This American Truth
May 22, 2012 9:29 AM   Subscribe

The line between a good story and a true story gets a closer examination at This American Life

Since retracting the episode Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory, This American Life has been looking more closely at the exact details of other stories they have aired. Specifically those written by David Sedaris. (MeFites thought of this perviously) Mike Daisey and others think it's too much. But what is the place of fact in a good story?
posted by FatRabbit (80 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is this why Sedaris was wearing clown makeup at the live show?
posted by roll truck roll at 9:31 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


When asked if his stories are true, Sedaris apparently says "They're true enough." True enough for Sedaris, true enough for Sedaris' purposes, but maybe not true enough for TAL.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:34 AM on May 22, 2012


Certain motherfuckers think they can fuck with David Sedaris's shit, but you can't kill the Rooster. You might can fuck him up some times, but, bitch, nobody kills the motherfucking Roster. You know what I'm saying?
posted by gerryblog at 9:36 AM on May 22, 2012 [35 favorites]


So... what does the hare think of all this? Does he feel Mr. Sedaris represented him fairly?
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:37 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I had a funny feeling that something was wrong with the story about the cat in rehab with the arsonist mouse.
posted by Garm at 9:37 AM on May 22, 2012 [18 favorites]


We've spoken with Mr. Sedaris's French interpreter, and discovered that many of his novice language errors were significantly less hilarious than originally described.
posted by theodolite at 9:38 AM on May 22, 2012 [21 favorites]


This, and I hear Mike Birbiglia sleeps like a log!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:40 AM on May 22, 2012 [17 favorites]


I find this -- the compulsion to fact-check Sedaris -- significantly funnier than I've ever found one of Sedaris's stories. Does that make me a terrible person?
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:41 AM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Well, I fail at fact checking, the hare and tortoise was Jonathan Goldstein. But trade "squirrel" for "hare" and my point stands.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:41 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know what I'm saying?

I don't think that I do?
posted by mhoye at 9:41 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is a very important distinction between Sedaris' work and Daisey's. Daisey was presenting his work as being journalistic, and as an indictment of a real company. His work explicitly demanded a real-world response, and was explicitly activist -- at his shows, he passed out information on how audiences could become activist.

Sedaris' work is presented as being novelistic, and, while it touches on his actual experiences, it doesn't make any explicit promises that it is true. He's never insisted it was, as Daisey did, and I don't think the audience expects it to be. And if it's not true, who is hurt by it?

The recent pieces he has done that are explicitly journalistic, such as those for the New Yorker, have been fact-checked within an inch of their life, by the way.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:44 AM on May 22, 2012 [59 favorites]


Heard sounds like a humorless prig.
posted by Kokopuff at 9:45 AM on May 22, 2012


In Soviet America, stories investigate journalists.
posted by nickrussell at 9:45 AM on May 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's kind of ludicrous to compare Daisey to Sedaris. Daisey was pushing a political agenda on top of being "an entertainer." As far as I know, Sedaris just wants us to laugh.

On preview: Bunny is right.
posted by BobbyVan at 9:46 AM on May 22, 2012


This is one of those moments where I don’t know what to think. Someone, anywhere, thought David Sedaris’s stories were real? That never even occurred to me. I feel like this is a joke.
posted by bongo_x at 9:47 AM on May 22, 2012 [15 favorites]


Sedaris's stuff is usually within the genre of creative nonfiction, which has different strictures around facts than journalism (memoirs often combine or create individuals for the purposes of streamlining narrative, conversations are reconstructed or imagined for purposes of same, etc.). Daisey's stuff was explicitly presented as journalism and-- crucially-- he then tried to claim that it was presented as creative nonfiction.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:47 AM on May 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


I took a creative nonfiction writing class in college, and this sort of thing is absolutely par for the course. In journalism, you must adhere to strict, physical truth. In creative nonfiction, you're allowed a certain amount of leeway, as long as it's at least nominally in support of a deeper, emotional truth.

The Daisey Incident was not an issue because his creative nonfiction performance played fast and loose with the truth... it was an issue because he misrepressented it, repeatedly, as journalism on a stage, rather than creative nonfiction.

I don't think Sedaris is as guilty of that... in fact, he was taught as an example in the class I took. (Aside: I discovered Wendell Berry in the class, which was alone worth the tuition.)
posted by gilrain at 9:49 AM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


MeFites think of EVERYTHING perviously.
posted by hermitosis at 9:51 AM on May 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Certain motherfuckers think they can fuck with David Sedaris's shit, but you can't kill the Rooster. You might can fuck him up some times, but, bitch, nobody kills the motherfucking Roster. You know what I'm saying?

