Perhaps you listened to the recent “This American Life” episode about conditions in the Apple-contractor Foxconn’s factories in Shenzhen. It was voiced by a man named Mike Daisey, who had written a theatre piece called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, from which the TAL episode was excerpted.
It turns out that most of what Daisey “reported” from China in his piece was at best embellishment and at most fabrication. He misrepresented how many factories he went to. He tells of meeting people poisoned by a solvent that cleans iPads; he didn’t. He says he saw guns at the gates to the factories when there weren’t any.
When Ira Glass and the TAL crew confronted him about this, Daisey gave what is now the rote dodge in these types of situations: “[I]t’s not journalism. It’s theater.”
No one’s spilling many pixels on defending Daisey, and he’s not particularly good at defending himself, so I don’t want to pick on this incident overmuch. But his argument is both familiar and worrisome, and worth discussing. There’s this habit of dividing the world into writers who care about the Truth and those that don’t. I don’t think it’s that simple.
Daisey’s translator tells an interviewer that she knows, of course, that Daisey is a writer, and not a journalist. But, she says, “As a Chinese, I think it’s better if he can tell the American people the truth. I hope people know the real China.”
That critique is kind of devastating in its simplicity. Because the fact is, Daisey the Artist (and his more respected forebears) is indifferent to the “real” China. He’s only doing theater. And who gives a crap about workers in China when there’s Theater to be had, am I right?
I do not think that generic distinctions should have a strong place in this discussion. There are things that most people call theater that stick to the facts (cf. The Laramie Project). There are things that most people call journalism that do not (cf. Up in the Old Hotel). And in any event, it’s thoroughly unsatisfying.
But speaking of genres, I do myself write reported but “literary” nonfiction. All that means is that I want to tell you about the world outside my head. But in order to do that I need to make the world enjoyably readable. And the world has a habit of resisting that. There’s too much of it, and it all goes by so fast. And people lie, and even worse, they forget, and later it can all be terribly hard to untangle.
But the work of untangling is so often worth it that I distrust writers who claim they shouldn’t have to, if they are “only” doing Art.
For many journalists that knowledge gets encoded in their bone marrow, and along the way morphs into self-righteousness. And I know, I know, all that sermonizing about The Truth can be irritating, as though truth were a nation, one and indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Just like the Pledge of Allegiance, for many literary journalists the idea of “Truth” is a country we’re hoping to discover. We’re not quite there. It’s a place we think is worth trudging towards even if we never get there, even if we know on some level it’s just a fantasy. Everyone who writes knows that some tangles can’t be teased out.
My point, I suppose, is that we get closest to Truth when we are self-aware about the mixed results such journeys. When we know where and when our egos get the better of us, let us think we have discovered the truth without working for it. When we know that what we write about other people incurs responsibilities that are inescapable parts of our self conceptions as Writers and Artists.*
In that Sugar column we all love, she quotes Flannery O’Connor: “The first product of self-knowledge is humility.” Sugar says to write what you have to write you have to be humble. You have to get on the ground. And arriving on the scene — whether it’s in China, or Las Vegas, or your dentist’s chair — with an idea of what the Truth is not humble.
And you can’t be on the ground before you shut up, and sit your ass down, and listen, and listen, and listen again for hours, before you write a word.
But maybe that’s just me.
* (It’s the awareness of, and anxiety about, those responsibilities that led me to love Sari Botton’s series here on Conversations with Writers Braver than Me. Though I’ve always wanted to say to her: the fact that you are upfront about your concerns about writing about living people, about hurting them, I think that’s brave in and of itself.)