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The unequivocal line between fact and fiction

After a ‘Politics and literature’ panel at the NT Writers Festival, I joined a conversation with fellow panellist Robin Hemley, editor of the Iowa Review, and an audience member who was also a journalist. The conversation was about Mike Daisey’s now-infamous This American Life episode on Foxconn workers in China.

‘I was just asking Robin,’ said the journalist, ‘what he thought about the whole thing. Did you listen to the “Retraction” episode?’

I had.

‘I’m not really sure what he did was so terrible, though.’ As soon as the words escaped from my mouth, I knew I’d made a nonfiction-writer faux pas.

‘But he fabricated stuff about their lives, about their working conditions!’ said the journalist.

‘But those are the conditions those workers are subjected to,’ I replied. ‘Okay, there might not be guards with machine guns, but the other things he reported were “facts” he’d “collected” during his research. He may not have personally observed them, but does that make them any less true?’

The way Robin and the journalist were staring at me implied I was not adding anything to their conversation.

‘Besides, journalists make stuff up all the time,’ I added, in another clumsy attempt to loosen the Gordian knot that is ‘truth’ in representation.

At least, that’s my recollection of the conversation.

 

 

In an interview last week about his first published story, Stephen Pham said that he strove to write like Hunter S Thompson, who shows how ‘logic and facts are overrated in telling the truth’.

This supposed dichotomy is vexing: on the one side ‘logic and facts’, on the other, ‘truth’.

Is it ‘true’, for instance, that Thompson’s time with the Hell’s Angels ended when they beat him severely and it dawned on him – suddenly – that the outlier life on the highway-frontier was not as noble as he’d once imagined?

The first blow was launched with no hint of warning and I thought for a moment that it was just one of those drunken accidents that a man has to live with in this league. But within seconds I was clubbed from behind by the Angel I’d been talking to just a moment earlier. Then I was swarmed in a general flail.

Not quite, no. The above passage did take place, but Thompson had been separated from the club for more than six months – and was struggling to finish his book – when he tracked them down again that night. He then proceeded to get drunk and publically rebuke one of the Angels. ‘He needed that ending,’ remarked Jim Silberman, his publisher, ‘because he was really struggling with an ending for that book.’

‘Truth as facts’ versus ‘essential truth’ – where facts can be seen as inconsequential or ‘getting in the way of a good story’ – is a division journalists and narrative nonfiction writers have grappled with since Mark Twain’s days as an editor and journalist. (I use Twain as an example because he is now legendary for passing off fictional larks as news items.)

The New Journalists, among whose ranks Thompson was counted, were distrusted by traditional journalists: how could writers know what those they were reporting on – whom they referred to as characters – were thinking; how were writers getting this intimate access; how could they read so much into body language and tone; how did they get inside other people’s heads?

Thompson and Tom Wolfe &co contributed to this doubt by positioning themselves as the main character, or through the use, for example, of composite characters: creating one character from a number of interviewees or encounters over the course of researching the story (which can allow deeper characterisation and less narrative disruption).

The inverse – dividing a character into multiple characters – has also proved prickly for nonfiction writers more recently. It’s a technique Helen Garner used in The First Stone. Garner claimed it was to avoid libel. Yet in the book it gives the impression that she had more access to the ‘other side’ of her investigation – which she did not – and that those opinions were widespread – which we cannot know, because they all came from the one interviewee.

In Cold Blood, often cited as an exemplar of narrative nonfiction, is another text in which, upon close examination, all of the fragments – the interviews (which Truman Capote relied on his memory for, as opposed to, say, taking notes), the re-created scenes, the differing media accounts of the same events – do not add up to a rock-solid nonfictional account of the Clutter murders. A couple of years back, Matthew Ricketson catalogued the weak spots in Capote’s opus for Meanjin:

It might be argued Capote’s emphasis on his accuracy was a way of reassuring prospective readers, since In Cold Blood contained no endnotes, index or notes on sources. What needs to be highlighted is the discrepancy between Capote’s repeated claims in interviews and the documented sources. In one interview he said he had spent seven months in Kansas after the murders but it was actually just one. In several interviews Capote played up the thousands of pages of research notes he had taken but though 6000 pages was the figure commonly mentioned, his biographer lists it as 4000 pages and in his letters Capote refers to 4000 pages in July 1960 but early the following year that figure has shrunk to 2000.