You're saying they've come to snuff the Rooster?
posted by The Tensor at 9:52 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I also don't get the criticism for Sedaris embellishing - I mean, it's no different than what James Frey did, right? So what's the big deal? /popcorn
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 9:53 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


This reads like an Onion article. What's next? An image-shattering expose of how Andy Rooney was never really "frustrated" by leaky ball-point pens?
posted by PlusDistance at 9:53 AM on May 22, 2012 [15 favorites]


They're in competition with FoxNews! How freaking factual do they need to be anymore?
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:57 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


If it turns out their very short story about the dog named "Pasta Batman" was a lie all along, I'm going unleash the fury.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:59 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


BREAKING

- JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN IS ACTUALLY FUN TO BE AROUND
- SARAH VOWELL'S REAL VOICE SOUNDS LIKE JAMES EARL JONES'
- THEIR BOSS, TOREY MALATIA, DOESN'T REALLY SAY THOSE ZANY LINES AT THE END OF THE SHOW THOSE ARE JUST AUDIO CLIPS FROM THE STORIES YOU JUST HEARD
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:01 AM on May 22, 2012 [51 favorites]


Next you'll be telling me that his sister Amy isn't married to an astronaut.
posted by MegoSteve at 10:02 AM on May 22, 2012


"Once bitten, twice shy" makes sense, I guess, but only when meeting another dog.
posted by tommasz at 10:02 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm hoping that "fact-checking Sedaris" becomes another way of saying "I've run out of things to be concerned with and will now devote my attention to the least significant issue I could think of".
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:03 AM on May 22, 2012 [21 favorites]


For those unaware: You Can't Kill The Rooster.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:05 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


MOM don't come in I'm fact-checking my Sedaris!
posted by shakespeherian at 10:05 AM on May 22, 2012 [14 favorites]


Not yet having listened to the TAL episode, my initial reaction is this: If we are to take seriously the idea that there is a "journalistic truth" and an "artistic truth," we need to understand the distance between those two ideas of truth. We can't be responsible consumers of art, media, and culture if we don't examine the difference.

"Artistic truth" is going to fabricate details? Fine. All I ask is that the artist makes clear what kind of truth he or she is using. But if a work's artistic truth is greatly diminished when the audience learns how it differs from verifiable truth, then I think the idea of artistic truth is at least somewhat puffed up.

In some cases, learning the differences between artistic truth and journalistic truth might even tell us more about human nature than the artistic or journalistic work alone.
posted by compartment at 10:05 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


"I've run out of things to be concerned with and will now devote my attention to the least significant issue I could think of"

That's like the Obama birther argument!
posted by ReeMonster at 10:05 AM on May 22, 2012


I'm always dubious of Sedaris, but his sister Amy recommends those little scented beads on a commercial, and I just used them, and they do make you smell like you just stuffed a rainbow up your nose. Not sure she really loves bunnies as much as she claims, however.
posted by xingcat at 10:07 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


For those unaware: You Can't Kill The Rooster.

Somebody needs to send the TAL fact checkers an Alice In Chains CD.
posted by The World Famous at 10:08 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: We think of EVERYTHING perviously.
posted by JHarris at 10:10 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not sure she really loves bunnies as much as she claims, however.

I'm pretty sure Amy Sedaris loves house bunnies more then I love anything else ever.
posted by The Whelk at 10:12 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh man, this would have been a great rhetorical tactic for Daisey to make: when Ira Glass was pushing him, he should have said, "I'm just doing the same sort of thing David Sedaris does." That would have been super uncomfortable for Ira Glass to deal with on the spot.
posted by painquale at 10:16 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


WaterFilter: We think of EVERYTHING imperviously.
posted by Curious Artificer at 10:24 AM on May 22, 2012


So Amy Sedaris did not, in fact, eat a whole jar of mayonnaise while wearing a fat suit? Next you're going to tell me that this Dave Eggers fellow never actually auditioned for The Real World.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:27 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


My rule of thumb with regard to This American Life has been to assume that a story is at least 60% bullshit if it is by someone who also does a stage show of some kind or who has written an autobiographical book about their upbringing or experiences with religion, family, and culture. If the stories I can pick out as clearly bullshit based on my own personal knowledge of the subject matter are any indication, my rule of thumb is pretty reliable. I assume that Ira Glass, being an intelligent person of integrity, has a similar rule of thumb and that he has always figured that his entire audience does, too.
posted by The World Famous at 10:38 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is so weird. I've never thought of TAL as a factual news show. Apparently they do? And yes holding creative nonfiction accountable to a journalistic standard is insane.
posted by edbles at 10:40 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sedaris's stuff is usually within the genre of creative nonfiction, which has different strictures around facts than journalism (memoirs often combine or create individuals for the purposes of streamlining narrative, conversations are reconstructed or imagined for purposes of same, etc.)

I really don't understand this argument at all. I personally don't care if Sedaris's pieces are embellished or fabricated as long as they're funny but I imagine his friends, family members and acquaintances might feel differently about it. Someone writing about real people and events has a responsibility to them that can't be waved away by invoking some academic fad. Whether what Sedaris does is acceptable or not is a question his subjects, publishers and readers settle for themselves.
posted by otio at 10:40 AM on May 22, 2012


Heard sounds like a humorless prig.

