The Rumpus Interview with Elif Batuman


Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them combines memoir, literary criticism, and nonfiction reporting to tell stories about Batuman’s adventures as a graduate student in comparative literature.

One of the book’s pleasures, and surely one reason for its popularity, is the way it takes Russian classics into the field—to a literary conference at Tolstoy’s estate, to a summer in Samarakand, and to a St. Petersburg ice palace, among other destinations—making them immediate in a way that literary criticism rarely does.

Batuman described her project with this question: “What if you wrote a book and it was all true?”

Mike Daisey’s monologue about the rise of Apple and the inhumane working conditions in its Chinese factories, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which was the subject of a painful This American Life retraction episode aired last month, raises a different but related question about the power of nonfiction narrative: What if someone told you a true story and you found out it was partly made up?

Daisey’s monologue was a hybrid of theater and journalism. He told his story from a theater stage but said that it was true. He fabricated incidents he claimed to have witnessed, but his fictions illustrated real conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories. His deceits were the stuff of propaganda, but it was propaganda for a just cause and—in a final twist that perfectly complicates his story—his dramatized advocacy successfully raised public awareness and pressured Apple to reform. On February 18, Apple’s Chinese manufacturer, Foxconn, announced plans to sharply raise salaries and limit worker overtime, promises it reiterated on March 29.

Christian Lorentzen, writing in the London Review of Books, described Mike Daisey’s recent treatment as a “public shaming” and chided American journalism for “the puritan hysteria that attends the discovery that a memoir should have been called a novel or that someone saying something silly in a newspaper story turns out to be as real as Huck Finn.” When Elif Batuman wrote on Twitter that she had been happy to read Lorentzen’s essay, it made me wonder what she thought about Daisey’s monologue and This American Life’s retraction.

Batuman, who has also written for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Harper’s, among other magazines, on such topics as the spiritual practices of pre-historic hunter-gatherers, the Israeli cat ladies in possession of Max Brod’s literary estate, and the contemporary legacy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, spoke to me by phone from Istanbul, Turkey, where she is Writer in Residence at Koç University.


The Rumpus: On Twitter you cheered Christian Lorentzen’s LRB piece, and said you had been silently hoping someone would critique the public treatment of Mike Daisey, but had been afraid to do so yourself.

Elif Batuman: Yeah, I had been thinking of writing a blog post or something in Daisey’s defense, but it’s a scary thing to do as a writer, because you risk bringing what Christian calls the “puritanical hysteria” down on your head—you know, with people speculating that you must not be scrupulously factual in your work. That’s the kind of grief that nobody wants.

But I think the critique Mike Daisey got isn’t quite the critique he deserved. I think his offense is less the misrepresentation of truth than self-aggrandizement. It’s important that he didn’t invent the stuff out of nowhere. He just said that he was there when he wasn’t.

Granted, self-aggrandizement is not a hugely sympathetic behavior, and I think in this case it was also unnecessary. I think he wouldn’t have lost anything from the story if he had just acknowledged which parts were from his direct experience and which parts weren’t.

Rumpus: It seems it wouldn’t have been that hard to be straight with the audience. Like, “I met this person, and he was like this other person a thousand miles away whose hand was crushed in an industrial press,” that kind of thing.

Batuman: Yeah—which is something that you do as a writer all the time, right? You describe what you did see and then you say, “This is one instance in a wider phenomenon, which includes cases X, Y, and Z.” It doesn’t make your observation weaker—it makes it stronger to have it corroborated by things in the news that happened hundreds of miles away. Maybe what you observed isn’t as spectacular as what you read in the news—okay, fine, there’s rhetoric for dealing with that. “You thought this was striking, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg, listen to what happened 200 miles away.”

So yeah, I wondered a bit why he felt compelled to invent a greatest hit parade of abused Chinese workers to illustrate the different things he read about.

The Rumpus: The stories he ended up telling seemed kind of archetypical, examples more than real stories, or they encroached on the territory of American myths about other parts of the world—the worker who marvels at the iPad, for example, and says it’s magic. You could argue that the real story would have been even more compelling.

Batuman: That’s what I always tell myself when I’m being fact-checked, and some detail I was attached to turns out not to be true. I’m initially disappointed, and maybe discouraged that now there’s more work for me to do, but I know that 99.9% of the time there’s actually something there, in the truth, that’s more interesting than whatever I or anyone else can make up.

