I began to think we were really reaching a crisis in prose writing about two months ago, when the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported that NPR had announced that they were toying with the idea of fact-checking a regular contributor to This American Life: essayist David Sedaris. According to Farhi, This American Life’s Ira Glass told him that three responses were “under discussion: fact-checking each of Sedaris’s stories to ensure their accuracy, labeling them to alert the audience that the stories contain ‘exaggerations’ or doing nothing,” but at the moment, Glass was leaning towards checking “Sedaris’s facts to the extent that stories involving memories and long-ago conversations can be checked.” NPR’s ombudsman went further: “When you have so much questioning of what’s real, fair, subjective and accurate in the news media, it doesn’t help to have [a segment] on a news program that gives no indication that some liberties have been taken. I do think some kind of flag or label or introduction would be appropriate.”
The last few years have seen a number of scandals involving journalists fabricating sources or quotes, inventing first-person experiences, misrepresenting facts, and so forth. Particularly when these fabrications involve political decisions or social policy, they can be devastating. This American Life itself was only the most recent high-profile victim of such a fabrication, when performer Mike Daisey’s experience at an Apple Computer supplier’s factory in China was presented by Daisey and TAL as journalism, when it was later revealed to be largely invented by Daisey himself.
Sedaris, though, was never what I considered journalism, so it seems odd to hold him to the same standards as a journalist. In a very early episode of This American Life, Sedaris addressed this question in a live performance of his piece, “I Like Guys,” which he prefaced with a comment, “These are things I’m working on for a new book, a collection of nonfiction stories. When asked if they’re true, I prefer to answer that they’re true enough.” Sedaris’ comment artfully sidesteps the question of factual accuracy—it could have happened, it might as well have happened, so try not to get hung up on the details. The person who needs to know for sure, he seems to be saying, is missing the larger point. It’s a good line, but apparently “true enough” isn’t good enough, at least not anymore.
In the sixteen years since that episode, “The cruelty of children,” first ran, This American Life has changed dramatically. In the opening of that early show, Ira Glass gave this description of the program: “Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life. I’m Ira Glass. Back for another week documenting stories of these United States using all the tools of radio storytelling—documentaries, monologues, overheard conversations, found tapes, anything we can think of.” Glass is not describing himself as a pure journalist there, and that’s part of what set the show apart from Morning Edition and All Things Considered. That catch-as-catch-can attitude that pervaded the early years of This American Life, andis part of what made it so successful. In addition to the piece by Sedaris, the cruelty of children episode also contained a short story by Ira Sher, “The Man in the Well,” as well as an interview with MacArthur winner and child educator, Vivian Paley. And it remains, to my mind, still perhaps the best episode they’ve ever run. Glass had only recently changed the name of the show to This American Life from Your Radio Playhouse, and its original name testified to the emphasis on dramatic, rather than factual, storytelling (thus the vestigial use of “acts” for segments on the show). But in the last few years TAL has ossified into a strictly “journalism” organization, which accounts both for its excellent reporting on the housing crisis with its Planet Money team, as well as its sudden lack of patience for Sedaris’ “true enough.”
The slow but irrevocable evolution of This American Life reflects a larger trend, I think, in our current state of writing, in which storytelling, particularly prose, is more and more categorized as belonging exclusively to one of two forms: journalism or fiction. There is a startling lack of tolerance for the “true enough” attitude of certain writers, even when, as with Sedaris, the “facts” at issue involve neither issues of libel nor current events and policy judgments.
This sudden rigidity is born out of repeated journalism scandals like Daisey and Stephen Glass, along with invented first-person memoirs like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. With each fabricator, we’ve voices have loudly claimed that anything that’s not 100% verifiable must be labeled “fiction.” Sedaris, they argue, ought to cop to the fact that his writing isn’t purely factually accurate, and market his pieces accordingly: as short stories rather than essays. There can be no long be any middle ground between journalism and fiction; anything that’s not strictly the former is by default the latter.
Writing in the LA Review of Books, Lee Gutkind was incensed about another essayist, John D’Agata, who advocates a similar “true enough” position in his book Lifespan of a Fact (a collaboration with fact-checker Jim Fingal). Gutkind argues that since “all nonfiction contains a significant portion of reportage,” D’Agata is, one way or another, “reporting, researching, and interviewing, from beginning to end,” and thus is bound by the same rules that journalists must follow. “We are recreating, as vividly as possible, in dramatic form, what we think happened,” Gutkind concludes. “It may be, in the classic informal essay, that style may often take precedence over substance — but the substance must nevertheless remain reliable and accurate. Fabrication — doing what my friend called “a D’Agata” — is fiction.” Gutkind is far from alone; the overwhelming negative critical response to D’Agata’s position in Lifespan of a Fact suggests an increasing hostility towards anyone whose writing falls in between these two categories.