I don't know about this. Alex Heard had perviously (this is a thing now, right? please?) written one of the funnier articles I've read on Slate about the challenges he faced in trying to get his wife to cheer for his college football team, Ole Miss. Now, was any of it actually true...?
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 10:41 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mike Daisey should probably shut the fuck up, too. His corpulence is a function of hot air and bluster, it would seem.
posted by basicchannel at 10:42 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also all those tall tales in Life on the Mississippi? Probably not true.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:45 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


People form serious opinions about their world based on the stories they hear. The nuances and the facts altered or fabricated for dramatic effect or storytelling purposes have a real impact on the way those stories are received and the opinions that people form based on those stories. When people hear or read a non-journalistic, autobiographical story on This American Life or elsewhere, they often have strong emotional responses to those stories, and those emotional responses form part of their stored knowledge about the topic and their underlying assumptions with regard to everything from cultural interactions to policymaking.

For example, how many people's opinions on religion generally or on specific religious cultures have been influenced by TAL stories? Does it matter whether or not those stories are full of bullshit? How might our opinions differ if the stories we heard and read were factual?
posted by The World Famous at 10:50 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't trust David Sedaris as a storyteller, but I'm not saying he's unethical. The quirk is too heavy in his pieces. I just do not believe them as being true in either journalistic or artistic senses. If he were forced to hew closer to the facts, if he had to push against reality somewhat more than he does, I probably would enjoy his stories more.
posted by Zerowensboring at 10:52 AM on May 22, 2012


I applaud TAL for going back and fact-checking stuff in general, but having heard both the original episode and the "we busted Daisey as a liar" episode, I really think that "Sedaris/Daisey" is a false equivalence.

1. Mike Daisey

When TAL was prepping Daisey's original story, they did a ton of fact-checking. They asked him to verify things like dates, people, the name of his translator, his travel itinerary, etc. Daisey lied to the TAL staff over and over, adding lies atop lies, and then swearing with great bluster that they were all true, each and every one of them.

Daisey not only deliberately built a carpet of lies he also defended those lies to the death. He did this in order to make Apple look bad. Every lie Daisey told was in service of that goal: to tarnish Apple's labor practices.

When Ira Glass finally confronted Daisey on air, at first Daisey stuck to his guns. Eventually Ira just asked Daisey flat out if he lied, and there is the longest, most uncomfortable silence I have ever heard on air.

Not only did Daisey lie, he acted like either a child or a madman about it. Why else would he agree to go on air in order to be raked over the coals for his lies? Ira Glass had no way to legally compel Daisey to appear on air. He asked him, and Daisey agreed to the interview.

I mean, you really have to wonder.

2. David Sedaris

David Sedaris tells funny stories. He probably bends the truth a little, in order to make them funnier, as all good story-tellers must. The point of his stories is to make people laugh, and (to be uncharitable) to make his own life seem more interesting.

When confronted, he made a coy statement which both acknowledged that he is not always entirely truthful, and made a lot of people feel a bit silly for having asked. ("They're true enough.")

There is a WORLD of difference between those two things.
posted by ErikaB at 10:56 AM on May 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's striking me that there are folks out there trying to use the Daisey incident to undermine TAL in general. Only a fool or a political enemy would pretend to take Sedaris' stories as anything other than wacky entertainment.
posted by aught at 11:10 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


The details of St Nicholas' life are actually wackier than David Sedaris would have you believe.
posted by Biblio at 11:18 AM on May 22, 2012


Only a fool or a political enemy would pretend to take Sedaris' stories as anything other than wacky entertainment.

Sure. But how do you take the autobiographical stories of Shalom Auslander, Dan Savage, or Elna Baker? Do you assume that Auslander's stories about his Jewish upbringing and primary school education are factual and then form opinions about religion based in part on what you assume are accurate factual accounts? I'm picking those three just because I can remember driving my car and saying out loud to nobody in particular that something or other in their stories could not possibly be true. But what if those stories then influence my opinions about the world?

Storytelling, allegory, symbolism, metaphor, and all sorts of things other than pure recitation of facts play important roles in educating and the forming of world views. But when the listener is not in a position to recognize the difference, particularly where the story uses a combination of fact and creative fiction, I think there's a real danger of strong opinions and even actions being formed based on bad assumptions and false assertions.

For example, stories about someone's Catholic upbringing have a certain level of cultural baggage - an implied understanding by the audience of what is exaggerated, what is important; what it really means to be raised Catholic. But then there have been stories on This American Life about my own religion that have felt not like a wink at a knowing audience in order to serve a broader purpose, but a purported "insider's view" into a strange and foreign culture, in spite of the fact that the stories have carried the same level of dramatic flourish, hyperbole, and license, without the listener having the benefit of seeing where the winks are (I'm looking at you, Elna Baker).

Storytelling as distinct from journalism only works when the audience knows and really not only gets that they're listening to a story, but understands, based on some pre-existing knowledge, just what is probably not factual. If the audience does not have that baseline of knowledge and understanding, it will necessarily interpret as factual at least some of the story elements that are, to the author or others, obviously just flourishes.
posted by The World Famous at 11:25 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Which is a long way of saying that Mike Daisey's story about the Apple factory would have been unsuitable for publication on TAL or anything else, even if it had been presented as non-journalism with all the attendant disclaimers by a very serious Ira Glass. If the audience has no innate ability to recognize where the winks, nudges, and flourishes are and thereby decode the story for its main purpose and disregard the fiction as such, then the lies survive even in the face of being called lies.
posted by The World Famous at 11:31 AM on May 22, 2012


If nobody believes anything Sedaris says anyway, then let's bill his writing as fiction and move on.

