Based on a “True” Story

First published at LitReactor on May 15th, 2012

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 Lifelisteners, 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 PotterTwilight, 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“.

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