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Posted at 03:51 PM ET, 03/16/2012

Mike Daisey’s powerful fiction


It’s not lying. It’s fiction. (Astrid Riecken/Washington Post)
The story read like a punch to the gut.

It was called “Mr. Daisey And The Apple Factory.” It was an excerpt from monologist Mike Daisey’s one-man show about his love affair with Apple, in which he visits the Foxconn factory where parts of Apple products are made and talks with the workers there. A man with a hand ruined by making Apple products, who has never seen an iPad turned on, touches the screen of Daisey’s new iPad and murmurs that it is a kind of magic.

The tale caught you in your vitals. It held and did not release you.

There was a reason 888,000 people downloaded the podcast, and why, if you Googled it afterwards, they posted things like, “If you love me or know me or are at all a good person, listen to this story.”

It is a great story. It is a powerful, compelling piece of human narrative, and it did what a number of such stories have done over time: It forced things to change. Apple admitted an outside party to study its factory conditions and released a list of its suppliers. People started to know the name Foxconn. It became a punchline on Twitter.

Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Jungle, it was a human tale that gripped and gave faces to the faceless and forced things to change.

Also like them, it was fictional.

Today, Ira Glass, host of This American Life, published a retraction. “I suspect that many things that Mike Daisey claims to have experienced personally did not actually happen, but listeners can judge for themselves,” Glass wrote.

The next episode of the popular radio show will be dedicated to pointing out the falsehoods in the story. Daisey has apologized to the listeners who felt misled. On his own Web site, he is less contrite, regretting only that he presented fiction as fact.

Well, that’s the real trick. Life is absolutely resistant to narrative form.

That is why good narratives are as powerful as they are rare.

In general, fiction is a more effective tool for telling truth than fact. Fiction is life but with better lighting. Everyone speaks up. There’s background music.

There’s that famous quote from the author of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, that “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” But most journalists do not have that luxury.

One of the perennial frustrations of journalism is that people so seldom say what would make for a great story, and you cannot employ the tools of fiction to bridge the gap. You are stuck with the unvarnished facts. You cannot make up a telling incident.

People never say quite what they mean, or if they do, they say it badly. They say too little or too much. Guns, unlike in Chekhov, rarely go off, and when they do it is not at the Act II climax but by mistake somewhere in the middle of intermission, when the audience has gotten up to go to the bathroom.

But there’s a difference between telling a story and journalism.

Even the best journalism is only based on a true story. “Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge,” said Erwin Knoll. But there are standards.

Good journalism tells a story. But all good stories are not journalism.

Journalism, reductio’ed ad absurdum, is a curious art. You send someone into a place and he talks to people and emerges a few days or hours later with a few paragraphs that might make you see the world differently.

Daisey has the gift of making you see the world differently. He is a playwright, a storyteller.

Most dramatists are frustrated conversationalists. Drama consists in making people say better things than they would actually say, have satisfyingly cathartic confrontations at times when they would mumble and dart off the stage.

Daisey knows what makes a good story, and what makes a good story is not always fact. Sometimes the best story is a lie.

“What stories can do, I guess, is make things present,” O’Brien wrote. “I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave.”

Daisey’s story did that. If only he’d admitted it was fiction, story-truth, and not try to paint it as fact. It’s only because he insisted we not call it fiction that we now have to call it a lie.

By  |  03:51 PM ET, 03/16/2012

 
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