“The Normal Worldview”

Print by Catherine Rondthaler. More of her stunning work can be seen at http://catherinerondthaler.com/_MG_6169.html.

This week, two separate news stories caught my attention along with the rest of the country’s: The retraction by “This American Life” of Mike Daisey’s fabricated account of Chinese laborers making Apple products, and the conviction of Rutgers student Dharun Ravi in relation to the suicide of his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi. Both stories, it seems, ignited quick responses in those who heard/read/saw them, and yet both stories have deep, deep backstories that complicate them well beyond the comfort zones of most casual media consumers. Each has the capacity to be told as an epic novel, and yet many people have formed their opinions—some quite strong and unshakable—based on the equivalent of a short story or a Wikipedia synopsis.

(At the risk of hypocrisy, I feel obliged to provide a brief overview here for those who are unfamiliar with the cases. If you are familiar with them, my apologies; sorry to interrupt; skip ahead to the next paragraph, please. Links also appear at the bottom of this entry for those seeking more information. 1) Mike Daisey, a theatrical monologuist, had appeared on Ira Glass’s NPR show “This American Life” to offer his supposedly first-hand accounts of the terrible working conditions at a massive Chinese factory that produced Apple’s iPad. After the show received its strongest listenership to date, the producers discovered that many details in Daisey’s account were false, at which time they retracted the story. They devoted a follow-up episode to the incident, during which Daisey offered an awkward defense of his position. 2) In the Rutgers case, Ravi was convicted of bias-motivated invasion of privacy—a hate crime, in other words—after using a Webcam to spy on his roommate, Clementi, during a romantic encounter and sharing some of the images and his thoughts with friends. Clementi later jumped from the George Washington Bridge, though his reasons remain either unknown or undisclosed. The suicide note he left behind has not, as of this writing, been released. Subsequent accounts of the story’s details had been altered in order to portray Ravi as a homophobic bully who served as the catalyst for Clementi’s suicide.)

Without question, these two stories are charged. They touch nerves, raise passions, and spark debate. When you look closely, there is no easy way to “read” either one, and yet their appeal seems to stem from just that: quick and often preconceived judgments. The stories have been appropriated and exploited in many ways for a number of agendas: corporate negligence, workers’ rights, cyber-bullying, gay harassment. In some ways, they have been revised and rewritten to fit theme-based narratives, and somewhere along the way, for whatever reasons, the facts gave way to fiction.

At the same time, two essays about writing recently appeared in The New York Times: Annie Murphy Paul’s “Your Brain on Fiction” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “My Life’s Sentences” (links below). The first draws its inspiration from recent studies of the human brain and how it responds to figurative language (not necessarily fiction, despite the emphasis in the title); the second is a more rhapsodic account of the writing process by a Pulitzer-prize-winning author. The first seeks insight and evidence gathered through scientific research; the second in mystical experience relayed through a series of often contradictory metaphors (“Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social.”). Both tend toward an elevation of creative writing as something beyond the realm of the ordinary or commonplace, a glorification that was subsequently approved and forwarded by my many literary Facebook friends. Both were also listed among the top ten e-mailed articles on the day of and the day after their publication.

To provide some context, I’ve been thinking about these four examples (Daisey/Ravi/Paul/Lahiri) as I read through hundreds of fiction and nonfiction manuscripts submitted as applications to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a task I’ve undertaken for well over a decade now. Much of this writing comes from published authors; some are current teachers of creative writing at prestigious colleges. There is always an implicit tension between the fiction and nonfiction camps that can best be summed up in two competing bits of wisdom. The first, paraphrased by the poet Lord Byron in Don Juan, states, “’Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.” The second, included in a moment of critical reflection within Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, muses, “Authors, as a rule, attempt to select and portray types rarely met with in their entirety, but these types are nevertheless more real than real life itself.”

The two editorial pieces in The New York Times would seem to support these statements. I have also heard both statements used in reference to accounts of the Daisey and Rutgers stories. In both instances, political themes apparently trumped a proper respect for the facts of the matter.

