As I’m sure you’ve heard, Mike Daisey has ended up in a bit of trouble for ‘artfully’ fabricating certain bits of his theatrical monologue “The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs,” which he then performed on This American Life. Of the many articles written about this incident, my two favorites are Anthony Breznican’s in EW, which wins for thoughtfulness, and this Slate piece, which has got to be the funniest treatment of the issue I’ve seen. (But if someone sees something funnier, please send!) And Daisey’s response, after the episode of This American Life in which the retraction was addressed, is here.
I will instead add my thoughts purely on the issue of making things up, because it is an ethical question I think about a lot, and have addressed previously when thinking about other controversies of this sort.
My feelings essentially boil down to: Making up stuff is fine, as long as you are very, very clear with the audience that you are doing it.
This entirely comes down to an issue of expectations management. (As does so much of writing…) For example: When I wrote The Sherlockian, I made a bunch of stuff up. It says “novel” on the cover, which grants me a lot of license to do that, but I still felt as if I owed the reader somewhat more clarity, since the novel portrays a number of real characters and real situations mixed in with the fake bits. So there’s an “Author’s Note” at the end to help separate these out for the reader. Interestingly, some editions of the book were mistakenly printed with the Author’s Note appearing before the main text of the novel — hopefully these have all been removed from shelves and e-retailers by now, but a few may remain. This misplacement drives me crazy, as I feel like reading the Author’s Note before the main text gives away key plot twists in the novel, and thus tarnishes the experience somewhat
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for the reader. Now curiously, this misplacement also serves to give the reader an idea of what’s true and what’s not mid-story, rather than only upon completion of the book. I feel very much that I don’t want the reader spending too much time worrying
about what’s real and what’s fake in the middle, because to do so ruins the spell. The word “novel” on the cover grants me the license to make things up and not tell you what I’m making up until afterwards, because you know going in that at least some things here are going to be made up.