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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mike Daisey as Odalisque

Pierre-Auguste Renoir Odalisque ou Une Femme d Alger
Renoir's Odalisque...
reminds me of lies dressing up as "larger truth"  
Paste Mike Daisey's face there

Mike Daisey, New York actor/monologuist and self-appointed crusader against Apple, Inc., is so in love with his own messianic importance that he will brook nothing standing in the way of his message. Not his Chinese interpreter. Not Ira Glass. Not even his own rhetoric.

Does he remember this interview he gave at the time of his flamboyant photo opp turning in of the petitions against Apple?

 Mr. Daisey called Apple "terribly arrogant" in its PR response to the growing concerns. "Its brand is in serious jeopardy now," Mr. Daisey said. "Apple's greatest asset is their brand, and it does not take very long for a brand to be tainted. When I think of Nike even today, the second or third thing I think of are sweatshops."
Mike Daisey, I know you still don't get it. Maybe you can understand it, finally, if you use your most valued treasure, that would be your own hallowed words.  Your brand is in serious jeopardy now. You have been 'terribly arrogant.'  It does not take long for Truth to be 'tainted.'  And nothing does so quicker than lies.

In this post, I wrote about Daisey's monstrous labyrinth of self-aggrandizing justifications. I promised to give the more gentle version today. Because I have had this conversation before, with someone I respected vastly more than I could ever respect Mike I'm-the-Most-Fabulous-Fabulist Daisey.  In 2006, novelist Susan Henderson and I engaged in a thought-provoking dialogue about truth. We were each incensed at that time by the spectacle of A Million Little Lies imploding on James Frey.  However, we looked at it from opposite sides. It was at that time that I was first introduced to the concept of lying for art's sake and that otherwise ethical people could sanction this practice. I tried at that time to understand their point of view and to speak in their own language.

Here now I reprint my own essay which first appeared on Susan Henderson's website in 2006. Susan has gone on to win fantastic accolades and awards for her novel UP FROM THE BLUE.  She has given me permission to re-post her original essay here as well. She gives the caveat, "...(just make it clear it's something I wrote in 2006 because who knows if I still agree with myself). I do think it's a fascinating argument and am glad you're stepping back into that conversation."

Here below is my original essay. Hers is in the next post. In 2006, hers appeared first. If you'd like to read it in that order, just click here.

Dear Susan,

Thanks for posting your blog link at (original site).  I'm quite interested in this subject myself. So much so I'll be appearing on a local radio show in a major market tonight to comment on the Frey mess. 

For me, there's a very easy answer to your question about the prom dress story. The prom dress with the "lemon" bow.  I would absolutely call it fiction, fiction "based on a true story," if you like.  I would find it a big misrepresentation to call it non-fiction or even memoir. Easy call for me.

But obviously not an easy call for you.

And, causing me great consternation, I learned yesterday it would not be an easy call for my agent, either. 

I am quite positive my agent is a more ethical person than I am. She's just lovely and makes me feel a little grimy in comparison. So how could I find myself stomping around indignantly on the moral high ground while she lolled about like an Odalisque in the dreamy linens of artifice?

Why doesn't untruth scratch and chafe her the way it does me?  Scratch and chafe? Forget it. It strangles and sears.

As we talked, both gingerly exploring this moment of unexpected division, the only answer that presented itself to either one of us was our footing in different professions.  "You're a journalist," she pronounced early on.  "You're grounded in publishing," I said later. 

But that evening I had another extended conversation on the topic, this time with a layperson. "Lay" vis a vis both publishing and journalism.  In other words, a regular person, a normal person, a person who reads board books to her four year old and writes "honey-do" lists for her husband.  I felt a rush of delicious righteousness as she poured forth her own indignation on the whole memoir/Frey/Talese mess.  Must be sure to include Talese, because, while my layperson easily felt great contempt for James Frey, she was also appalled by "that publisher lady" on Oprah's couch. 

 It was her outrage that fueled this conversation, not mine, I gloated to see.   

This, I thought as she boiled over, is the key. Those in publishing, including my shining madonna of an agent who identified strongly with "that publisher lady", may have a valid position.  But it's a position with a large disconnect from the rest of us.  Perhaps it is well understood, within publishing circles, that memoir occupies the vivid and idealized chamber of the sultan's girl, the Odalisque.  But the rest of us expect the girl really is that pretty and the sheets are always satin.  We thought you sold us a photograph, not a spectacularly imagined painting.  We might like to buy the painting some time, but, really, we need to know first.

As for the prom dress with the lemon bow, my position is that you, the writer, need to find the rhythm in truth. It's a harder job.  "Pink" does not, very true, have the same lilt as "lemon."   As a reader, I want you to keep tapping at the keys till you find "rosebud" or "candy blossom" or "strawberry." Or till you dig deeper, ditch the bow altogether, and find truth and rhythm co-existing in the tatting or taffeta or tulle.

If you want to label it non-fiction, that is. 

If you want me to experience certain feelings about the narrator and call it memoir, I want you to bring me into those school days where the plain girl lashed out and struck back.  It's too big a portion of the truth to leave it out.  I want you to find there the candy-blossom rhythms that get your point across.  That's your job as a memoirist, as a writer, as a purveyor of truths, emotional and "essential."

As a consumer of well-crafted words, a person who buys the labor of gifted thinkers, I love the lemon bow story.  I don't need to have it slithering in as non-fiction where it doesn't belong.  Knowing that it is based on some actual experiences of the author gives it extra pique. But calling it actual, historical truth when, it fact, it deviates so much makes me feel separated from the writer because now I see the writer doesn't trust me and doesn't respect me and I want to walk away from it.

In fact, it makes me think, after all, Odalisque is just a whore.

Thanks for being part of this important conversation and posting the lemon bow story with its insertions.  It really helped me force my own thoughts to focus as well as understand the memoirist's viewpoint and struggle.  And, of course, I did enjoy the story very much on its own merits (as a story!) and the entire thoughtful post.

That's how I wrote it in 2006.  For Susan's original essay, click here. For my 2012 "brutal truths" version, click here.  Too bad I don't have a cartoonist on staff. I would love to see Mike Daisey's face pasted on Renoir's Odalisque up there.  Come on, sailor, true love, really really!

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Camille Kimball's books:
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