Some Works of Art Can’t Be Labeled as Fact or Fiction, and That’s OK

by Ruth Franklin | March 21, 2012

Like wolves and teenagers, literary scandals travel in packs, and the first of the spring are already upon us. First came The Lifespan of a Fact, a new book by essayist John D’Agata and his fact-checker Jim Fingal, which presents the blood-and-tears saga of Fingal’s seven-year-long attempt to verify a piece by D’Agata about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager. In a lengthy e-mail correspondence, Fingal relentlessly noted discrepancies in everything from the names of people and places to the time of the boy’s death; D’Agata, rather less effectively, made the case that a writer of creative non-fiction is allowed certain liberties with the truth. By the time reviewers had finished weighing in on this teapot-sized tempest (general consensus: D’Agata is an ass), along came a similar but more significant revelation: The theatrical impresario Mike Daisey had employed similarly unorthodox techniques of reportage in his dramatic monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

D’Agata’s fabrications, it seems safe to say, had relatively little impact: The circulation of The Believer, the magazine that published his essay, was last estimated at around 15,000. But Daisey’s show was a sensation at the Public Theater in New York, where it just wrapped up an encore run. Well before The New York Times ran two front-page exposés on the inhumane treatment of workers in Chinese factories that manufacture Apple products, Daisey’s show was credited with raising public awareness of their predicament. When an excerpt from his monologue aired on the public radio program This American Life earlier this year, it quickly became the series’ most-downloaded episode ever

Naturally, that’s how the trouble started. An American public radio reporter in Shanghai heard the episode and questioned some of the details—such as the account of union leaders gathering at a Starbucks, which none of them could realistically afford. His quibbles grew into a larger doubt about whether Daisey had truly been able to personally witness, Zelig-like, the various depredations that he dramatically recounted in the first person. When the staff of This American Life asked to corroborate Daisey’s story with his translator, he told them that she was unreachable. But the reporter in Shanghai found her phone number with an elementary Google search, and she was quick to tell him that Daisey had invented or embellished many of the show’s details. You can hear their painful conversation on the latest episode of This American Life, in which Ira Glass retracts the Daisey episode and spends the show’s hour detailing the problems with it.

But here’s where it gets tricky. Because Daisey, for the most part, isn’t actually a fabricator—one who makes up stories out of whole cloth. (Is that why they’re called fabricators?) His monologue describes a trip that he actually made to Shenzhen, the Chinese city where Foxconn and other Apple suppliers are headquartered. He did personally interview workers there, as well as gain access to the factories by pretending to be a visiting businessman. In some cases, he claims that he essentially made composites by rearranging the chronology of his trip or otherwise changing the details of characters. In others, he seems to have relied on other people’s reporting and presented it as his own. But very little—and this is important—seems actually to be untrue. Does it matter that the workers’ dormitories have cameras in the hallways, as Daisey correctly reports, but not in the workers’ bedrooms, as he also claims? Or that he visited only three factories rather than the ten he claimed to have seen? No one disputes that he got the basics of the story right: Foxconn’s deplorable treatment of its employees. 

D’Agata’s case is different. His piece is an impressionistic account of Las Vegas at the time of Levi Presley’s suicide. To create the aura of inevitability and depravity that the story requires, D’Agata indulges in quite a bit of sleight-of-hand. He claims that the record-high heat is so intense that it breaks the “World’s Tallest Thermometer,” an electric sign situated on the road to Vegas—but in reality, the heat that day didn’t set any records and didn’t break the thermometer. He claims that on the day of Presley’s suicide, an ancient bottle of Tabasco sauce was unearthed beneath a bar called Buckets of Blood—but the Tabasco was actually discovered two weeks before the suicide, and the bar was more prosaically named Boston Saloon. Virtually any newsmagazine, including this one, would correct these sorts of details as a matter of course.

