Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Archive for March 19th, 2012

When reality isn’t good enough

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Is reality a bore? Well, it depends on who you ask. Edward R. Tufte, in his wonderful book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, devotes many pages to combating the assumption that data and statistics, being inherently dull, need to be dressed up with graphics and bright colors to catch the reader’s eye. The result, Tufte argues, is chartjunk, ink wasted on flashy design elements that have nothing to do with the information presented. Instead of investing resources in tarting up uninformative numbers, he says, one’s time is much better spent unearthing and analyzing relevant information. The best data, presented simply, will inspire surprise and curiosity, but only if the numbers are interesting and accurate, which requires its own kind of skill, ingenuity, and patience. Tufte sums up his case magnificently: “If the statistics are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers. Finding the right numbers requires as much specialized skill—statistical skill—and hard work as creating a beautiful design or covering a complex news story.”

Replace “statistics” with “stories,” and “numbers” with “facts,” and Tufte’s sound advice applies equally well to authors of nonfiction. It rings especially true in light of a number of recent controversies, both of which center on the question of when, if ever, reality should be manipulated for artistic reasons. One is the release of The Lifespan of a Fact, a book chronicling the five-year struggle between essayist John D’Agata and factchecker Jim Fingal over the accuracy of an essay finally published by The Believer. The other, of course, is the furor over a recent episode of This American Life, in which Mike Daisey’s account of his visit to a Chinese factory making components for Apple was revealed to have substantial fabrications. These are very different cases, of course, each with its own underlying motivations, but both are rooted in the assumption that reality, by itself, isn’t good enough. This led D’Agata and Daisey to embellish their stories with what might, at best, be termed “artistic” truth, but which can also be seen as the prose equivalent of chartjunk: falsehoods inserted to punch up the uncolorful facts.

D’Agata’s case is arguably the more instructive, because it’s founded on what appears to be a genuine artistic interest in blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. The original version of his essay, which uses the real suicide of a young man named Levi Presley as a means of exploring the culture of Las Vegas, contained countless departures from the facts, all purportedly for artistic reasons. Some were minor, such as changing the color of some vans from pink to purple because it scanned better, while others were fundamental: in his first paragraph, D’Agata refers to a series of strange events that occurred on the day of Presley’s suicide, including a tic-tac-toe contest against a chicken—none of which actually took place on the day in question. In other words, his list of unbelievable facts is literally unbelievable, because he made them up. In D’Agata’s hands, truth isn’t stranger than fiction; instead, fiction is exactly as strange as fiction, which raises the question of why we should care. In the end, his inability to find the real Las Vegas sufficiently colorful comes off as a failure of will, and the fact that he embellishes facts throughout the essay while keeping Levi Presley’s real name—presumably to gain a free artistic frisson from the circumstances of an actual suicide—seems like a particularly unfortunate case of wanting to have it both ways.

At least D’Agata has some kind of literary philosophy, however misguided, to justify his deviations from the truth (although it should be noted that most readers of The Believer presumably read his article as straight journalism). The same can’t be said of Mike Daisey, who altered the facts in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to make it sound as if he personally witnessed events that occurred a thousand miles away, and to manufacture completely imaginary incidents for the sake of manipulating the audience. (In retrospect, it’s especially horrifying to hear Daisey’s voice grow soft and choked as he describes an injured factory worker’s first encounter with an iPad, a fictional incident that he describes as if it actually took place.) Daisey’s excuse, unlike D’Agata’s, is an emotional one: he wanted the audience to feel something, to be touched, implying that the true facts of his trip weren’t moving enough. Meanwhile, the legitimate journalism on Chinese factory conditions, as conducted by such reporters as Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of the New York Times, is far more fascinating, and it doesn’t depend on fabricated melodrama to make an impact.

As Tufte says, if the facts are boring, you’re using the wrong facts. But isn’t there a place for the judicious mingling of reality with fiction? Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about this, and the importance of truth in labeling.

Quote of the Day

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Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Written by nevalalee

March 19, 2012 at 7:50 am

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