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Nonfiction is for facts, not fibbers

by Caroline Praderio / Columnist • April 12, 2012

It’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, but for some nonfiction writers, not even the truth is strange enough. Barely a quarter of the way through 2012, two emboldened storytellers have met intense, highly-publicized rebuke for bending (or completely fabricating) the truth in unambiguously-labeled nonfiction. 

In February, the release of the book The Lifespan of a Fact exposed previously-esteemed nonfiction writer John D’Agata for blatantly altering facts in a 2003 essay — and, over a five-year editing process, doggedly refusing to set the record straight. 

One month later, controversy erupted when The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a solo show by theater artist Mike Daisey, was uncovered as a dramatic exaggeration of working conditions in Apple’s factories in China. 

Critics and ordinary readers alike have chided the men for their carelessness with facts, but the foremost issue here isn’t necessarily the doctoring of truth: The real problem is in the packaging. D’Agata, Daisey, and a dubious dynasty of falsifying predecessors all peddled their work as nonfiction — whether essays, magazine features, or memoirs — which means they claimed to be doling out fact. But these writers advertised falsely, and their punishments (tarnished reputations and disintegrated reader trust) are a fitting match for the crimes. 

No nonfiction writer — not even an Emerson student still learning the ropes of the English language — is exempt from the genre’s inherent responsibility to reality. It sounds elementary, but the D’Agata and Daisey scandals are proof that even professionals have forgotten the first rule of writing nonfiction: it has to be true. If writers can’t meet that challenge, they have an ethical duty to step down from the truth and label their work accurately.

History is littered with high-profile cases of literary and journalistic fibs. In 1998, Stephen Glass, writer for The New Republic, was dishonorably discharged from the magazine industry when it was found that he’d invented facts in 27 of 41 articles. In 2003, writer James Frey endured a nationally-televised shaming courtesy of Oprah Winfrey, who came down hard after reports confirmed that large plot events in Frey’s “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, had been embellished or entirely false. D’Agata now joins that tradition of dishonest scribes with penchants for misrepresenting their writing. 

And it’s D’Agata’s refusal to correct his mistake that creates the substance of The Lifespan of a Fact. The book reproduces the correspondence between D’Agata, who’d been commissioned to write an essay for literary magazine The Believer, and Jim Fingal, his appointed fact-checker.  Over the five years represented by the book’s 128 pages, the two debate laboriously over the essay’s minuscule factual discrepancies. In one instance, D’Agata writes that there were four heart attacks reported in Las Vegas during a certain time period; in actuality, there were eight. Fingal notes this discrepancy, and D’Agata replies with the following: “The readers who care about the different between ‘four’ and ‘eight’ might stop trusting me. But the readers who care about interesting sentences and the metaphorical effect…those sentences achieve will probably forgive me.” 

Daisey has defended himself similarly in the weeks since Public Radio Internationalw featured excerpts from his production on This American Life. It was discovered, after the story aired Jan. 6, that Daisey had fabricated some facts used in his monologue show, which details a visit to one of Apple’s factories in Shenzen, China, and the harsh conditions faced by workers there. 

In a blog post dated March 16, Daisey wrote, “What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.” His point is valid — but dedication to truth should and must transcend the boundaries of genre. Works of nonfiction, whether spoken, written, or performed, and whether published worldwide or circulated around the table of an Emerson writing workshop, cannot be falsified. 

Both Daisey and D’Agata have paid for their transgressions. The Los Angeles Review of Books, in one of many scathing condemnations brought forth by national publications, calls D’Agata “Not only untrustworthy but downright arrogant.” Daisey has faced similar criticism. The New York Times weighed in on the issue, saying that by “twisting the facts…Mr. Daisey betrayed” his own statement on NPR that “stories should be subordinate to truth.”

Emerson students who write nonfiction should take note of the way these dishonest works have demonized D’Agata and Daisey. There is no defensible reason for adulterating facts — not the promise of higher sales in the marketplace or better grades on an Emerson transcript, not an increased literary or social prominence, and certainly not D’Agata’s “metaphorical effects.” Hunting down and trapping true stories is no task for the lazy, research-opposed, or artistically haughty. It’s a struggle and privilege for writers to wrangle nonfiction from real life onto the page — a task that must be met with no less than scrupulous respect for the truth.