This American Life has a problem in how it labels pieces: despite all the little style-wrapped technical indicators dropped into the show, delineating the level of truthiness often left entirely to the listener. And as TAL tries to do more intriguing journalistic work, it needs to either address its labeling or abandon things like memoir-for-the-sake-of-fancy. These things, as harmless as they might seem, absolutely affect how other more-serious pieces are interpreted (and prevent the memoir-style from being effectively employed in those pieces).

To put it simply, TAL has outgrown the type of Sedaris stories that shouldn't be bothered with fact checking.

Also, The World Famous, you are saying things I've wanted to say on this topic with much more eloquence than I've been able to summon. Thanks!
posted by pokermonk at 11:33 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


TAL has outgrown the type of Sedaris stories that shouldn't be bothered with fact checking.

I agree. In the past few years, TAL has really come into its own as being some of the best journalism in any medium. The fiction and fiction-like pieces feel really dated and out of place in the new TAL.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:38 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the things I used to love about This American Life was that it was not primarily journalistic. It would blend reports, fiction, personal essay-type pieces pretty seamlessly around a theme. And it wasn't always entirely clear which you were listening to at any one time. I remember this one bit about a man, his mentally disabled brother, his girlfriend, and a pet armadillo. I was gripped by it, partly on the hook that it was a true memory. By the end I wasn't sure, and then the outro clarified that it was a story (probably the intro stated that and I hadn't been paying close attention). But it COULD have been true, and that affected me.

The newer Planet Money TAL can be very informative, but it's largely lost what made it can't-miss radio. Maybe they ran out of good themes, maybe they just got too into a groove. But at its best (IMHO), TAL is about great stories, not great reporting.
posted by rikschell at 11:44 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


My storytelling hero, Jean Shepherd, is an interesting case in the concept of empirical truth versus story truth, in that his long career as a radio novelist had him telling stories over and over, with details emerging and fading, connections made and broken and refashioned, and by the end of his career, it was hard to know what was fact, what was fiction, what sort of happened and what didn't. Because there are literally thousands of hours of tape, carefully made and archived by the people who got Shepherd, one can go back and trace out the way the tales changed, but it's all beside the point. I don't care if Flick was a real person or an evolving composite. If Shepherd was reporting on human rights abuses in Sweden, it would matter, but stories are stories, and the truth only becomes an issue because jittery legalistic types, feeling burned by the fact that Frey and AXB's wild tales were called "memoir" to compensate for lousy storytelling. Good lies don't evoke doubt, and good stories are good lies, almost to a letter.

Thing is, if someone's recounting a story from their childhood that includes dialogue and they're not Marilu Henner—they're writing fiction. It's not a deceptive fiction, which is the key point, but rather a reconstructive falsehood, because as clear and bold as childhood memories can be, you're always working to recreate the moment, not justifying the accuracy of the Scriptures.

People used to always ask me if the stories I tell are true, and the fact is that they are, moreso when I tell them well, because I've managed to cram a hell of a lot of awkward circumstances and random occurrences into forty-four years of my schlubby existence. In telling, though, I leave things out, and I pick the best possible phrasing to make the story feel like I want it to feel.

When showing off the clock tower where I work, I describe an incident where I had to call my boss to tell her that falcons broke the elevator, I'm creating a feeling by reducing what happened to its most ridiculous essence. It's a bit of metafiction I use to set up the backstory, in which peregrine falcons in Baltimore hunt pigeons, eat them on the roof of my clock tower, and leave the heads behind to wash into the roof drain. Drain clogs with heads, big storm floods the roof up to a spot that lets water pour right down, through three floors, until it drips into the 1922 control mechanism of the 1911 Otis elevator and renders the elevator inoperative.

It's true to say "falcons broke the elevator," too, and that's a funnier line.

Leaving stuff out isn't true, but it's true.

"Joe, seriously," my friends have asked. "Are those stories about your old girlfriend true?"

That's a lie, of course. No one's asked me that question quite like that, and I phrased it thusly because I have some grasp on writing dialogue in a way that makes it read true, and I'm not perpetrating a fraud by doing so, except in framing, but framing is the vile necessity of a world without telepathy—if I want you to feel what I felt in the moment I'm describing, I need to use the tools of telling the story to make that happen.

In the same way I think all people who write struggle with this issue, I struggle sometimes to figure out if I'm just fooling myself, and if I'm just a huge liar and a pathological blowhard, but I already know that that's true. Writing about truth is awkward because any good storyteller has to play the game language and convention imposes on us, and you wonder, like a magician with a bloody oversized saw, if copping to the fact that we live in worlds that are true to us and to others only as much as craft and trust can open that permeable boundary between speaker and listener will discredit us, and break that suspension of belief that we need in order to tell our stories.