In another interview Capote misremembered the headline of the New York Times article that had prompted his interest in the Clutter murders. It was ‘Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain’ but Capote recalled it as ‘Eisenhower Appointee Murdered’. It is not a substantial error but the Times article was a key part of the backstory of In Cold Blood and, as the English critic Kenneth Tynan tartly notes, Capote repeatedly claimed he had trained himself to remember long conversations but the percentage figure he gave for this near perfect accuracy wandered between 92, 95 and 97 per cent.

When writing techniques commonly thought of as fiction techniques – characterisation, dialogue, narrative, etc – are applied to ‘fact’, a suspicion can arise that truth has been distorted or concealed, that the point of the story is no longer to convey a set of facts to the reader. It’s a suspicion that continues to haunt nonfiction writers, as if the line between fact and fiction is unequivocal, and thus always easy to walk.

This unease stems from one of the founding myths of contemporary journalism: the belief that a journalist or writer is able to remain neutral in any given situation, and therefore capable of reporting only The Facts. Without narrative, however, such facts are stripped of context. The bulk of today’s journalism consists of continuous news cycles of stories that mimic each other in content and style. They are stories that exist in a vacuum: episodes and moments that require no backstory, no topography and no subjectivity. All they do require is fact – that is, details of the episode able to be confirmed, such as eyewitness accounts, quotes or reconstructions.

Ralph Hanson describes objectivity as an abstract ideal, one where objectivity is defined as ‘an uninterpreted presentation of the physical and social world’. It’s a writing style where the journalist or nonfiction writer is not seen to be influencing the depiction or portrayal of reality; rather, their role is to provide an official, authorised version of events. The illusion of objectivity masks or transcends the writer’s subjectivity, almost as though the writer is acting as a fact conduit, exerting little control or influence over the production of the text.

Objective reporting is a writing style that, decades before the New Journalists, the Literary Reporters – such as Egon Kisch, John Reed, Larissa Reissner, Ilya Ehrenburg, Anna Louise Strong – deliberately wrote against. To them, objectivity was a ‘bourgeois’ notion; their writing instead delved into subjectivity. Their intent was to highlight commonalities between the reader and the subject. This was in contrast to ‘paralysing the imagination’ of the reader; a result, Walter Benjamin said, of objective reporting, which purposefully ‘isolates’ the news story from the reader and their life experience.

All of this further complicates a reading of Mike Daisey’s work, precisely because he was trying to build a bridge between Foxconn worker and theatre audience, a feat made easier if the ‘facts’ of a working life were all things he – the narrator – had personally witnessed. After all, does anyone doubt that the conditions at Foxconn are as harsh as those portrayed in his performance?

Possibly even the audience themselves were complicit in Daisey’s subterfuge: we-the-audience wanted him to lie to management at Foxconn so he could gain access to a concealed world – but only if those lies privileged western audiences. (This American Life was, of course, far more culpable: they easily could have verified many of Daisey’s ‘facts’ by running the program past one of NPR’s China correspondents before it aired.)

Perhaps most tellingly, Cathy Lee, Daisey’s translator, seemed the least troubled by the Daisey exposure: ‘He is a writer. So I know what he say is only maybe half of them or less actual. But he is allowed do that right? Because he’s not a journalist.’

 

 

Postscript

Here are some facts the Fair Labor Association released in April, following interviews with over 35 000 workers at various factories in China that make Apple products:

• Employees work a lot of overtime – around three times the legal limit in standard weeks, more than five times the legal limit in peak periods
• Metal filaments can sometimes be seen hanging in the air, before they are inhaled by workers on the floor
• Unions for the 1.2 million employees are run by management
• When employees don’t meet targets, they must skip meal breaks and work unpaid overtime

The report found that conditions were in fact worse at less notorious factories, like Riteng, where the average working day is 12 hours, with only two very short breaks. Workers complained that their legs sometimes swell, interfering with their ability to walk, after such shifts. Workers at Rinteng are paid two yuan less an hour than Foxconn employees.

Riteng is the factory where an explosion in December last year injured 59 workers, for which there has been no acknowledgement or compensation.

Riteng is also the factory where there was a mass n-hexane poisoning, the one said to have inspired Daisey’s monologue.

Perhaps for the Foxconn employees and employees like us
– we who are called nongmingong, rural migrant workers, in China –
the use of death is simply to testify that we were ever alive at all,
and that while we lived, we had only despair.

a worker blog (after the 12th jump at Foxconn)

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jacinda Woodhead is the editor of Overland. She recently submitted her PhD research that examined abortion politics in Australia and nonfiction as political intervention.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Jack. You’ve got me thinking.