When you invent something, you’re drawing on reservoirs of knowledge that you already have. It’s only when you’re faithful to the truth that something can come to you from the outside. With the story of the man with the work-deformed hand who has never seen an iPad before—Daisey was basically restaging the perfect picture of Marxist alienation, where the worker is so alienated from the product he doesn’t know what it is or how it works. It’s a nice illustration. But I agree that if we knew the truth and looked hard enough at it, we would find something maybe less neat but richer and stranger.

The Rumpus: But you seemed to say, in your tweet about Christian Lorentzen’s LRB piece, that Daisey had been inappropriately subjected to a public shaming.

Batuman: Let me preface this by saying that I love This American Life. I listen to it every week as soon as it comes out. And one of the things I really look forward to is hearing its general tone, its voice. With the retraction episode, that voice wasn’t there. It was more sanctimonious.

I thought it was absurd when they call up his Chinese translator and she’s really matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and they’re like, “Oddly, she’s not angry at him.” Why should she be angry? I thought her attitude was balanced and reasonable. She was like, “Yeah, it would be better if he told the truth all the time,” but she wasn’t doing a crazy breakdance of moral outrage.

Rumpus: Ira Glass described it as a problem of labeling. He said, “If you just would have said this was fiction, it would have been fine.” But then he also treated it as a personal betrayal.

Batuman: Yeah, I remember feeling like there was some ambiguity there. Sometimes it sounded like the [Marketplace] China correspondent was being the bad cop and Ira Glass was being the good cop. But then, when Glass was talking to Daisey, it sounded like Watergate. Ira Glass was like, “So you lied,” and then he would leave in the 10 minutes while Daisey is sitting there not knowing how to defend himself.

The Rumpus: Could This American Life have fairly critiqued Daisey without shaming him?

Batuman: I think so. One of the things This American Life does best is stories of deceivers. Scammers, con artists, impersonators, megalomaniacs, are kind of a This American Life house specialty. Ira Glass is really good at first presenting the outrageous and fabulous aspects of the deception, and then going back and figuring out why and how anyone believed it—why they needed to believe it.

Ordinarily, This American Life would never bring a con man onto the show and then berate him, like “So you lied?” Getting him to admit it would be maybe one moment in the story, but not the whole thing. It would be more important why he did it. In a way, the Mike Daisey story was perfect for This American Life—except that this time they were victims of the hoax, which maybe interfered with how they covered it.

Thinking about how the show could have been done differently, I’m not sure it was that useful to give the China news correspondents that much air time to vent their frustration. I get why a China correspondent would have been annoyed by Daisey. Daisey’s attitude was like, “I’m just a normal guy and I just got on a plane and went to China and found this whole story everyone missed.” That’s provocative, and not very smart, since he knew very well that journalists hadn’t missed the whole story—I mean he read it about it himself in the news. I get why the journalists were mad. But that’s exactly the problem with having them be the unmaskers—they have an axe to grind.

Personally, my favorite part of the episode was the Chinese translator. Tracking her down was a real coup. I wanted to hear more from her, in her voice. Hearing her story would have brought in the fact that he lied, but in a potentially more interesting way. This could have been turned into an interesting story, rather than an upbraiding.

Plus I just really wanted to know more about the translator. What’s her life like? One of the lies where they catch Daisey out is, he said he was the only visitor who asked to go to the factory gates, whereas in fact she brings journalists to these gates all the time. What’s her life like, regularly bringing foreign journalists to the factory gates? What does she make of all this?

Rumpus: When they asked her about Daisey she said, basically, “I don’t think he’s doing journalism. I think he’s doing something different, so I understand.”

Batuman: Yeah, we think of “creative nonfiction” as a very American genre, but her immediate response was, “He’s a writer. Of course he says things that aren’t completely true.”

Rumpus: In the London Review, Christian Lorentzen said that fact checking is a uniquely American practice. Is that your experience?

Batuman: Definitely. When I interview a Russian person or a Turkish person and tell them that a fact checker is going to call on the phone and confirm everything, they can’t wrap their heads around it. Russians are eventually like, “Oh OK, your paper really wants to avoid a lawsuit.” But Turkish people take it as a sign that I’m a junior person. They’re like, “Oh, poor thing, your boss still doesn’t trust you. They still have to check up on you.”

Rumpus: I wonder if Daisey had presented his work as fiction, if it would have had the same power. You hear these stories of publishers pushing writers toward memoirs rather than novels…

Batuman: It happens.