I used to take the hard line, insisting that everything is exactly true, hand-on-the-good-book, scout's three raised fingers and all, but it's just such an ugly, cold place, that realm of the always-true. It's not even always-true, the always-true, because every chosen word and every carefully selected adjective is a moment where a story can turn from a sketch to a living thing, fleshed-out and breathing and full of fun and fury and fire, even in the precise region we call journalism. What's the camera angle saying? Who's the author? Who's the listener? What's the inspiration for why we're telling this.

My stories are all fictional, but then so is my life. When this moment passes, the one just ahead of the cursor in this little open window to a common daydream we share here, there's the written history and what I remember, and even the written history is subject to how open and how fair I felt as I opened my mouth to speak or flexed my fingers to type. You lie by exclusion, by leaving out details, or by writing dialogue that omits the "umm" and "uh" and stammering and random crap you say, or by flattering yourself by pretending you're not the kind of guy who's always interrupting. The world becomes slightly brighter, or lit in a golden glow, or harder, more complicated, more amusing, and more...whatever.

Still, sometimes, you have a moment of clarity, and you remember it perfectly, but it's not made of language. It's just a place and a time when you were there, right there, just in the instant and not immersed in the chatter of your inner monologue, and it is when something about the world changed for you, something raw and wonderful and full of genuine 24 carat awe.

I went for a walk one night because it was foggy out and I love the fog, and the way it brings the ceiling of the world so close that you don't have to worry about the unbearable infiniteness of things. My dog was relaxed on her lead, leaving the perfect little arc of braided nylon between us, and I paused at the corner by the Armory as a sedan rumbled by. On the front walk of the Armory, a little tree stood, and it was early enough in the season that its leaves hadn't come in yet, making it look like a huge, tangled sculpture of lines.

Behind the tree, a buzzing mercury lamp lit the fog in a cold blue-grey light, and the way the light came through the branches on the tree made the hair bristle on the back of my neck. Every gap, and every branch, interrupted the light like blades slicing up a fuzzy ball of cotton, so that the tree just radiated this glorious mass of rays, fading into the haze. I stood for a moment, noticing how every breath I took seemed to make the rays move, almost like the tree was breathing in perfect sync with me, then stepped forward.

The light changed like a kaleidoscope turned impossibly inside-out, and every move made it different and then different and then different, a three dimensional canvas of protons fleeing their electrochemical source, and as I marveled at what a beautiful thing it was, this moving work of intangible art, something occurred to me—it wasn't moving at all. My perspective on that cool, still evening was the movement, and I was seeing something in slices like frames of a film as if it was in motion, but every form and shape and contour and hard-edged cut to those rays of blue-grey light was already there, all at once, visible from any angle, but translated into something else by nothing more complicated than a step in any direction.

How you look at a thing makes the thing become what you see.

That walk, and that stopping point, are a fixed part of my memory, one of the ones that I can recount with more accuracy than most, because it's a point where a paradigm changed. Sometimes, it's a moment where your heart's being broken, or when you figure out how something works, or when you get an insight into another person that makes all the difference.

I don't relate, generally, that my dog, in the middle of my blissful moment there, arched her back and started shitting while I was having this epiphany, and that the light also made a dark tunnel of her shadow, with the little bits of motion as the crap fell and as her tail cranked like a pump handle in that hard floodlight as it always did in such incidents. I didn't incorporate that fact that there was an unusual amount of farting and spluttering involved, too, which would later make the bit with the plastic bag unusually nauseating, leading to me ending up doubled over as I kept the bile down. I leave out the sounds of the squeaky sneakers on polished wood coming from the basketball court inside the Armory, or the number of cars that actually passed by along the way, or that I was listening to Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 on my earphones and not something more meditative.

Sometimes, I relate this story with the dog excised altogether, or change the year, the season, the way I felt, or the reason I was out there, though those things change because they're less present for me, and even less so as time passes.

"Did that really happen?" asks the rhetorical device, and I have to nod.

Yes. I was there. How you look at a thing makes the thing become what you see.

When I'm successful, truthful, and when I let myself truly revisit the moment, the story is true, even when I get the details wrong. When I'm too loose with the corroboration, or a little full of myself, it loses resolution, drifting into that blowhard realm of pompous philosophical object lessons, and the reader loses a little faith in what I have to say. In everything, you have to ponder why a tale is being told. When it's just showmanship and novelty, anything can be true if the skill is there. When it's something to share because I was there, and felt those feelings, and learned something, the requirement of craftsmanship is a bit less demanding, but it's always there. The most perfectly empirical, exactly precise, overwhelmingly accurate event ever described is always subject to translation from moment into strings of sounds and marks on pages that convey some rendition of what went on.