    The reassuring newsreader, the wise objective journalist (ideally: male), the parent state that knows what it’s best we know and how best we should know it… Gee, those good old days seem to have left their smudgy fingerprints over our imagination of what news and reportage is.

    This photo and these facts about the suffering of Chinese workers are heart-rending and frightening. The SF future we feared is here.

    ps: fun opening conversation there, by the sounds.

  2. You write: “I replied. ‘Okay, there might not be guards with machine guns, but the other things he reported were “facts” he’d “collected” during his research. He may not have personally observed them, but does that make them any less true?’”

    I’d suggest they were not “facts”, nor did he “collect” them. Nor even “report” them, in the old fashioned vernacular.

    He invented them, out of either laziness or ideological urge.

    He utterly destroyed his own credibility and damaged that of one to the best respected news organisations in the United States, one that with limited resources is battling against a tide ideological half truths.

    What NPR did in its recantation of his story was journalism, and it was inspiring to hear.

    • When you say ‘best respected news orgs in the US’, do you mean NPR, or TAL specifically? Because TAL is described as a radio show of ‘short stories and essays’, and they in fact never openly declare whether a piece is a story or an essay.

      One of my favourite TAL pieces is the poignant ‘Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens’. I’ve never had chickens or lived in an apartment building with racist neighbours, but I felt like I had when I listened to that episode. But the author, Danny Lobel, is a comedian, so, even though TAL never revealed to me whether this piece was fact, fiction or a combination, it doesn’t change my understanding of that piece and what it was about.

      For years, TAL has run the memoirist’s David Sedaris pieces, which they are now rumoured to be going fact check. Which is just plain weird. For example:

      Then a goat raised his hand and recalled getting drunk at his nephew’s bar mitzvah. The animals shook their head in sympathy. And the cat joined in, biding his time until a couple more had spoken. Then he could call the mouse a few names of his own.

      Daisey did base his story on facts – the n-hexane poisoning I link to above, the rumours about child labour, as well as observation and interviews (after all, nobody’s denying he went to China and immersed himself).

      The thing about this story that disturbed me was Ira Glass’s response in ‘Retraction’ when NYT journalist Charles Duhigg describes the demands placed on Foxconn workers daily. Glass responds:

      But to get to the normative question that’s kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when we hear this is like, ‘Wait, should I feel bad about this?’ As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad? And I don’t know that I feel so bad when, when I hear this.

      The reason TAL so got behind Daisey’s monologue originally was liberal guilt. Yet, when Glass realised that Daisey hadn’t actually witnessed this entire world with his own eyes, he was confused about what it meant for him. It made it all a bit less true, and him a bit less responsible.

      It all smacks a little of racism, and naivety, and parochialism. These are the same reasons why we get so little coverage of Afghanistan in Australia. Most days, you wouldn’t even know that we’re at war in Afghanistan; you certainly wouldn’t know that a director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was assassinated there yesterday. Because it’s not a priority for western media.

  3. Daisy may have damaged his credibility, but he did not invent the story. His dishonesty was in making it his own. A very simple distinction, so why do people continue to conflate the true story with the fabulist storytellor?

  4. Excellent post on so many levels. Bravo to you for saying “I’m not really sure that what (Daisey) did was so terrible” and saying the unsayable.
    There’s been a weird displacement going on with the Daisey stuff. The news media is full of lies every day, and somehow it was Daisey who takes the rap.
    Strangely enough last night, before I read this post, I was putting together a post of my own for OL (spoiler: this para will appear again in a few weeks and wrote:

    ” The facts of any public event with political import are generally so buried beneath the massed frippery of spin that getting to them becomes more trouble than exhuming a Pope. The public pursuit of truth is parcelled out into microscopic ephemera like the breast-beating apologetics about Mike Daisey. A lie is actually something like, ‘Austerity measures are essential to economic well-being.’ The kind of stuff Mike Daisey was coming out with is very tiny potatoes. The debate about Daisey and ‘truth’ is about as interesting as an episode of 60 Minutes. It makes us feel deeply pensive, as though our consternation has moral weight, but actually we’re just portentously stroking our beards while the world burns. The working populations of various European countries are being driven into pre-industrial levels of poverty and suffering so that the corporate rich can continue to prosper by being funded by those same workers. That is what a lie looks like. “

    • Yes, I believe that is a much more eloquent version of what I wrote above — or perhaps what I meant to write above.

      Unlike yourself however (I will insert a ? because I may be mistaken), I have been fascinated by the confusion and wrath surrounding his debunking, and the simplistic grasp it reveals we have on representation.

