Less than meets the eye

Maud Newton writes:

At Moby Lives, Paul Maliszewski talks with Michael Finkel, a former New York Times Magazine writer who was fired for using "improper narrative techniques" in his article "Is Youssouf Malè A Slave?" The piece ostensibly focused on a West African boy who worked in the cocoa fields, but when writing and revising, Finkel "blended details from the life of Malè, a real boy, with the experiences of others in similar straits."

After his dismissal, Finkel admitted he’d made a mistake, "retreated to his home in Montana and stopped writing for publications." He told a journalist that he planned to digest what had happened and write about it himself. Now he’s done that, in True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which reportedly discusses not only the controversial article but the strange relationship Finkel developed with a suspected murderer who fled to Mexico and adopted Finkel’s name.

"One of the themes of this book," Finkel tells Maliszewski, "is this whole issue of what’s true and what’s not. What stories are true? What does non–fiction mean? What is thought of as good journalism? Accurate quotes? If I say to you, "I’m a girl named Jennifer" and then you report, "Mike Finkel is a girl named Jennifer," is that good journalism? It’s an accurate quote, but it’s completely false. You’ve not broken any rules of journalism, you’ve just written something completely false. That complexity is at the heart of this whole story."

This is the sort of thing that seems at first like it might be interesting, but upon closer examination turns out to be a very stupid and self-serving justification for making shit up. If a journalist were to quote Mike Finkel saying "Mike Finkel is a girl named Jennifer," they would indeed have broken a rule of journalism if they didn't give readers enough information to know that Mike Finkel is in fact not a girl named Jennifer. Sometimes in political journalism, reporters don't do enough to convey to readers that a quote by a politician is false or misleading. But they should, and there isn't any debate about that. This "complexity" is not really very complex at all, and has nothing whatsoever to do with taking stuff that happened to one person and writing that it happened to another.

More interesting, maybe, is the frequency with which things that at first look sort of interesting turn out only to be interesting to the sort of people who spend enough time in cirlcles where interesting things could potentially happen (and who therefore have developed a pretty good sense of the surface appearance of interesting things) but are in fact incapable of the sort of serious critical thinking that would allow them to distinguish the actual interesting things from the impostors. It's sort of a shame that the world must genuinely be more interesting to these stupid pseudo-intellectual type-people. Or maybe its actuallly less interesting to them, since if you can't distinguish between interesting and stupid you're probably not getting the full benefits of the interesting. Anyways, I'm not pointing any fingers at anyone other than Mike Finkel, but I feel like this keeps happening. I'm now going to see if I can think of any other examples.

Follow-up by Gabe: The mendacious-reporter memoir is apparently a new literary form for our era. Stephen Glass followed his making-stuff-up-in-the-New Republic career with a novel about a young reporter named Stephen Glass who makes things up. Jayson Blair blamed his serial plagiarisms and fabrications at the NYT on mental illness in Burning Down My Masters' House. I haven't read either book, so I don't know if they examine bullshit issues about the nature of truth. But all of these books, by virtue of their very existence, fall victim to another confusion: the writers confuse the fact that people are paying attention to them with the idea that people give a shit about them.