The older I get, the truer my stories are, even when I'm recounting the ones swiftly receding into the past. When you're young and inexperienced, there's a crutch in the gory detail or the absurd circumstance, but the more you learn, the more you hurt, the more you lose, and the more you find patience trumping arrogance, the less you need to draw people in with the old Grand Guignol stage show, artlessly drawing up that raconteur's chair to hold court. When I was young, I lied and fortified and embellished because I never felt like my life was worth sharing, and the real and the surreal competed for attention, but I've had my heart broken, lost whole lifetimes of friendship, and failed on scales so grotesque as to require no elaboration. These days, I delete, I trim, I edit, and leave out the farting and the nausea for the most part, but even the best story is just a few rays radiating from a tree on a foggy night, destined to catch just enough of what made it worth telling without lapsing into physics and phenomenology.
posted by sonascope at 11:45 AM on May 22, 2012 [31 favorites]


Thing is, if someone's recounting a story from their childhood that includes dialogue and they're not Marilu Henner—they're writing fiction.

I agree with your larger point but I disagree with this, at least as I'm familiar with how the term 'fiction' is used-- it's a genre, not a description. A Million Little Pieces is still non-fiction, despite its being packed with outright lies-- it's just non-fiction filled with lies, the same as Johnny Tremain doesn't become non-fiction just because Paul Revere is in it.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:50 AM on May 22, 2012


I was genuinely surprised during the Daisey episode at the extent to which TAL fact checks their stories. I wonder whether Dan Savage or David Sedaris or others of the like get fact checked at all. How does TAL decide what deserves to be fact checked? I'd be very curious to see their internal process.

Ira Glass's pretensions to journalistic integrity rang pretty hollow to me at the time. He beat up on Daisey and then fessed to making a mistake "this one time," but the show has always featured memoir larded with fictional exaggeration, and it has never explicitly signaled which bits to take seriously and which bits to take jovially. Even the more journalistic-feeling segments tend to contain long interviews: fish tales wrapped up in newspaper format. (The trick to turning fiction into non-fiction: put quote marks around it.) Daisey's segment was totally in the TAL genre. I expect a whole bunch of TAL segments would similarly fall apart if you scratched.
posted by painquale at 11:51 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


basicchannel: Mike Daisey should probably shut the fuck up, too. His corpulence is a function of hot air and bluster, it would seem.

This FPP is about Mike Daisey standing up for David Sedaris, and pointing out that Mr. Sedaris isn't guilty of anything like what he did. Don't see why you're hating on him for that.

I'm pretty happy to hear that Mr. Daisey is not playing the jerk here.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:59 AM on May 22, 2012


perviously (this is a thing now, right? please?)

We've at least got to get some [Perviously on MeFi] tee shirts printed up for the FetLife kids...
posted by hermitosis at 12:20 PM on May 22, 2012


The thing where Dave Eggers auditioned for The Real World was a lie? God, I'm gullible.
posted by purpleclover at 12:47 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


It feels good to take a "postmodern" over-it-all approach to the Daisey controversy, but it has its limits.

Why didn't Sedaris just present his work as fiction? Much of the reader's pleasure of hearing his work comes from believing that he is speaking of events that actually happened to him. This is why his autobiographical work better than his (pretty crappy) fiction. Believing its true is what makes the work cohesive.

Don't these people have confidence in themselves as writers? Instead of misrepresenting himself, why didn't David Sedaris just promote his work as fiction? Frey and Daisey could have done the same thing. What's wrong with fiction? Why does it have to pretend to be something else?
posted by shushufindi at 12:49 PM on May 22, 2012


I think Daisey is just bringing the Sedaris example in to caricaturize his detractors.

BTW Let's remember that David Sedaris wrote a really racist piece for the New Yorker. He's a jerk. Not a relevant fact, but one that should not be forgotten!
posted by shushufindi at 12:52 PM on May 22, 2012


Daisey not only deliberately built a carpet of lies he also defended those lies to the death. He did this in order to make Apple look bad. Every lie Daisey told was in service of that goal: to tarnish Apple's labor practices.

There was one other reason for his lies, ErikaB.

Every lie Daisey told also (conveniently) made him look like a preternaturally gifted reporter!

Many news/feature journalists have labored - diligently -to cover dismal factory conditions in China, often spending years as correspondents. And often having difficulty in getting on the record sources - or access to Pulitzer-level color material.

But the amazing Daisey hits the jackpot when he meets and interviews an ex-worker with a "twisted claw" hand (his hand was horribly injured in an ipad factory accident).

Not only that, but this maimed, laid off (with no benefits) Chinese ex-worker has never actually seen a fully assembled ipad before.

Not only that, but when Daisey lets the guy hold his own ipad, the ex-worker with the claw hand strokes the screen with this very same ruined hand, and seeing the icons move back & forth - murmurs softly to the translator that "it's a kind of magic!".

It's all so very moving and truly ironic. It just didn't happen.
Which makes it revoltingly manipulative - the way Daisey tells it.

(I also think Daisey rushing to defend Sedaris really stinks. I agree with ErikaB that the two deceptions have almost nothing in common at all.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:02 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, everyone's covered the basics, but here's the thing about Sedaris. He can make anything funny. He wrote 3 or 4 pages about finding an unflushed shit. Is that implausible? Hell no. But he can write for 4 pages about this unflushed shit, and every sentence is funny. Some people have a knack for taking a rather ordinary everyday event and turning it into comedy, whether as an oral storyteller, or written. But yeah, it's not like I ever thought every single event was true, or that there was no embellishment.
posted by peep at 1:14 PM on May 22, 2012


I still contend that he never says or implies that he met anyone who'd been poisoned by n-hexane. I'm not saying the story wasn't full of plenty other lies, but that one "lie" has gotten so much attention, and I don't think he said it.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:14 PM on May 22, 2012


> Also all those tall tales in Life on the Mississippi? Probably not true.