But D’Agata is allowed to have his way. “You are fact-checking this, right, not editing it?” D’Agata asks the unfortunate Fingal, who dares to suggest over and over that D’Agata change a name or a number, only to be met with scorn and insults. “The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as ‘facts,’” D’Agata sniffs. Rather, they are pressed into the service of his art, which, for reasons he is unable to explain to Fingal, requires that the number of strip clubs be 34 (which works better in the “rhythm of the sentence”) rather than 31.

The self-aggrandizement implicit in the attitudes of both Daisey and D’Agata is part of what makes their arguments so hard to take. There’s also an element of laziness involved: It’s harder to rigorously report a story than to fill in the gaps with invention. But both writers are right to insist that their work can exist in a discomfiting space between fact and fiction, borrowing some elements of journalism but profiting equally from imagination. In this they are hardly alone, and by that I don’t mean simply that they are joined by James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and all the other discredited memoirs that have been the subjects of takedowns in recent years.

The technique of combining reality and invention is arguably as old as fiction itself, and is a hallmark of certain genres. Travel writing, for instance—few readers assume that writers like Graham Greene, Ryszard Kapuscinski, or Bruce Chatwin describe their journeys with absolute accuracy. Though he often goes further, some of the uncategorizable works of W.G. Sebald—which combine travel narrative, memoir, and fiction—take liberties similar to D’Agata’s, altering a name here and a detail there to deeper an irony or emphasize a connection. As I’ve written elsewhere, the canon of Holocaust literature contains perhaps the greatest number of uncategorizable works: books such as Elie Wiesel’s Night or Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz have been alternately labeled “memoirs” or “autobiographical novels,” with little indication of what, if anything, separates those two categories.

Ira Glass knows all this, which is why his “Gotcha!” attitude seems a little off. It’s clear that he feels personally aggrieved by Daisey: Not only did he suffer an embarrassment to the journalistic standards of his radio program, but he himself was taken in by Daisey’s stage show. “I thought it was literally true, seeing it in the theater,” he harangues Daisey. “I thought it was true because you were onstage saying ‘These things happened to me.’” But what Glass ignores—and Daisey is right to protest about this—is that the theater, like the novel, operates by different rules than journalism does. Glass seems to have forgotten that the character onstage called “Mike Daisey” isn’t Daisey, exactly; it’s his dramatic persona. For the most part, we don’t take it literally when a poet speaks in the first person; we know that there is a gap between the speaker of the poem and the poet as an individual. The rules are similar for a dramatic monologuist like Daisey, and Glass is being more than a little naïve in his insistence on melding Daisey’s art to Daisey’s life.

Glass concludes that “honest labeling” is what’s called for, insisting that Daisey’s monologue ought to have been marked as a work of fiction. But it’s hard to say how Daisey might have labeled his work more honestly: It was performed in a theater, after all, not recorded and presented as a documentary film or a news report. And Daisey is right to insist that “fiction” is no more accurate a label for his work than “journalism”; like John D’Agata’s essays, it contains something of each. “I’m tired of this genre being terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public that’s afraid of venturing into terrain that can’t be footnoted and verified by seventeen different sources,” D’Agata complains, and though he doesn’t specify what “this genre” is, it’s clear that he aims for a more capacious definition of non-fiction than the fact-checker’s.

The real problem is that it is virtually impossible for the general reader to deduce from a text itself what genre it belongs to. We rely upon editors, publishers, and all others who are responsible for vetting a text before the public to tell us how to understand it. When an article appears in a newspaper or newsmagazine, we have a reasonable expectation that it is factually accurate. In a literary magazine like The Believer or another artistic venue, the standards are far less clear. Books are the most dangerous territory of all, since publishers notoriously do not fact-check, and categorization is often left to the whims of editors.

Here critics are the last line of defense. And so it’s part of our professional obligation to make sure a work passes the “smell test” before rendering judgment on it. Some might see this checking-up as tedious: Our job is to read books, not to babysit them. But to understand a book—or a magazine article or stage work, for that matter—you first have to know what it is. Even—especially—if that turns out to be impossible to determine.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ruth_franklin.

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