Years from now, cultural historians, authors, and publishers will look back on the calendar year 2011-2012 as the year that attitudes toward the blurry line between fact and fiction changed.
In early 2011 John D’Agata’s About a Mountain was published to much acclaim and hand-wringing. Those of you who followed the controversy over D’Agata’s admitted conflations and inventions will probably not even finish reading this post because you’re sick of hearing about it—you have D’Agata fatigue at nearly the same level of acuteness that some experienced Abu Ghraib fatigue.
But if you haven’t been following this story, here it is in a nutshell: D’Agata admits in the notes at the back of his book that he uses composite characters (something memoirists have been doing for years), folds time in on itself in order to make the story more dramatic (again, common practice), and fudges the date of the suicide of a young boy in order for it to more conveniently intersect with a debate in the Nevada state senate over a proposed nuclear waste facility underneath Yucca Mountain (hmm).
It’s this last liberty that has caused many critics and readers to cry foul. “In reality,” D’Agata notes, “these two events were separated by three days.”
Charles Bock, writing in the New York Times Book Review, ends an otherwise glowing review by chastising D’Agata:
"To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine."
It’s also this liberty, this alleged abuse of poetic license, that spawned a subsequent book, The Life-span of a Fact, co-authored by D’Agata and Jim Fingal, a lowly fact-checker at Harper’s magazine who questioned the factualness of many details in an article D’Agata was commissioned to write on suicide in Las Vegas. The book is a record of the sometimes philosophical correspondence between D’Agata and Fingal, during the fact-checking process.
D’Agata’s defense is that as an “essayist” (not a common nonfiction writer) he is allowed to bend facts to serve the higher purposes of art. And while he makes an important distinction—to borrow from Bock’s logic—the problem isn’t solved by saying, in essence, look, this is just a technical issue that you would understand if you were an artist; don’t let it distract you from the beauty of the artifice.
In the end, Fingal and Harper’s were unmoved and the article was killed, though the nauseatingly hip magazine The Believer did end up publishing it.
Less than a month after the publication of The Life-Span of a Fact, the wildly popular This American Life radio program devoted an entire show to retracting a story they aired in January by Mike Daisey, in which he alleged that Chinese factories where Apple’s iPad is manufactured were engaging in abusive labor practices.
The broadcast, which was an adaptation of the his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, was retracted after it was discovered that Daisey had embellished and/or fabricated many of the facts he claims to have come by through assiduous reporting, including a devastating conversation he claims to have had with a Foxconn employee who had crippled his hand in one of the factories and who, despite the fact that he assembles iPads for a living, had never seen one.
It’s a movingly written and irony-drenched scene, in which the employee, dazzled by the glowing screen and shining app icons is quoted as saying, “It’s a kind of magic.”
But it simply didn’t happen.
Daisey’s defense is that things like this happened, and that furthermore he is an actor, so though his show is researched, his performance should be understood as theatre not journalism.
Before This American Life even aired the original Mike Daisey story, “Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory,” it had become the number one most downloaded episode in the program’s history.
Though it’s difficult to find out how many copies of any book has sold—that’s closely guarded info in the publishing world—the sheer amount of buzz surrounding D’Agata’s books and his attitude towards these issues, has surely translated into strong book sales, not to mention paid speaking gigs on college campuses and at writing conferences.
The thing that ties D’Agata and Daisey together isn’t that they embellish, distort, and (at times) fabricate, it’s that they and their defenders argue that the good outweighs the bad: when trying to raise awareness about serious issues such as the public health risk of nuclear waste, labor abuses by one the world’s most profitable brands, one is absolved from abiding by the usual professional ethics.
But the good outweighs the bad on another level, too: the truth of art (emotional truth, I’ve heard it called) is a more potent and efficacious form than empirical truth.
As an essayist who often writes about social justice issues from a personal perspective, I know very well the temptation to embellish and fabricate, but I also know that it’s not the reading audience that I am beholden to, it’s the subjects themselves.
In my view, the fact of their existence, of their suffering, is called into question, and therefore diminished, if I invent or artificially pump up the stakes.
Calling yourself an “essayist” instead of a “nonfiction writer,” or an “actor” instead of a “journalist,” are important and meaningful distinctions to make, but unless you are up front about how these distinctions inform how you created the work, then the audience is being manipulated.
The kicker is that such manipulation is unnecessary, if the stakes are high enough, if the subject matter is compelling. We are already pre-disposed to care about what tons of nuclear waste could do to a population and the exploitation of children by factory owners, and so the manipulation in these cases speaks more to the vanity and anxiety of the authors.
What strange creatures we are: never satisfied with things as they are; always wanting the signs and their meaning to be clearer. And we want this clarity, which is really a desire for things to be less complicated, so badly that we will distort and deceive. We will actually change the facts so that we can feel more comfortable and certain in our own skin.