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When I first heard the storyteller and performer Mike Daisey recounting on This American Life how he met a Chinese factory worker whose hand had been crushed in a press, and how this worker, touching a working iPad for the first time, said “It’s a kind of magic”, I paused slightly, wondering if there could have been a different translation for what he said. The scene itself was moving and dramatic, but the phrasing seemed a bit too much, a bit too discordant with the sense of the voice of the Chinese translator that Daisey had been working with. I don’t speak Mandarin, but I felt that a simpler phrase – “it’s like magic” or “it’s magic” – would be more true to the way a Chinese speaker would put it. I’m possibly wrong about what a Chinese speaker would say, but that moment did feel a little … overdramatic. This was one moment of pause in a story that I found engaging and thought-provoking. The way Mike Daisey structured his tale, taking us from some random test pictures on an iPhone to a whole argument about the means of production of our consumer goods, was a great piece of work, as was his vocal presence and style. (I ask this, though, out of curiousity rather than suspicion: Where are those pictures? I’d like to see them.)

A friend of mine indicated she’d felt the overdramatic-ness when she posted the first news I heard about the This American Life retraction of the episode (thanks,@SarahSJE). The events are now well-known. In January, TAL broadcast the story “Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory”, where Daisey went to China to find out more about working conditions in Chinese factories. The range of workers he encountered and some of the elements he described made a few journalists familiar with China uneasy and one, Rob Schmitz, retraced his steps. The result was This American Life’s retraction story dealing with Daisey’s fabrications about his trip to Shenzen.

This story made me think of another debate over nonfiction and truth, between writer John D’Agata and his fact-checker / editor Jim Fingal, where D’Agata fabricated or left uncorrected certain details in his story of a man’s suicide, in the service, he said, of a wider truth. D’Agata makes the same defence of his writing that Daisey (initially) does, that is, he is not a journalist, but is doing something different and thus abides by different standards. At about the 39-minute mark of the retraction podcast, Daisey says: “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means”. Ira Glass calls him on this: “I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.” This is where the “I’m not a journalist” defence falls down. What matters here is not the profession one works in but the claim one makes about the story being told. I think the claim of factuality gets made because it is important to the power of the story. Both Daisey and D’Agata, it seems to me, appeal to the reality effect of nonfiction to strengthen the impact of their stories. (Though whether they do this to the same extent is questioned by Josh Voorhes, who argues that “D’Agata is more upfront about the his inaccuracies and in fact eschews the term non”conflating their work is a mistake” because D’Agata is more upfront and knowing in his manipulations.)

This reminds me also of the case of Edgar Martins, who had some work pulled from the New York Times Magazine because it turned out that some of his images which were presented as documenting empty buildings post-recession were actually augmented and made more symmetrical digitally. His explanation is a bit more complex than Daisey’s and D’Agata’s, drawing as it does on Bachelard and Lacan, but essentially it is a similar appeal to some higher truth about human experience. Which is fine. What is problematic is the claim that is made about their truthiness. As critic Mark Luthringer put it: “I don’t think photojournalistic standards of truth should be applied to client work. They are pictures for selling,” Martin’s pictures are intriguing, fascinating, and well-designed, but by allowing the NY Times to publish them as accurate documents of the recession, he allowed his pictures to make the same appeal to reality that Daisey and D’Agata did.

For Mike Daisey, it seems like it took a discussion by theatre practitioners to get him to reconsider his position, to go from standing by his work as being true “in the context of the theater” (as he said to Ira Glass) to acknowledging that he had “fallen short”. The discussion he refers to, “Truth in Theater”, is a fascinating one where people whose business it is to tell stories on stage work through a lot of the issues with both sympathy and rigour. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater (which put on Daisey’s public performances of his work) prefaces the discussion with a statement about this dependence on factuality: “when we present pieces whose power depends on their claim to authenticity, we must hold ourselves to a different and higher standard of accuracy.”

I can remember the filmmaker and journalist Megan Spencer once talking about why she loved documentary: real life is unpredictable, and that makes the ending unpredictable (maybe this is why the ending of Moneyball is so unheroic – not a documentary, but based on a nonfiction book). When Mike Daisey talks about his reluctance for This American Life to contact his translator because it would “it would unpack the complexities of, of like how, how the story gets told”, I think he was reaching for an answer that was not going to be up to the question. But that phrase, “unpack the complexities” (If it even means anything here. I mean, does it refer to making things more or less complex?), I wonder if that phrase speaks, in some broad tangential way, to the an audience’s desire for stories to be simple. The “Truth in Theater” discussion touches on this very point at about the 41-minute mark, referring to there being sometimes a dissonance with an audience expecting clarity and simplicity from a narrative and not getting it, in pieces that are drawn heavily from reality.

Here I’m being simplistic about storytelling, probably, but I wonder if this is a tension that Mike Daisey was caught in. On the one hand there’s a real and complex situation that needs changing that, being real, has a strong resonance with audiences; and on the other hand a need to make a narrative that is direct and engaging and dramatic. Everyone who tries to make the world less chaotic and more understandable with words and images and art has to deal with the same tension. Calling something fiction or nonfiction has less to do with subject matter or style and more to do with the choices about these contradictions, as we make our way through them to tell our stories.

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A few references.

There’s a lot been written about this issue, but here are few more things aside from what I point to above which I’ve found interesting:
Mike Daisey’s recent talk at Georgetown University. (via his blog)

A blog post from 2AMt, “Context is Everything”, with more discussion from a theater point of view, including links to other discussion elsewhere.

“This is A Work of Non-Fiction”, a response from Clayton Lord, formerly of Wooly Mammoth Theater.

Aaron Brady calls it “The Jimmy McNulty Gambit” in a blog post that I’m recommending for its footnote style alone.

On the Media’s Bob Garfield responds to the question of small lies in service of greater truth.

John D’Agata and Jim Fingal speak with On the Media about the book which details their disagreement, Lifespan of a Fact.

I read about Edgar Martins on Jörg Colberg’s Conscientious blog, where he has some links to further discussion and another statement by Martins about his work.

Colberg refers to a good discussion by four architectural photographers about the Edgar Martins issue. What Alex Fradkin, Tim Griffith, Mark Luthringer, and David Maisel have to say is a lot more nuanced that what I’m doing here. They raise questions about photography that are more ontological, about the nature of photography itself (after all, isn’t it an ontological claim that Daisey makes when he says that theater is different from journalism?). Maisel says that “There is no such thing as photographic truth, in architectural photography or any other kind of photography for that matter.” I agree that all photographs are constructed, but not all photographs are fabrications to the same degree, and still think it matters the claims you make for them.

[Update 3 April 2012: I’ve updated this post to include some discussion of Edgar Martins which I meant to do but forgot the first time around, a few extra links, and to tweak some phrasing.]