I wasn't at all surprised to find out about In Cold Blood. But now the're trying to tell me Breakfast at Tiffany's was made up too? Holly's not real? Shiiit.
posted by jfuller at 1:20 PM on May 22, 2012


he never says or implies that he met anyone who'd been poisoned by n-hexane. I'm not saying the story wasn't full of plenty other lies, but that one "lie" has gotten so much attention, and I don't think he said it.

roll truck roll,

I'd have to go back to check - but I am sure Daisey said the poisoned people were among those who were at an all-day meeting - a secret union meeting - he physically attended? That's when he saw the people with the shaking hands. Maybe he didn't say he met each of them personally - but he definitely claimed they were among the members of this covert gathering and that he was present and heard them talking about the effects of exposure. I think I am remembering this correctly:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:32 PM on May 22, 2012


Read my comment on it over here. He uses the phrase "these people." To me, the only way the sentence makes any sense is if "these people" means "the people who were the subject of discussion at the meeting."
posted by roll truck roll at 1:44 PM on May 22, 2012


Someone, anywhere, thought David Sedaris’s stories were real?

They probably are also unaware that the guy who was frustrated his air travel experience and the slowness of his cellphone was, in fact, Louis C.K. himself.
posted by K.P. at 2:46 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


To me, the only way the sentence makes any sense is if "these people" means "the people who were the subject of discussion at the meeting."

I agree. But didn't he invent the meeting from whole cloth?
posted by The World Famous at 4:01 PM on May 22, 2012


Here come the Rooster!
posted by vibrotronica at 4:56 PM on May 22, 2012


I'm sorry if my fabulist bullshit mislead you into thinking a more interesting reality existed.
posted by humanfont at 5:28 PM on May 22, 2012


BTW Let's remember that David Sedaris wrote a really racist piece for the New Yorker. He's a jerk. Not a relevant fact, but one that should not be forgotten!

shushufindi, where in that link was he a racist? He had a bad time in China, and was revolted by some of the sanitary conditions he saw. Then the oh-so-perfect blogger rebuts him, by pointing out how much she loved her experiences in China's restaurants - relevant how?

I once ate at a Chinese restaurant where dried food was stuck to the serving platters, and the service was awful. That doesn't make me racist.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:21 PM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Next: Fact checking Italo Calvino.
posted by dhartung at 2:07 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


They should just add a disclaimer before stories/comedy that they haven't checked the facts and don't present them as anything other than entertainment. Let David Sedaris or whoever clarify how much they claim is true or not. That tightens things up, but I don't think they've been misleading anyone with their stories
posted by PJLandis at 2:11 AM on May 23, 2012


I agree with your larger point but I disagree with this, at least as I'm familiar with how the term 'fiction' is used-- it's a genre, not a description. A Million Little Pieces is still non-fiction, despite its being packed with outright lies-- it's just non-fiction filled with lies, the same as Johnny Tremain doesn't become non-fiction just because Paul Revere is in it.

Can you expand on this? What are the genre markers -- the internal traits -- that signal to us that a work is non-fiction or fiction. Or is it all context? Is a book part of the non-fiction genre because it's marketed that way?

Are you saying that if someone watched "Zelig" without any knowledge of who Woody Allen is, he'd be able to tell, just from internal cues, that it's fiction? (I'm kidding about "Zelig," because, obviously, people can't transform their bodies that way in real life. But imagine it was a more realistic fake documentary.) Famously, many people though Orson Welles "War of the Worlds was non-fiction. If "Devil in the White City" had been marketed as fiction, I would have believed it.

If the markers are external, then it's a weird sort of genre. Even if you're reading a Western or Sci-fi novel with the cover torn off, you'll soon guess the genre from the saloons and androids.

In general, I find it interesting -- not necessarily right or wrong, because it's so subjective -- how many people in this thread are saying things like, "Sedaris's stuff is usually within the genre of creative nonfiction, which has different strictures around facts than journalism." What's interesting to me is the passive construction of that sentence: "which has different strictures around facts." Who created these strictures and who convinced us all to abide by them or care about them?
posted by grumblebee at 7:15 AM on May 23, 2012


The World Famous: "I agree. But didn't he invent the meeting from whole cloth?"

If I remember correctly, the translator did corroborate basic details of the meeting itself, though he exaggerated several things about it.

I'm not defending Daisey, exactly. I'm just pointing this out as a particular instance in which he did make at clear in the original text that this is a combination of experience and hearsay.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:44 AM on May 23, 2012


I think the problem has been that "this story really happened" has been a way of circumventing craftsmanship in storytelling for some time now, and the instant access to plausibility testing that the internet offers is offering people who read a book and get the skeptical hippo face the tools to investigate exactly why a story just doesn't add up.