Truth can be stranger than fiction. Fiction can be more real than real life itself. These two statements create something of a logical conundrum. Can truth be stranger than truth itself? No wonder the fake television talk-show host Steven Colbert felt compelled to popularize the concept of “truthiness.” We should remember, however, that each of these thoughts and ideas arose within the creative realm. They are the musings of fictionalized characters created by a poet, a novelist, and a comedian. Even though many might consider them to be simple aphorisms and adages, they are often considered gospel within the literary worldview.

The uncomfortable thing about aphorisms and adages is that society tends to be two-faced about them. We favor one when it suits us, then favor the opposing view when it seems more appropriate—or, in this context, “truer.”

Consider the following: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Ah yes, true. But then: Out of sight, out of mind. So true. A stitch in time saves nine./Haste makes waste. Actions speak louder than words./The pen is mightier than the sword. You get the idea. You see little sayings like this posted all the time on Web sites and Facebook updates, and more often than not, a chorus response of “So true!” will follow.

A reliance on simple sayings like these—as well as simplistic sayings disguised as profound wisdom, of which there are many more examples—tends to create a rather tenuous and fragile worldview. That’s why it shocks us so deeply when someone like Mike Daisey comes along and throws rocks inside the glass house. (Sorry for that pun. I couldn’t resist.) Daisey offered up a fiction as fact, and people wanted to believe him so badly that they willingly suspended their disbelief. (Yes, that “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote. More literary gospel.) Ira Glass even admitted that because the details of Daisey’s story seemed so true, the fact-checkers gave him a pass when they couldn’t corroborate his claims with the interpreter/character mentioned in his monologue (whose name he had lied about and whom he claimed could not be reached, when in fact she was easily contacted by another journalist).

Likewise, a piece of investigative journalism by Ian Parker in The New Yorker (link below) calls into question any simplistic understanding of the Ravi/Clementi case. As a piece of “literary” writing (which I’ll simplify here to mean writing that includes effective characters, setting, plot, and theme), the article surpassed nearly all of the fiction I have read over the past years. It stood as an example of why, over the past decade, my own “poetic faith” in literature has been eroding and I have been unwilling to suspend my disbelief in most (though assuredly not all) fictional contexts.

I have, in essence, become a literary skeptic. Inasmuch as our artistic culture constantly blends the two (consider the current use of the term “creative nonfiction”), I teeter on a tightrope when I read. I look to the author to provide a steady, unswerving wire along with a pole for balance, and when I feel that I have these things, I am able to walk between the towers of fact and fiction, a feat accomplished to great effect in Colum McCann’s extraordinary novel Let the Great World Spin. (Just read the opening pages and see for yourself.) Mostly, perhaps, I look to the author for honesty and authority, two traits that don’t always play well with one another.

In searching for the most powerful voice—for a “totality” of fabricated details when the truth was more than sufficient to drive his point home—the author/writer Mike Daisey created a narrator/character, also named Mike Daisey, who twisted the facts. Then, like many contemporary authors before him, he dared us, the audience, to tell the two apart. The only problem here was that he did not tell his audience that he was playing a game of “Truth or Dare.” In fact, he never hinted that we were playing a game at all.

As the adages above demonstrated, you can’t have it both ways. Attempts to do so only demean both sides of the equation: the essential integrity of journalism (here comes more fodder for the “lamestream media” claim) and the transformative power of creative literature (here comes more fodder for the “academic elitists” claim). No doubt the dialogue between the two camps (literature and journalism, art and reality, fact and fiction) can and should continue, but it needs to be honest. It should welcome scrutiny rather than resist critical efforts. In that way, we can preserve spaces for both the brain-based analysis of figurative language as well as the mystical creation claims recently published in The New York Times. Otherwise, they risk coming across as mere parlor tricks promoted by charlatans.