The Rumpus: They want it to be true.

Batuman: They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth. But I mean, why did people ever like novels to begin with? Because they used to love lies? No way.

When you’re reading a novel, I think the reason you care about how any given plot turns out is that you take it as a data point in the big story of how the world works. Does such-and-such a kind of guy get the girl in the end? Does adultery ever bring happiness? How do winners become winners?

Just because a book is labeled as a novel, you don’t assume it happened in La La land and has nothing to do with reality. It just means that the novelist has processed, consolidated, or edited his experiences and observations, to tell a story. Which obviously happens in a memoir, too. It’s a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. That’s why I find it weird when you walk into a bookstore the most privileged distinction is between fiction and nonfiction.

When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, he did a ton of historical research about Napoleon—he spent ages in archives, reading letters and diaries, many of them written by his wife’s relatives. In general, in his career, he borrowed a lot of plot details from the lives of his in-laws. I bet if Tolstoy was writing now in America, there would be a lot of pressure on him to do War and Peace as a nonfiction book—like, tracing the domestic and personal life of his wife’s grandmother through journals and letters, interwoven with his own philosophical musings about the Napoleonic wars. But Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.

Rumpus: So in the case of Mike Daisey, was it, as Ira Glass said on the retraction episode, merely a problem of labeling?

Batuman: Somehow, to me, the labeling isn’t the most important thing here. I guess I’m not that disturbed by the liberties that Daisey took with the facts. He set out to tell a story about working conditions in Chinese factories, in a way that would affect public opinion and eventually maybe public policy. And he did tell such a story. And This American Life checked that story, and it checked out. I don’t feel betrayed or manipulated. The phenomenon he described, and got people to care about, was real.

All he invented, as far as I understand, were a few details, like the factory guards having guns, or the union workers holding their meetings in Starbucks—which, by the way, the fact-checkers could have caught pretty easily. They could have just run the whole thing by a China correspondent to begin with.

Setting aside those invented details, the main thing Daisey lied about is how, and from whom, he got the story. There’s a word for that, and it’s plagiarism. It doesn’t really have anything to do with fact and fiction.

Rumpus: Why was the debate turned into a debate over fact and fiction—why were people so ready to make it about that?

Batuman: I think we were quick to appropriate the Daisey incident into a debate we’ve been having for a while about the role of facts. Facts are more available than they ever have been, and that seems to give us access to a new kind of objective truth. But in a way it’s an illusory promise, because the facts are never complete, they’re never unimpeachable, and they’re always open to different interpretations.

We hear a lot these days about two opposing tendencies in literature. On the one hand, there’s a tendency away from the novel, toward nonfiction. On the other hand, there’s a tendency away from objective journalism, toward memoiristic or essayistic nonfiction. They’re opposing tendencies, but they both reflect an anxiety about how much we can trust facts. We expect facts to give us objective truth, but objective truth keeps eluding us. We move away from the novel, because the novel isn’t factual; but in our nonfiction writing, we feel constantly compelled to cast doubt on our access to objective facts. We hire teams of fact-checkers to track them down. Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.

Another received idea that’s getting tested here is that all our political opinions and political choices should be informed only by the facts—by factual journalism that follows a certain standard. There’s an idea that fiction doesn’t have the power to change our minds anymore, like it did in the days of Huck Finn. I’m actually not convinced that this is the case, not for actual readers. I think when readers object to novels, they’re not objecting to the concept of novels, or the concept of fictionality. I think they’re objecting to a certain body of novels that somehow doesn’t ring true. I think when novels come along that do ring true, even if it’s a truth that doesn’t meet the standards of New Yorker fact-checking, people will respond to them.

Rumpus: The Woolly Mammoth Theater here in D.C. held a public forum, at which Mike Daisey apologized, sort of, and the directors of the theater talked about the soul searching they had done. I got the sense they were really invested in the show because it made the theater politically relevant in a way that maybe it would not otherwise be.

Batuman: Right—and if that’s the case, that’s good news, right? There’s actually good news here. Storytelling got people to care about something. It created positive change in the world. Storytelling can still do that.

Sean Carman has contributed to four McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has been a contestant in Literary Death Match, a finalist in NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and a winner of The New Yorker's weekly Twitter contest. His story "A Hard Rain. A Really, Really Hard Rain" was a runner-up in the Out of the Storm News Bad Writing About the Weather Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as an environmental lawyer. More from this author →