In some ways, it's always been the case. Movies used to proudly advertise that they were "based on a true story," which means absolutely nothing. The Amityville Horror was based on a true story in the sense that there were murders in that house, and later, some ninny complained that spooky things happened there. True story? No.

In the same way that "made with real fruit juice" really means sugar water and chemicals with some hyperprocessed hint of plant matter measured in parts-per-million, we've come to rely on the claim of truth when something really, really just feels sort of fake to us.

James Frey, for instance, tried to sell his manuscript for A Million Little Pieces as a novel, but every publisher he approached turned it down. Why they did is debatable, but I'd venture a guess that it just didn't read true, based on what I have read of the book. Marketing it as memoir gives the rough edges the sheen of gritty authenticity, and you can always say "hell, I wouldn't have believed it myself if it hadn't really happened," because the lust we have for prurient insight tends to jam our critical thinking. Sometimes, though, we don't believe a story because it's told in a clumsy, amateurish way, so rather than go the extra mile to make it feel real, the author just hits it with the old "true story" stamp.

Of course, I'd say that the difference between fictionalizing that's just a part of the artifice of storytelling and the kind that's unacceptable comes down to consequences and trust. Mike Daisey's fictionalizing is a problem because he's advocating a position that involves politics and human rights and workplace regulation. David Sedaris, writing about shit-smeared brown towels, doesn't have the same responsibility. With the former, the artifice poisons a process that's meant to do good, but the latter really comes down to whether you like Sedaris or not. In the same way, AXB using the Turcottes as the basis for tales that aren't particularly well corroborated and cast them in a very negative light has a consequence for the Turcottes.

In the post-Frey publishing world, there's still this "reader scorned" sensitivity in play, because people invested so much of themselves in the true story mythos and then felt betrayed, largely because of the particular way that we bond with stories. If nothing's hurt but our trust in an author, we can choose to skip the next book, or write a pissed off letter to the author, or convey our critical analysis of the work to others. If it's journalism gone wrong, that's an entirely different matter.
posted by sonascope at 9:46 AM on May 23, 2012


If I remember correctly, the translator did corroborate basic details of the meeting itself, though he exaggerated several things about it.

I'm not defending Daisey, exactly. I'm just pointing this out as a particular instance in which he did make at clear in the original text that this is a combination of experience and hearsay.


I'm looking at the transcript now, and I'll paste the relevant portion. In the original, he claimed that he went to an all-day meeting of a secret union where they met with 25-30 workers. As I read his actual text, he claims that a group of people among those 25-30 workers talked about N-Hexane, and that those people, whom he saw and met with, were the ones with shaking hands, etc.

The truth, apparently, is that the meeting was actually with 2 or 3 people, not 25 to 30 people, and that nobody in the meeting said anything about N-Hexane or had any such symptoms.

So it's not a combination of experience and hearsay. It's a combination of the experience of meeting with a couple of people and then flat-out lying about the subject matter of the meeting, the number of people he met, and the alleged hearsay.

Here's the relevant portion of the transcript:
Then there’s the meeting Daisey says he had with workers from an unauthorized union, a secret union. Cathy confirmed that this did happen.
Daisey told Ira that they met with twenty-five to thirty workers, in an all-day meeting.
Cathy remembers two workers, she says maybe there were two or three others, and it was
couple hours over lunch, at a restaurant.

Daisey describes a birdlike woman who showed them a government-issued blacklist of
people companies weren’t allowed to hire. She remembers the blacklist, but she also
remembers that it didn’t have an official government stamp. Anything governmentissued in China carries an official stamp. So she wonders if the blacklist was real.

Here’s another part of that meeting with the illegal union, from Daisey’s monologue:
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: There's a group that's talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It's great because it evaporates a little bit faster than
alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to
keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and
all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of
them…can't even pick up a glass.
[PLAY SIMULTANEOUSLY AND THEN CROSSFADE INTO]

Rob Schmitz: ..shake uncontrollably. Some of them can’t even pick up a glass.
Did you meet people who fit this description?

Cathy Lee: No.

Rob Schmitz: So there was nobody who said they were poisoned by hexane?

Cathy Lee: No. Nobody mentioned the Hexane.

Rob Schmitz: Ok. And nobody had hands that were shaking uncontrollably?

Cathy Lee: No.
This is why hearsay is generally bad and double hearsay is even worse.
posted by The World Famous at 10:35 AM on May 23, 2012


I love Chinese food, but if everyone around me was hocking snot and loogies at the table, that would put me off my food too. Does make me wonder where the hell he was in China though, since my relatives went there and neglected to tell any disgusting food stories to me. They didn't like other aspects of China, but I suspect they would have mentioned loogie-hocking had they run into it.

My Sedaris story: he came to my town a year or so ago and told the Chinese story, which made some people in front of me walk out in a huff.

Earlier during the book signing, he'd asked me where to eat in town. He seemed to be hinting "Where's the nearest steakhouse?" and I sadly had to tell him we didn't really have one. So there you go, for what that's worth.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:28 PM on May 24, 2012


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