So, David Foster Wallace lied on This American Life, too.
Episode 160, Act Two:
The Twelve Monkeys are a dozen marquis journalists and political analysis guys from the really important papers and weeklies and new services, and tend to be so totally identical in dress and demeanor as to be almost literally surreal. Twelve immaculate and wrinkle free, navy blue blazers, half-windsored ties, pleated chinos, Oxford cloth shirts that even when the jackets come off stay 100% buttoned at collar and sleeves, Cole Haan loafers, and tortoise shell specs they love to take off and nibble the arm of. Plus always a uniform self-seriousness that reminds you of every over-achieving dweeb you ever wanted to kick the ass of in school.
The radio piece was excerpted from Wallace’s article on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign in Rolling Stone. In that version [which is no longer online] he relayed “two separate occasions at late-night hotel check-ins when one or more of the Twelve Monkeys just out of nowhere turned and handed Rolling Stone their suitcases to carry, as if Rolling Stone were a bellboy or gofer instead of a hard-working journalist just like them even if he didn’t have a portable Paul Stuart steamer for his blazer.”
None of that was true. I mean, did this guy—a famous writer, to boot—look like a campaign luggage wrangler or bellhop?
I thought about Wallace the other day, after the Mike Daisey thing blew up. I discovered these… embellishments? … fabrications? … exaggerations?—whatever you want to call them, while writing an essay for Salon describing DFW’s McCain article as a precursor to the Twitter-thumbed campaign reporters of 2010 including, yes, former members of the Twelve Monkeys.
My original thesis was that Wallace was not the first, but the last reporter-oversharer—heavily reporting on his reporting for immediate mass consumption—before social media let everyone else in on the act. My conclusion was a warning that if reporters were going to be churning out print, video and social content around the clock (this was during all the talk about over-extended print reporters being forced to blog) then they had to be wary against veering into fabrications. “The exaggerations of DFW’s account should serve as a warning against the recklessness of this relentless campaign doodling—this infinite jest of the political press.” (Oof.)
It was a flimsy thesis and a forced conclusion and bless the editor’s heart for helping me mold it into something else rather than just killing it. He cut the ‘infinite jest’ line (mercifully, in hindsight, without comment) and suggested that I lay off Wallace for the fabricated parts. “I think playing up the embellishments so much at the end was tonally off,” he wrote. “He made some stuff up, sure, but I think the tone before that is (rightly) appreciative of his… flair.”
I replied that I thought the embellishment was the whole point, and he let me make more of it, though the final product was geared toward calling him a pioneer which I was sort of embarrassed about, since the original purpose of my essay had changed into trying to stick it to the guy.
And I was trying to stick it to him because I had just come away from reading Tom Wolfe on that which sets his brand of interpretive journalism apart: that it has to be EXACT, and uber-accurate, and that to do anything less is to diminish the art form. In sum: don’t be a cheater. Wolfe’s hardly the only one who feels this way. In fact, that’s the recurring theme of this Awl thread.
Which brings me to the varying standards of storytelling. After the Salon piece ran, I griped to my cousin, a big DFW fan, that I felt the embellishment was more important than the pioneering thing. And she responded by saying she treated David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction the same way she treated Dave Eggers’ nonfiction: with a grain of salt. And then I brought up David Sedaris, and we coined the subcategory, “David Nonfiction.” This American Life can run stories in the David Nonfiction vein with the implicit understanding of its listenership that this show has been comedically enhanced. That this is entertainment, not straight investigative journalism.
So now we’ve landed at journalism, which, to me, is one of the more interesting things about Mike Daisey’s con. Evan Osnos writes, from China, that while he and other Western journalists were skeptical of Daisey’s account, he was also dismayed “that maybe Daisey had approached the subject with such fresh outrage and investigative vigor that he had been able to find what so many over here had not.” When Adrien Chen went at Daisey with skeptical questions, the storyteller doused him with hot shame: “We should be able to talk to the tech journalist who went and wrote this story—oh wait, there isn’t one.” (Sweet burn, Patrice.)
Daisey admits to making up people and dialogue to tell a better story and tweak the press into pressuring one of the biggest companies on the planet to improve its working conditions. David Foster Wallace also made up people and dialogue to tell a better story and tweak the press, except he did the latter without the weight of a social mission.
The point of Wallace’s writing about the press was that the Twelve Monkeys did not discern between who started a fight between Bush and McCain; they only cared that there was a fight. Which was a fair criticism, but apparently not good enough on its own.
John Dickerson spent seven months on the McCain bus and was there for Wallace’s weeklong reporting trip. I can’t say it any better than he did in a 2010 e-mail which I quoted from in the Salon piece:
I can’t really remember too many of the specifics… but I remember there being a lot of things that were just made up and often made up to bolster the narrative (which is different than just remember something wrong). A few things that come to mind. The 12 monkeys. If there was one person who fit the blue blazer description it would be me. Thing is: there was just one of me. The press corps was not male dominated as DFW wrote, it was the opposite. The AP, Chicago Tribune, NYT, Boston Globe reporters were all women…. The accounts of the [reporters’] back and forth with Murphy were ridiculous I remember. The questions made up and made up to make the reporters look goofy. There was a scene of a reporter reading some enormous foreign policy tome. I know who he was writing about. That person read no such thing.
I’m afraid I can’t remember much else and I don’t have a copy here but there were lots of examples. You could argue that while the facts were wrong, he got at an essential truth which would be a pretty good defense. But even that’s not terribly helpful to the piece. It was, in the end, too pat. The wise guys on the second bus the dumb press people on the first bus. Is there a truth in this characterization? Of course. You’ll never go wrong saying those of us who cover the story day to day get it wrong at times or are stuck in a rut. But DFW drew a cartoon. He didn’t just make the reporters cartoons. He made the sound and camera men cartoons too.
In Wallace’s defense, he did write about women in the press corps. The Times’ Alison Mitchell is mentioned in the e-book version,* where she is deemed OK and “not (refreshingly) one of the Twelve Monkeys.”
Later, Dickerson e-mailed back to say he re-read the section on the Twelve Monkeys and that everything was wrong except for the blue blazer, worn by him, which could only mean that he was the over-achieving dweeb whose ass Wallace wanted to kick.
But it wasn’t only a person that the writer resented who said he stretched the truth. Mike Murphy, the witty McCain strategist who slapped down the Monkeys’ stupid questions, also found exaggerations in Wallace’s characterizations. What’s more is that the writer admitted it to him. Murphy moved to California in 2004 and became friendly with Wallace. “At one dinner, he admitted under my teasing that he made some of that stuff larger than life for comic impact,” he wrote in an e-mail.
So, I believe that DFW definitely fabricated these parts. The question is: does it matter?
I don’t ask that rhetorically; I’m really not sure. For a time, I thought it did, and then I was disabused of that notion—David Nonfiction, and all. And then a few months ago, another David (this one a Remnick) said he was “heartbroken” to hear DFW fudged dialogue, and now this Daisey hubbub.
Personally, I’m thinking the question isn’t so much does ‘it’ matter, but ‘who.’
I just hope there’s a quote from Mr. Torey Malatia next week.
*This sounds familiar from the Rolling Stone version, though the two have differences and I can’t be sure without seeing the magazine piece.