Elif Batuman: “Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.”Wednesday, April 25th, 2012
I somehow missed the kerfuffle about Mike Daisey’s “monologue” about the terrible working conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Another chapter in the long history of fabricated memories, which became the subject of a painful retraction last month.
Is the truth more compelling than any attempt to fictionalize it? “That’s what I always tell myself when I’m being fact-checked, and some detail I was attached to turns out not to be true,” she told interviewer Sean Carman. “I’m initially disappointed, and maybe discouraged that now there’s more work for me to do, but I know that 99.9% of the time there’s actually something there, in the truth, that’s more interesting than whatever I or anyone else can make up.
“When you invent something, you’re drawing on reservoirs of knowledge that you already have. It’s only when you’re faithful to the truth that something can come to you from the outside. … something maybe less neat but richer and stranger.”
In general, she’s more interested in the audience for fibs, rather than the fibbers themselves, and “figuring out why and how anyone believed it – why they needed to believe it”:
They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth. But I mean, why did people ever like novels to begin with? Because they used to love lies? No way.
When you’re reading a novel, I think the reason you care about how any given plot turns out is that you take it as a data point in the big story of how the world works. Does such-and-such a kind of guy get the girl in the end? Does adultery ever bring happiness? How do winners become winners?
Just because a book is labeled as a novel, you don’t assume it happened in La La land and has nothing to do with reality. It just means that the novelist has processed, consolidated, or edited his experiences and observations, to tell a story. Which obviously happens in a memoir, too. It’s a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. That’s why I find it weird when you walk into a bookstore the most privileged distinction is between fiction and nonfiction.
When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, he did a ton of historical research about Napoleon – he spent ages in archives, reading letters and diaries, many of them written by his wife’s relatives. In general, in his career, he borrowed a lot of plot details from the lives of his in-laws. I bet if Tolstoy was writing now in America, there would be a lot of pressure on him to do War and Peace as a nonfiction book – like, tracing the domestic and personal life of his wife’s grandmother through journals and letters, interwoven with his own philosophical musings about the Napoleonic wars. But Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.
We hear a lot these days about two opposing tendencies in literature. On the one hand, there’s a tendency away from the novel, toward nonfiction. On the other hand, there’s a tendency away from objective journalism, toward memoiristic or essayistic nonfiction. They’re opposing tendencies, but they both reflect an anxiety about how much we can trust facts. We expect facts to give us objective truth, but objective truth keeps eluding us. We move away from the novel, because the novel isn’t factual; but in our nonfiction writing, we feel constantly compelled to cast doubt on our access to objective facts. We hire teams of fact-checkers to track them down. Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.
Read the whole thing here.