It’s this strange and rigid demarcation between fiction and journalism, this intolerance of anything that blurs the boundaries, the vilification of the gray areas, and the resulting no man’s land of writing that has no home in today’s increasingly polarized landscape, that is why I’m writing this column.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been here; as it happens, this crisis of authenticity and fact-checking first appeared with the birth of journalism itself in the wake of the printing press. The idea of “news,” in the modern sense we now think of it, printed accounts and records of current events, first begins to appear in England in the late sixteenth century, evolving from the information delivered via the pulpit first to printed broadsides, and then finally prose. The novelty of printed accounts of noteworthy events met widespread popularity and spread quickly, but it wasn’t long, however, before a deep suspicion started to arise about the quality and veracity of the whole enterprise of print journalism. Ben Jonson’s 1631 play The Staple of Newes savaged the burgeoning field of print journalism, claiming that “the age may see her owne folly, or hunger and thirst after publish’d pamphlets of Newes, set out euery Saturday, but made all at home, & no syllable of truth in them.” Around the same time, the poet and satirist Samuel Butler described a newsmonger as “a Retailer of Rumour, that takes up upon Trust, and sells as cheap as he buys. He deals in a perishable Commodity, that will not keep: for if it be not fresh it lies upon his Hands, and will yield nothing. True or false is all one to him; for Novelty being the Grace of bothe, a Truth grows stale as soon as a Lye.”
Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, describes the rapid shifts and schizophrenic reactions to the rise of print culture; what begins as what he calls “naïve empiricism” (if it’s printed, it must be true) is quickly replaced by “extreme skepticism” (if it’s printed, it must be a lie), creating a deep ambivalence, confusion and distrust towards the flood of printed matter in seventeenth century Europe. Print destabilized two previously stable categories of writing: the Romance (including chivalric tales that were obviously fanciful) and the more factually-oriented History. The novel, specifically the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Fielding, arose as a means of solving this dilemma. Defoe, for one, presented himself as merely the “editor” of Robinson Crusoe, and when critics suggested that the entire book may have been fabricated, Defoe doubled down, claiming to believe “the thing to be a just History of Fact,” and boasting that all attempts to suggest it was fictional “have proved abortive.” (It’s not difficult to see the parallels between Defoe’s hoax during the burgeoning age of print and these similar hoaxes in the age of the internet; the main difference is that Defoe was that much more brazen and steadfast in his denials, and that he’s subsequently largely been forgiven. Hoaxes, apparently, are a bit like prostitutes and buildings, in that with enough time they become respectable.)
But while Defoe and Richardson passed their work off as being “true,” they were already subtly but fundamentally shifting the conversation. While Richardson publicly attested to the truth of Pamela, to friends he admitted that while there was an “original ground-work of fact, for the general foundation of Pamela’s story,” the letters in the novel themselves were his own writing. Defoe himself eventually walked back from his own defense of Crusoe, postulating about works that have their “Existence in fact” but “by the barbarous way of relating,” have become “as romantick and false as if they had no real Original.” True enough, these stories were likely enough but may not have been totally factually correct. What their work did was to present stories that were not subject to independent verification. Rather, they presented stories that were plausible enough without being necessarily verifiable. McKeon describes how, slowly, writers like Richardson and Defoe created a space for a new kind of writing, one in which was based on the probability of a story without obviously fanciful additions, while not necessarily being subject to rigorous fact-checking. The novel, McKeon concludes, stems from an attempt to assert “not brute factuality—an unattainable ideal—but a relative fidelity of narration.” Born in a landscape where fact and fiction had become hopelessly confused, the novel offered a third way out, in the process solving this epistemological crisis.
It’s not difficult to see parallels here to the internet, and to the rapid, jarring shifts in attitude towards the information in the Information Age. The proliferation of urban legend emails (“Bill Gates is beta-testing! Forward this to 15 friends to get a cut of the millions”) testifies to that same naïve empiricist impulse, that anything on the web may very well be true. At the same time, this credulity has given way to a corresponding form of extreme skepticism—Wikipedia being the most obvious example of a supposed news source whose veracity is forever called into question, from The Onion to scholarly professors, despite the fact that it’s been proven to be generally as reliable as Britannica. The internet tracks closely to the printing press in terms of causing an epochal shift of how we understand the truth-value of the information we’re given, and with it has come that a similar schizophrenia.
If the novel arose as a response to an impasse between History and Romance, and we now find ourselves a similar binary of Journalism and Fiction, the question that’s come to my mind repeatedly over the last year is whether or not there might be some new rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem, an as-yet-emerging genre that will inhabit the space somewhere between the novel and journalism, a kind of writing that will assuage our anxiety over what is and what isn’t true.
What I want to do here is move away from the anxiety of fact versus fiction, and what can or cannot be fact-checked. I’m not interested in assaulting either the novel or journalism, two fine institutions which have of late felt often under attack. My hypothesis instead is that you can preserve these two modes of prose with seriousness and respect and still productively explore the space between. This column is meant as a way to explore that possibility, and discuss the kinds of writing that’s springing up between journalism and fiction and whether or not it’s any good.