praiseworthy if he hadn't cooked it a little bit. When Sedaris' defenders profess sarcastic shock at the revelation that he "exaggerates for comic effect," they are saying he wouldn't be as funny if he didn't make things up.
Neither would I! All nonfiction stories are shackled by the truth. To complain that facts get in the way, or to grant indulgences to the people who move us, is special pleading. Sedaris could present his stories in a context that didn't make claims as to their truth-value—he could try stand-up comedy, for instance. Or write fiction. But the same stories, when presented as the products of Sedaris' imagination, would ring false and flaccid. He'd be a shitty stand-up. The reason we think he's funny is that he manages to be as funny as he is with the material he claims to be working with. If an artist shows you a vibrant, multi-colored abstract painting and tells you that he made it by mixing his blood with various pigments, you'd value and experience it differently from an identical one made with oil paints. David Sedaris is essentially telling his readers and listeners, "Look! I made this just by living my life!" We experience and value it differently than if he were to say, "Here, I just made this up."
Sedaris, Wallace, and Daisey harnessed the power of actuality—the inherent force generated by saying, "I saw it with my own eyes"—to drive their stories. To the extent that they did not actually see it with their own eyes—no matter how internal or inconsequential or funny those stories are—they are liars. And even if the inventions are at the margins, those exaggerated little details are the very moments that lodge in our minds, and make us say, "Hey, did you read that David Foster Wallace piece?" That's why the David Wain it's-true-except-when-it-isn't argument doesn't wash. If the false parts are essential to making the whole thing work, then the whole thing doesn't really work. Shave those little cheats out of the "narrative," and Wallace's artful accounts of neurosis in the heart of consumer culture lose their edge. Sedaris' escapades become commonplace. And Daisey's indignation becomes sanctimony. And if the false parts aren't essential—why are they there?
Daisey got what was coming to him. But why the reluctance to throw Sedaris, or Wallace, or who knows how many other This American Life contributors whose tales Carr always assumed were not "literally true," overboard with him?
Daisey's fraud was uncovered by reducing his narrative to discrete constituent factual claims. Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz then assessed the truth-value of several of those claims by way of reference to external evidence in the form of the testimony of Daisey's translator. Is the same operation performed on all of This American Life's stories? What would happen if it were?
I asked Ira Glass and David Sedaris. They didn't answer.
Image by Jim Cooke, source photos via Getty/Wikipedia.