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Monday, April 23, 2012

Mike Daisey and the Uncanny Valley of Fiction


I recently became a fan of "This American Life" and finally got to listen to the "Retraction" episode (see reference). Long story short, they ran a excerpt from Mike Daisey's theatrical monologue about visiting China's Apple factories. Afterwards, there was fact-checking, and it turned out a number of Daisey's purported experiences (guards with guns, 12-year-old workers, underground unions meeting at Starbucks) could not be corroborated.

This fascinates me because I love TAL's documentary nature, and it's so rare for a journalistic organization to admit they made a mistake. But not only that, TAL dedicated an entire episode to it, and gave everyone a chance to make a statement. When Daisey was given that chance, he hedged his ass off, claiming it's a theater production, he exaggerated facts because they made a better story, and composited other stories that weren't his own. And it's quite clear from "Retraction" that Daisey regrets allowing TAL to run his story. But not because it was something non-journalistic in a journalistic context. It was because he got caught. And he knew he would get caught, because otherwise, he would have given them his translator's real name and phone number. Before that he was happy to get the publicity. The problem is, are we supposed to accept his story as fact or fiction?

You see, I do believe Daisey. I believe that the things in his monologue happened at some point in time. But they didn't happen to him -- he didn't see an exit ramp that tapered to nowhere, but I'm sure that's somewhere. He didn't meet someone with gnarled hands from hexane poisoning, but that person exists somewhere. I'm sure there are underage workers. But he never met someone who was 12, he "guessed" someone was 12.

"The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" is not a stand-up routine, or a one-act play. Mike Daisey is not playing a character. He's not making up a fairy tale. He's trying to get you to believe something is the truth to rally a call to arms. But the problem is, you can't do that if you make stuff up and exaggerate. If you lie about some things, how can we believe you about other things. We have a word for when people try to motivate others through exaggerations, selective facts, and messages based on emotion instead of fact -- propaganda. Even if its for a good cause, it's no better than those Jack Chick pamphlets that said D&D causes Satanism.

If he had told the story in a different way (maybe he could have made it into an actual multi-character monologue) or at least stated that this is an amalgamation of true occurrences, not all of which happened to him. But have happened. Then this could have been avoided. Instead, he tells the story in a way that makes it sound like he experienced it all. I was trying to figure why I feel so angry about this. It's not the journalism part, it's the fact that he's relating an experience, but it's not non-fiction. I think there is a certain point where you lose the audience if your story is either too true or not true enough. That got me thinking about a theory -- that there's an uncanny valley of truth in any story.

And now a brief summary of the Uncanny Valley. The valley itself refers to this graph.


The Uncanny Valley is really a robotics thing that says "the more human something is, the more empathic and positive the human response will be; EXCEPT when the subject is 'almost human'. Then the response turns to revulsion." In other words, the Uncanny Valley is the reason why cute robots look cute but Japanese androids that are trying to resemble humans are creepy.


How does this apply to my theory? The same thing seems to work with fiction. Humans need a place to ground themselves in fiction, and if you get too far from that, you lose your audience. But the closer you get, the more the audience can relate to the story, because all fiction is based on the human experience. Stephen King said in "On Writing" that novelists have a duty to the truth. And Tom Clancy said fiction is harder than reality because it has to be plausible.

Replace the X-axis as "Percentage of truth in the work" and Y-axis with "audience fascination". Now at about the 0% range is a story that's simply nonsense words, and at 100% is absolute truth (personally, I think that's a theoretical impossibility, like "absolute zero"). At about 40%, you have stories and poems with little structure or narrative, like abstract film. At about 60% you have fairy tales and grow to spec fic. At about 80% you have literary novels. Anything before the valley is considered fiction and after it is considered non-fiction. Documentaries should be in the 100% mark, although those tend to be biased since it's easy to be selective with truths. Biopics are a little short of that, case depending. The audience knows they're dramatized versions of real events, and not everything happened the way it does in the movie. But it's close enough to feel we know more about the life of that person or event, like The Aviator And at 90%, where the valley dips, you have the stuff like Mike Daisey.

The audience has to be in on the joke. As long as the audience knows it's fiction, it's fine. If the audience knows it's being presented with fact, it's fine. But that valley in the middle, the audience can't tell what's truth and what's not, and it is lost. It's like at a magic show. The magician basically makes a contract with the audience that says "I am going to lie to you" (I think Neil Gaiman said this). The magician will do all kinds of fantastical feats. But at no point does the magician tell you that this is really happening, that he is really using supernatural powers to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. The audience knows that he's using various tools: sleight of hand, prepared equipment, illusion, or psychology to fool you. We don't mind being fooled, it sharpens the mind and helps us escape reality for a while. But there's that phenomenon where you can't go in-between.

This is why I don't like the Coen brothers and I don't like Fargo. Because that disclaimer in the front says "this is based on true events" and it's not. It's blatantly not. If the story-teller says that this really happened and it didn't, even if it's the most entertaining story ever, it's lost me because it's broken a contract with the audience -- that I'm going to either tell you a fun story that's not true or present truth to you as best I can (while still keeping your attention). Daisey's trying to hide behind the claim that his monologue is entertainment, but that doesn't mean you can't clarify what side it's on -- fiction or non-fiction.

Case in point: James Frey. A few years back, he wrote a memoir about his struggle with addiction called "A Million Little Pieces". When Oprah brought him to the limelight, fact-checkers discovered that large portions of the book were untrue. The story lost all integrity. Oprah defended it, saying that it's an inspiration for people dealing with addiction. That could still be true -- if you can ignore whether the book is fact or fiction.

But I can't. That factor is a large part of the book's purpose. A memoir, by definition, needs to land on the right side of that valley. You can't simply make up events that didn't happen for the sake of making the book more exciting. That's no longer entertainment, that's exaggeration. That's misrepresenting yourself. That's lying. (And for more fun reading, look at all these other literary hoaxes)

Both Frey and Daisey are talented writers, no doubt of that. If either work was labeled more accurately, it might be a different story. But there is no label for "almost non-fiction".
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