“There are many ways of telling a secret, by which a man exempts himself from the reproaches of his conscience, and gratifies his pride, without suffering himself to believe that he impairs his virtue.” - Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 13
The most common question asked of an author is invariably the most discomforting. ‘Was that all true?’. The customary source is a satisfied viewer, floating like a balloon before its inflator and seeking the final filling puff. As a writer, it galls me to think that the only honest answer will deflate. The most accurate response is ‘no’.
I’ve been inspired to denounce myself in solidarity with Mike Daisey, one of America’s premiere storytellers, who is currently performing a lengthy public penance at a theatre in New York.
Daisey soared to attention on the back of a later discredited monologue in which he visits China and bears witness to the vile conditions under which Apple products are alleged to be manufactured. The key moments of the story, that is to say the ones that audiences find moving or morally compelling, are misleading to say the most.
In his new show, Daisey tells wild and fanciful tales at such a rapid clip (one a day for twenty-nine days) that he seems to be wilfully prohibiting himself from displaying the craft or verisimilitude that led to his popular acclaim. Then, towards the end of a strange parable, Daisey gently lobs a verbal grenade from the mouth of a moping giant: “people don’t really want to know the truth.”
It detonates to little effect among the assembled, who perhaps feel peppered in irony, but the way Daisey deploys it fills me with that sense of fear that is synonymous with respect. The law of decency states that once the cat is out of the bag it can no longer be drowned, and must be grudgingly fed and petted. Here, kitty kitty.
Every storyteller knows or quickly learns that audiences are never, ever interested in the truth. The truth is challenging, miserable and often just plain dull. Like regular exercise, it is more commonly praised than practiced. Stories are processed hunks of soul food, manufactured to be wolfed down with ease. The majority of people who believe they have experienced a truthful insight during the course of a story are as mistaken as those who believe their yoghurt-coated muesli bar is a nutritious healthy snack. A moment applauded as truthful by an audience is more likely to be a familiar prejudice, repackaged and wrapped in a colourful bow.
The injustice that Daisey (to his credit) barely mentions, is that he was castigated by journalists - the sneakiest storytellers of all - whose morally questionable craft is predicated on casting unwitting members of the public as heroes or monsters. The ‘truth’ so widely touted as the foundation of journalistic integrity is about as praiseworthy as the actions of a film-maker who manages to spell everyone’s name right in the credits.
Almost all of the criticism levelled at Daisey relates to details about his cast list - whether or not he really encountered underaged or crippled workers. The more damaging lie, the flesh of the show and the heart of its popularity, never appears on the charge sheet. The more damaging lie was dispensed in the form of a dangerous sugar-coated placebo, one that continues to be swallowed with glee any time it is made available to an English-speaking audience. It is never made explicit, to the point where it is fair to question whether the transmitter is as unwitting as the recipient. It’s broadcast at the frequency of a dog-whistle. I will endeavour to summarise it here:
“We’re so lucky to live in the West. Asia is a giant labour camp, where greedy foreign overseers can be bribed by us to entice their dispirited compatriots into serfdom. It’s win-win, because the low cost of labour means we get things cheap, and they’re incentivised to spend their time engaged in social suppression rather than the technological advancement needed to beat us at our own game, so we stay on top of the world. It’s a bit sad, but also a relief.”
To combat this lie, some brave sucker would have to force an audience to sit through a show about how continental Asia is a dynamic, forward-thinking, technologically adventurous and systematically competitive gigantosaur. The show would need to posit that not only can we not make iPhones, but we can’t actually afford them either. It would suggest that the only thing separating the majority of them from the majority of us is our superior access to credit. From them. This show would possibly draw an analogy comparing us to an articulate gaggle of Foie Gras geese who boast about feeling quite well fed. Rather than guess at the box-office potential of a show like this, I’ll simply retweet Daisey: #peopledon’tactuallywanttoknowthetruth.
Now, after pointing out the beams in everyone else’s eyes, it’s time to address the mote scratching away in my own. My play On the Upside Down of the World is openly ‘based’ (clue, and blessedly explicit caveat) on a brilliant diary that I discovered and crafted into a story about a wry, witty woman and her struggles to take root in a strange new land. The message is universal and timely, and it’s found so much favour with audiences that it’s led to both me and the show coming to play in New York (see right).
In all honesty, if you met the real Ann Martin, the one who wrote the book, and asked her what she was banging on about, she’d tell you she wanted to correct a popular nineteenth century misconception that the Maori didn’t take well to religious instruction.
Throughout ninety minutes of my play there is not one suggestion that Ann Martin is motivated in any way by religion. I didn’t think it was relevant. It wasn’t what I wanted to tell an audience, or what I thought they wanted to hear. And I still don’t. I also felt entitled to make some educated assumptions about things she hid from her readers - her severe disability, her inability to have children and her feelings about being sent to the other side of the world in the wake of a finger-snap wedding to a man she hardly knew. I flatter myself to believe that in the stories told by Ann and me, any false or misleading impressions are created to serve a noble cause.
In a last attempt to burrow back into the friable moral ground like the intellectual worm I am, I will say in all our defences that life without story is as unpleasant as life without clothes. Given that, we must either choose to knit our own underwear, or engage the services of a master tailor. If we do the latter, and discover that the finished garments flatter rather reveal our faults, the tailor should be paid in thanks not spanks.
In issue number 4: I wrestle with the bald facts about genetic predisposition.
 All the Faces of the Moon. http://tickets.publictheater.org/production/?prod=22237
 The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, by Mike Daisey (2010).
 Or something to that effect. https://soundcloud.com/mikedaisey/moon-13-that-hideous-strength
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.