Below is an excerpt from the transcript of the retraction episode of “This American Life” (link also below). I don’t include it as a way of providing closure, however. This discussion needs to continue beyond its most recent manifestations, just as it continued beyond the now historical cases of James Frey’s “creative memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, and the falsified news reports of another Glass, Stephen, in the 1990s. For me, however, the takeaway from the excerpt below is the title of this blog entry itself, “The Normal Worldview.” What great fodder for a million more little blogs…

 Ira Glass: Like, you make a nice show, people are moved by it, I was moved by it, and if it were labeled honestly, I think everybody would react differently to it.

Mike Daisey: I don’t think that label covers the totality of what it is.

Ira Glass: That label – fiction?

Mike Daisey: Yeah. We have different worldviews on some of these things. I agree with you truth is really important.

Ira Glass: I know, but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is when somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’

RELATED LINKS:

“This American Life” original episode (transcript):

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/454/transcript

“This American Life” retraction episode:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction

News article about the Dharum Ravi conviction:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/nyregion/defendant-guilty-in-rutgers-case.html


“The Story of a Suicide” (Parker):

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/02/06/120206fa_fact_parker

“Your Brain on Fiction” (Paul):

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?src=me&ref=general

“My Life’s Sentences” (Lahiri):

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/my-lifes-sentences/?src=me&ref=general

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6 comments on ““The Normal Worldview”

  1. ninecentgirl says:

    Thanks Hugh… I followed both those stories and have had them playing around in the back of my mind… your synthesis helped me immensely!

  2. Tracey says:

    Excellent post. Both cases really are a minefield of emotions because they are so complicated. It’s almost impossible to pick a side, so I have stayed out of discussions, while keeping an eye on the news.

    As for the truth/fiction blur, this is something that I struggle with in my own writing. Fiction, for a lot of writers, can be autobiographical. We hide in the pages as we reveal things that we wouldn’t want to say in real life. I wrote about this in a recent blog post of my own, and then I was asked by a reader, “if fiction is truth, then what is memoir?” The labels really trip us up. Capote called his truth/fiction blur “reportage.” Someone could make a career on coming up with labels alone.

    One last thing… Colbert didn’t come up with the word or concept of “truthiness.” But he did make it popular.

  3. Hugh Coyle says:

    Thanks for leaving your two cents (so to speak), ninecentgirl! And Tracey, thanks for the note. I’ve updated the piece to correct the “truthiness” error.

    Like many writers, I struggled with the truth/fiction distinction (you’ll see even more of this in subsequent posts). After years and years of inner conflict, I’ve come to reject the “fiction is truth” line entirely. It’s metaphor masquerading as logic, and it does more harm than good in the world to try to conflate the two.

    The postmodernist critic in me, however, continues to struggle with the reflexive expression that “truth is fiction.” It’s akin to that logical trap, “This sentence is false.” To use a metaphor from astrophysics, the argument becomes a black hole, and no one yet knows for sure what’s on the other side of that event horizon. It sure does provide quite an opportunity for theorizing and imagining, however!

    • Tracey says:

      True, about “fiction is truth.” My post was about truth “in” fiction, but I liked the commenter’s question about memoir. We all remember, and cringe at, Frey. I also know a lot of writers who think that all writing is fiction because non-fiction can be framed at the writer’s discretion (which, I think is partially your point), but I also know a lot of non-fiction writers who don’t care for the term “non-fiction” and have been discussing a replacement label.

      For my part, I’ll just write whatever I write and leave it to those smarter than me to tell me what it is.

  4. Hugh Coyle says:

    Tracey – Be careful about letting others tell you what it is that you’re writing. After all, that’s what got James Frey into trouble in the first place! There’s a whole marketing angle to all of this that I didn’t want to get into (yet), but publishers feel that something will sell better if it’s labeled as “true.” And yes, you’re absolutely right about labels (and genres). They can be as harmful as they are helpful in describing and discussing things. The essayist Scott Russell Sanders once suggested that we rename fiction “non-fact,” if only to avenge the slighted “non-fiction” writers of the world. (And if you really want to expand the argument and raise his ire, just mention the title of that popular magazine, Poets and Writers. I guess that would make fiction writers “non-poets”!)

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