Based on a "True Story"

We can all agree that in general, we read because we like stories. The older we get, and the more advanced technology becomes, the rustier our imaginations grow. From time to time, it’s nice to dust off those marvelous contraptions and jostle them with one of the most primitive art forms still widely consumed today: the written word. Why then, does the TRUE STORY hold such a special place in our hearts? One of my duties here at LitReactor is compiling a monthly “new release roundup”, in which I pick a handful of fresh titles that might appeal to our readers. Without fail, as I page through endless catalogs, I skip over countless memoirs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a memoir. I can think of many folks, right off the bat, whose self-described life I would love to devour, but the vast majority of memoirs I run across are not only written by people I’ve never heard of, they describe lives that seem impossibly unremarkable. This begs the question: when did how “true” a story is replace entertainment value as our number one priority?

Remember James Frey? Back in 2006, the author caught hell from readers, editors, and Oprah Winfrey when it was revealed that large parts of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces, were either grossly exaggerated or altogether untrue. It was later discovered that Frey had originally tried to sell versions of the manuscript as novel before tweaking it and pitching it as a memoir. However, though he was relatively unknown until Winfrey selected A Million Little Pieces as her Book of the Month, Frey was not a writer desperately trying to break into the business by taking drastic measures. He had already enjoyed moderate success as a screenwriter, penning the films Kissing a Fool and Sugar: The Fall of the West. Frey’s motivations aside, it seems rather curious that publishers and readers alike would suddenly leap on a story they previously found humdrum once it was presented as a riveting TRUE STORY.

A more recent example of a good story gone bad lies in Mike Daisey, a dramatist whose name was forever tarnished by his attempts at telling “true” story earlier this year. In January, thousands of This American Life listeners, myself included, downloaded a podcast, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”. The show was an expose of working conditions at a Foxconn (a manufacturer of Apple products) factory in China, and prominently featured excerpts from Daisey’s one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In March, the show retracted the episode, after discovering glaring errors, exaggerations, and inconsistencies in Daisey’s work. In the podcast, “Retraction,” Daisey repeatedly justifies his actions, saying that it was an important issue that he thought had been given little to no attention in the mainstream media, and that he used the power of storytelling to make the topic more personable and immediate.

In spite of Daisey’s self-serving rationalizations, the man raises a troubling point. What is it about the taglines “based on real events” and “the incredible true story” that rubs us, the consumers, in just the right way? Why does a movie starring somebody pretending to be Truman Capote make millions of dollars and garner countless accolades while a documentary about Truman Capote (or most any documentary, really), will forever be marked as “non-commercial”? If our hunger for truth is so voracious, why are newspapers in the toilet while a bogus story about Abraham Lincoln inventing Facebook took the entire Internet by storm?

Perhaps the fallout of the Information Age has not been an addiction to facts, but an addiction to voyeurism. In a world as dominated by social media as ours, we’re able to peer into the lives of our friends, family members, and even our most beloved celebrities. Our obsession with “reality” can be seen across many different forms of media, be it the “reality television” boom (a phrase that has become more and more paradoxical as time goes on), the continuing popularity of Hollywood gossip (no longer relegated to tabloids and now available on a myriad of websites), or even the success of “found footage” films. Entertaining as we might find a well-crafted tale and well-developed characters, it can’t compare to the thrill of a stranger’s life laid bare. By that same token, the real-life drama that often goes hand in hand with “true stories” offers ancillary entertainment that sometimes outstrips the work itself. How many of us (myself very much included) followed the James Frey saga with baited breath, but never read A Million Little Pieces?  How many of us eagerly licked our chops while we watched Mike Daisey’s reputation disintegrate before our eyes? “True stories” not only satisfy our need to spy, they slake our bloodlust.

None of this is meant to excuse people like Frey or Daisey. Both men are opportunists who misrepresented themselves and their work for personal gain. However, Daisey’s claim of good intentions deserves at least some consideration. If you listen to the “Retraction” episode of This American Life, it’s apparent that Daisey is something of a publicity-hound, but consider how uncommon his method is. We all remember the debacle raised by the Stop Kony campaign, and the aforementioned “Lincoln Invents Facebook” hoax was allegedly carried out to draw attention to issues of veracity and vetting as pertains to the Internet. Something is dreadfully backwards when we can’t depend on our news for “true stories” and instead root around for them in our fiction.

The good news, fortunately, is that there seems to be no dearth of good old fashioned storytelling for the reader looking to shake the rust off of their imagination. The biggest critical and commercial successes of the last decade or so have not only been wholly fictional, they have been novels of the most fantastic stripe imaginable (Harry Potter, Twilight, and A Game of Thrones to name a few). As the dollars go, so goes any industry, so rest assured that heads of publishing houses across the globe have been pressuring their heads of acquisition to keep an eye peeled for the "next Harry Potter", not the "next A Year in Provence".

What say you, readers? Has our obsession with "true stories" damaged the world of credible (and incredible) writing? Are we so bereft of ideas that we're content to create and consume 800 page memoirs detailing years of unremarkable navel-gazing? Am I just curmudgeonly before my time? Speak up in the comments, and let your voice be heard.

John Jarzemsky

Column by John Jarzemsky

John is a freelance writer who has been with LitReactor since the days of its halcyon youth. You can check out John's blog, the poorly titled Super Roller Disco Monkey Hullabaloo!, for other reviews, random musings, and ill-thought out rants. He was recently published in Bushwick Nightz, a collection of short stories about the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he resides.