      • Yes exactly, that is precisely what is so interesting…
        The wrath and outrage, as though the world is an ocean of simple truth and Daisey’s action sullied it. As though stamping on Daisey stamped on deception. And as though reality is unobjectionable, always clearly labelled like a bag of spuds.

  5. I thought a lot about this tension between ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ when I was writing my thesis. I was writing fiction, so was coming at it from the opposite direction, but because the terrain I was working in is so flooded with loosely fictionalised autobiography, and saturated with calls for ‘authenticity’, I found fiction to be almost exclusively judged on the writer’s relationship to ‘facts’.

    In this context, the concept of ‘truth’ – as it is when any writer talks about ‘truth in fiction’ – seemed to become completely distorted, and at the same time, the concept of ‘fiction’ was essentially rendered meaningless.

    One of the tricky things I suppose is that it’s so easy to slide into relativism when talking about this stuff. But writing, regardless of whether it’s classified as fiction or non-fiction (which, more than anything, are essentially guides for the reader) is first and foremost a representation. Representations are essentially subjective, essentially removed from the thing itself. If you look at journalism through that lens, rather than that one about “just reporting the facts”, then the markers for good journalism shift: it becomes about putting the facts into context, which means taking into account all the influences that might shape the thing being reported, as well as putting the journalism itself into context, instead of this bleating about faux objectivity.

    I don’t know about the Daisey thing though. I think – partly for those reasons above – that if you tell the reader you’re doing one thing – journalism, for example, in which I think you have a responsibility to present actual events as honestly as possible (which is not the same as being “objective”) – and then deliberately make a whole lot of stuff up, you’re lying about your objective and your undercutting your own goal.

    What implications this has for narrative non-fiction I’m not sure. I think it’s different again from journalism in that the point is less to present events and more to engage the reader in an exploration of a particular idea or perspective.

    • Thanks Steph for the perspective from another direction. Agree that these debates are often fraught with suggestions of relativism.

      On one of your last points: Daisey’s a monologist, not a journalist. His dishonesty lay in continuing to pretend that he had witnessed all of his narrative firsthand. Which is equally compelling in theatre/nonfiction. But as Alison Croggon pointed out, this is about the audience accepting his performance as ‘literal fact’ – I mean, did anyone actually believe that Daisey takes apart and cleans his own computer, as he describes in the opening of the piece?

      His dishonesty wasn’t in the telling of the story, because it was a piece of theatre. His dishonesty was in the subsequent media interviews, in the collateral.

      But it’s a position TAL forced him in to by saying ‘all of this must have happened to you’. Anyone who writes, researches or creates knows how easy it is to convince oneself that an idea/experience/connection belonged to them.

      I agree that Daisey has to take some responsibility here. But that doesn’t make the essence of this story any less true – that is, the exploitation of Foxconn workers.

  6. What is truth? Pilate asked Jesus. Kierkegaard replied ‘Truth is an objective uncertainty passionately held in an inward appropriation process.”
    We argue over petty discrepancies in Daisey while the world goes to hell in a hand basket while the reactionaries spew lies 24/7 and laugh at our paralysis. Spend a few weeks on any assembly line and then talk to me about the errors made.

  7. “does anyone doubt that the conditions at Foxconn are as harsh as those portrayed in his performance?”

    I think this comment captures perfectly the context in which Daisy’s lies are easily excused, and in which they are so demoralizing. If we begin with sufficient certainty that _we already know_ all we need to know about Foxconn and its workers, then whether Daisy has fabricated some bullshit details is beside the point. But, although we are supposed to have no doubts, sooner or later doubts may creep in. When they do, hand-waving and excuse making prove poor tools, and we get angry with ourselves for being so easily manipulated, and at sentimentalists like Daisy for indulging us.

    • What I meant was that there’d already been a zillion articles about the suicides and working conditions at Foxconn before TAL picked up Daisey’s monologue — but people only seemed to rally behind the cause after listening to Daisey’s TAL episode. The fact is: they only cared when it was narrated to them as a white guy’s heart-rending, eyewitness account (rather than the word of, say, a Foxconn worker from the factory floor).

      But the major problem for me here is that journalists think of journalism as ‘truth’ — despite the fact that as a profession, ‘journalist’ is trusted little more than ‘politician’ or ‘lawyer’.

  8. Nice positioning and use of ‘unequivocal’ in the title, and had the whole faction argument not become preterite, the equivocal terms of the piece would have made for a deconstructionist’s picnic or a critical theorist’s playground complete with slippery slopes, swings and roundabouts, dodgem cars, house of mirrors… need I go on?

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