Monday, March 19, 2012

Swimming Upstream

For all I know Felix Salmon is one of the most brilliant financial journalists out there. But his piece yesterday pairing Mike Daisey’s fraudulent reporting on Foxxconn and Invisible Children’s documentary on Kony is a mess. In it, Salmon argues that the controversy generated by the two pieces reveals the weakness inherent in narrative--as opposed to ordinary--journalistic non-fiction:
One of the central problems with narrative nonfiction is that the best narratives aren’t messy and complicated, while nonfiction nearly always is. Daisey stepped way too far over the line when he started outright lying to his audience and to the producers of This American Life. But all of us in the narrative-nonfiction business (I’ve written such stuff myself) are faced at some point with a choice between telling the story and telling the whole truth, or the whole truth as best we understand it. . . . 
 Salmon concludes that it’s wrong to hold these sorts of stories (narratives, that is) to the same standard of accuracy that we hold daily journalism: “Maybe the mistake was made even earlier, when This American Life decided that a theatrical monologue could ever be held to standards of journalistic accuracy. This one certainly couldn’t, and in that I think it’s more the rule than the exception.”

 It is not entirely clear to me what Salmon means by “narratives” as opposed to “stories,” or “nonfiction” versus the “whole truth.” Nor do I entirely understand what he means when he says that the best narratives aren’t messy or complicated. (What is Hamlet, but one damn complication after another?) In fact, I suspect Salmon himself doesn’t really know what he means. He's too smart not to know that terms like "the whole truth" are essentially meaningless. The whole thing seems to be a loosey-goosey way of saying something provocatively PoMo: that the fault, dear reader/viewer/listener, lies not in the storytellers but in the genre.

 If that’s what he’s arguing—and like I say, who knows?—he’s wrong. First, I think we have to make a distinction between Daisey and IC. IC was manipulative and auto-hagiographical and vulgar, but Daisey made shit up. There’s a world of difference, and Salmon is flat-out mistaken to say that the two pieces are “equally problematic.”

 Second, I think Salmon’s claim that narratives are best when they aren’t messy and complicated is half right. It’s true that nonfiction--ie., life--is inherently “messy.” There’s always way more miscellaneous stuff going on in the world and in people’s heads than you could possibly convey. But selecting the details that are important and germane to the story, and omitting the rest, doesn’t make you a liar; it makes you a story teller.

Complications, on the other hand, are pretty much of the essence. Salmon is right that stories shouldn't be messy,  in the sense of containing unnecessary clutter, but he's wrong to say the best aren't complicated. Of course they are. They're as complicated as they need to be, which is to say, they include whatever information the reader needs to develop his or her own thoughtful reaction to the piece. We don’t need to be told everything, but we do need enough of the relevant facts to make a considered judgment. Good story tellers give us that.

And this brings me to the fourth thing I don't quite understand about Salmon's argument: His claim that fiction isn't subject to the same temptations of melodrama or sentimentality that nonfiction is. In fact, I'm even less sure I understand what Salmon is getting at here than elsewhere. What can he possibly be thinking, for example, when he writes that Shakespeare "never sat down in front of thousands of people to tell a first-person story, over and over again, about events which he had simply invented”? I mean, making allowances for the fact that playwrights don't write in front of their audiences, and that plays can't really be said to be written in the first- or third-person, isn’t that exactly what Shakespeare did? Sit down at his desk with the express purpose of composing made-up stories? And isn't that what every storyteller, truthful or not, has done since the invention of the hearth?

 So, in brief: Salmon's thrown a lot of half-boiled ideas against the fridge, and not many have stuck, and now there's a lot of spaghetti on the floor. I assume he’s better at dissecting financial transactions than engaging in literary criticism.

That said, I realized as I was writing this that Salmon may be on to something--that he's actually got the kernel of an interesting idea in there, one that has some relevance to the larger conversation we've been having this week about narratives and third world political interventions. Narrative nonfiction doesn’t “want to be” simplistic; there’s nothing inherent in the genre that warps the space around it toward the theatrically melodramatic. (In fact, a turn toward melodrama or sentimentality is usually a sure sign that something has gone wrong, that the writer is lying to herself or to us--if not about the facts, per se, then about the moral and emotional significance of the facts.)

But there is a genre that does tend toward the melodramatic, that divides the world neatly into good guys and villains, and that revolves around the notion of a heroic American doing battle for the poor and exploited: It’s called Every Film Hollywood Has Ever Made. Film, not narrative nonfiction, is the genre that wants to lie.

I think that's why so many of us are instinctively wary of parachute do-gooder celebrities like Bono and Clooney and their accolytes like Kristof and Prendergast and IC's Jason Russell; deep down, we suspect the script they have in mind is to a story that we know isn't true, no matter how many incidental facts they get right (or not) [2]. And the reason some of us doubt that Hollywood's ministrations can ever be anything but a mixed blessing for the besieged and subaltern is that we know they haven't got a clue. Hollywood peddles feel-good stories with happy endings, starring good-looking people we can identify with, and avoids like leprosy, Aids, gastro-intestinal disease, cholera and yes, the plague, the cold, complicated business of--I was about to say politics, but life in general. Who's going to tell someone like Clooney, who seems to play the role with becoming modesty, or Russell, whose aspirations seem to have exceeded his grasp, that this isn't their story, and that they don't get to be the star?[3]

 [1] Yes, yes, novelists have been playing against that expectation from Tristam Shandy onwards. But it’s only because the tradition exists that authors have been able to play against it.

[2] Sean Penn may be an exception to the rule: He seems to be spending real amounts of time with and among Haitians; whether that will translate into interesting new ways to tell their story or galvanize concern remains an open question.

[3] Dallaire and the late Alison Desforges are the only well-known "Europeans" I'd make an exception for; there are others, not well-known, but in general the whole process of becoming known seems to militate against being admirable.

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