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jennydecki's picture
jennydecki from Chicagoland is reading The Foreigners May 15, 2012 - 12:40pm

I think both Frey and Daisey hit on something else: Both were telling stories people wanted to be true. See, with Frey, he was all "F**k AA" or whatever and, like, tough-loved himself out of drug-addiction. How many milliions of people think that an addict could stop, if they only tried a little harder? Frey comes in and this book is like a bible of pulling yourself up by your weird, messed-up bootstraps and is embraced.

Apple is this company that has worshippers, and those of us who are not fans - me included - reveled in the Daisey story as this big middle-fingers to the organic hipsters we see shoving the Mac-lifestyle down our PC-loving throats. We were all kinds of, "Neener neener" and self-righteous about it. Knowing there had to be arsenic cookies in the attic - even though there really weren't. Well, mostly.

So, yeah, there are true stories that are not so true - but if those stories tell us things that make us feel superior and all schadenfreude-y toward the rest of the world - so much the better. 

Note: I do not think an addict could quit if they just tried a little harder, even while I was reading Frey I was like, "Oprah, what the hell is this mess?" But I was totally sucked into the Daisey story, much to my eventual chagrin.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine May 15, 2012 - 12:50pm

A similar situation with David Sedaris and NPR went down recently:


jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 15, 2012 - 1:38pm

I don't understand your last paragraph.  Is the "obsession" you mention the fact that some memoirs sell well?  (Of course many don't sell well.)  Or is the symptom of obsession the public backlash when these stories turn out not to be true?  Why would people be okay with an author straight-up lying to them (about whether the story was true or not?)

It might seem odd because some writers get away with it.  Hunter Thompson was a good writer, but a lot of it wasn't factual.  Old news, I know, but the idea that readers need journalists to fake stuff in order to point out the truth of the matter is arrogant and somewhat condescending, in my opinion.  Even so, narrative-style reportage is fairly common practice these days.

If you think making the facts more readable demands you change the actual facts themselves or falsify new "facts", you shouldn't be taken seriously as a journalist.  If you're just altering the facts to make it all flow better, or make your point more efficiently, you might be a good writer, but an irresponsible reporter.  Why?  Because if the facts don't do a good enough job of making your point, maybe your point isn't as strong as you'd like to think.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 15, 2012 - 2:41pm

I think the general complaint is that there is a breach of trust. If someone believes something to be true and it turns out to be fabricated, whether it hurt anyone or not, they feel betrayed. It's human nature. If you read fiction, you know it isn't true, but you are willing to suspend disbelief. If you read non-fiction, you let your guard down and take it as fact. There are people that love reality television that would be shocked to find out just how much of it is manipulated for dramatic effect.

Some people think fiction is stupid, but read non-fiction. If they buy in to it and find out it isn't any more true than the smut they've always accused everyone else of reading, they feel betrayed and embarassed.

Personally, I don't have a problem with fictional non-fiction. It is all just fiction in the end, anyway. Unless you are making stuff up that is going to hurt someone, what difference does it really make in the end?

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 15, 2012 - 4:26pm

If you read non-fiction only for pleasure and never for any sort of instruction whatsoever, then I guess you couldn't really be hurt by reading falsehoods.  But then, why would you even bother reading non-fiction, if you didn't care whether it was true or not?  That genre distinction would be literally meaningless, (unless, for some reason, you only liked to read things which other people considered to be factual, or some other weirdness such as that.)

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 15, 2012 - 5:18pm

My own theory is that genre distinction between Fiction and Non-Fiction is always meaningless. Everyone lies. At the very least they modify the truth to make themselves look better, or even just for the sake of drama.

I've been involved in police investigations where not only suspects lied, but victims and witnesses, as well. I generally take whatever I read with a grain of salt. I always assume the author has an agenda, or at very least will make modifications to sell more books.

Pessimistic perhaps, but I'm rarely disappointed.

Kevin Wallace's picture
Kevin Wallace is reading The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson May 16, 2012 - 4:10am

We judge fiction and non-fiction with entirely different criteria.  Fiction is an interesting story, and we judge the author's creativity - the author's task is to make the story real to us.  The purpose of fiction is primarily escapism, at least for me.

Non-fiction, on the other hand, is entirely different.  We take the words as the inexorable truth, and the author gets a bit of a shortcut into that intimate connection with the reader - this actually happened.  We're connecting not just with the story or a character that someone made up, but with the author him/herself.  When this turns out to be false, it's not just that we're embarrassed for being duped, but there was a level of artistic intimacy we had with the author of the work, and that turned out to be based on false pretenses.  We rightly feel a bit betrayed.

I haven't read Frey's work, but Mike Daisey has had the opposite effect on the cause he purportedly cared so much about.  He played our guilt like string instruments, using stories and technique just like a journalist, and then when he was called on it, he tried to redefine the concept of truth by talking about "artistic license" with a "theatrical" work.  He has redeemed the Apple PR-machine when they flatly deny-deny-denied like they usually do.  And he may have set back the cause for human rights in China until the next atrocious and neglectful thing happens.

It's not that we're obsessed with this concept of "truth", it's that we don't like being lied to without our express permission and foreknowledge.