Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ruth Franklin: Some Works Of Art Can’t Be Labeled As Fact Or Fiction, And That’s OK | The New Republic:

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.

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.