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’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.’
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.