I feel a little bit bad for Mike Daisey. Slightly on a personal level, mainly because he's a neighbor of mine. I think I had a brief bodega discussion with him once, a long time ago, around the time maybe he first moved into the neighborhood, definitely after a run of that Dog Years thing finished, and it was reasonably amiable, but it didn't lead to any kind of connection or even acknowledgable acquaintance. So after that I would see him around the neighborhood and I'd think, "Oh, there's that guy," and then, on this past Sunday evening, I saw him getting out of a cab on Court Street, and I thought "Ooh, there's THAT guy," which was an interesting phenomenological experience I guess.
But on balance, I have to say I'm kind of on the side of the outraged or at least irritated. Although I'm not inclined to get on board with Jack Schafer's tedious continuation of his largely ginned-up"what's good for Stephen Glass should be good for A.J. Liebling" argument. And when a guy as thoroughly smug and prolix as Michael Woolf is telling me "never mind the facts, focus on the writing," he's just giving me another good reason to ignore him. But even given the ostensible porousness of formats that Daisey is citing in order to absolve the fact that he just made shit up, I think he's being pretty goddamn disingenuous, and his crouching behind a "cause" is not likely to help him or his cause a whole lot in the long run. Daisey's case does differ from James Frey's largely in that he made shit up for a larger purpose, rather than to make himself look more badass/sad/pathetic; and the fact that Frey talked so much shit about other writers before his sins were discovered made his fall rather uniquely satisfying. One thing that makes the Daisey case so, um, fascinating for me is my own experience of having stood by and vetted the publication of a piece of writing that I was fully aware contained a large number of factual inaccuracies, and that I convinced the legal department of the publication's parent company that doing this was a good idea.
This is an odd thing to admit because of something that I'm reasonably sure a lot of this blog's readers are unaware of. That is, while I was at Premiere magazine, besides writing film reviews and occasional thumbsuckers and editing top-drawer literary types, I also worked on a number of investigative journalism pieces and such. One of my first editing jobs was shepherding a piece by Mark Ebner about the actor Peter Greene's struggles with drug addiction. This was a more sensitive piece than I was even aware of at the time, but that's another story. I also edited all but one of the pieces John Connolly (of late working for Vanity Fair) wrote for Premiere between 1997 and 2001, including a well-known article called "Arnold the Barbarian." One piece I worked on with John was so fraught that it took eight months between pitch and publication and was punctuated by regular confabs with very expensive lawyers. Lots of them. My attitude toward this kind of work was not atypical of an individual of my temperament at the time, e.g., I could be (and was) a complete fuckup in every other respect of my personal and professional life, but THIS I was going to get RIGHT. And I did, even while overplaying my only-guy-in-a-roomful-of-suits-wearing-a-Tex-Avery-t-shirt schtick.
And it's here that I'd like to direct the reader to a piece I wrote a little less than a year ago about David Foster Wallace's posthumously published unfinished novel The Pale King. If you're disinclined to read the whole thing, as they say, a particularly pertinent passage is below:
Reading Wallace or someone like him assert that a clear fiction is in fact “really true” brought to mind working with him on the piece that was initially published as “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment, It Turns Out” in the September 1998 edition of Premiere, and then printed in expanded and unbowdlerized form under its original intended title “Big Red Son” in the essay compilation Consider The Lobster. Here is a passage from the beginning of the piece:
Let us not forget Vegas’s synecdoche and beating heart. It’s kitty-corner from Bally’s: Caesars Palace. The granddaddy. As big as 20 Wal-Marts end to end. Real marble and fake marble, carpeting you can pass on without contusion, 130,000 square feet of casino alone. Domed ceilings, clerestories, barrel vaults. In Caesars Palace is America conceived as a new kind of Rome: conqueror of its own people. An empire of Self. It’s breathtaking. The winter’s light rain makes all the neon bleed.
Consider for a moment the phrase “synecdoche and beating heart.” (By the way, the "Rome, conquerer of its own people" riff is repeated, as it happens, in The Pale King.) Wallace just dashes it off, but its implications are kind of mind-boggling, particularly because of the use of “and” instead of “or.” We’re not just talking about a part referring to a whole, but that part being the driving, essential organ of the whole. It’s significant, but that phrase isn’t the reason I’m reproducing that particular passage; the reason is that one piece of data, that Caesars Palace contains “130,000 square feet of casino alone.” As it happens during the fact-checking process leading up to the publication of the article, we couldn’t verify that information. Dave didn’t give us a source for it, we couldn’t find a source, and so on. There were plenty of other pieces of data in the article that were entirely empirically verifiable for instance, the number of men that Stephanie Swift performs analingus on in Gang Bang Angels 1, and the number of gobs of spit she takes in the face from those men some moments after. You could sit there in front of the TV watching the tape and just tick them off. But the actions and the tales told by the fictionalized composite characters Dick Filth and Harold Hecuba (based on myself and Evan Wright, then writing for Hustler magazine and quite miserable about it) were not entirely above board in the actual fact department; the whole bit about Hecuba getting throttled by porn star Jasmin St. Clair and his “special autotint trifocals” disappearing into the “forbidding décolletage of Ms. Christy Canyon, never to be recovered (the glasses) or even seen ever again” becoming a source of particular concern and confusion for our unusually helpful and cooperative legal department, members of which I did not pester with rationales concerning postmodern practice or tensions between provable fact and larger truth or any such thing but merely said, “The author of this piece is a really big deal, it’ll be okay.”
I admit that I was not in fact QUITE that cavalier with the Hachette legal department when they raised an eyebrow at the piece that was then, and would again be, titled "Big Red Son." The two top vetters in that department were astute general readers as well as sharp legal minds, and they were well aware that, say, glasses that sink into a woman's exposed cleavage do not dematerialize, that even in the context of a career in adult entertainment no individual named Richard Filth would go by "Dick Filth," and so on. They were kind of nonplussed by the piece in general; "What IS this?" is a question I heard early on.
I've discussed the fact-checking process on the piece with someone who's working with D.T. Max on that writer's forthcoming biography of Wallace, and I don't want to step on her or his or its toes, but the Daisey affair reminded me of working on this article for a bunch of reasons, not least of which was that Daisey's protestation "I'm not a journalist" is something I heard a lot from Dave during the process. (The variant was "I'm not a reporter." By the same token, I've never seen anyone, journalist/reporter or otherwise, take observational notes with the furious intensity with which Dave did.) The way we were able to get the piece published in more or less the form in which it was written was, frankly, via what some would call collusion. The fact of the false first-person-plural narrative voice was a function of the article bearing a dual pseudonymous byline. Now, Premiere had agreed that Wallace was gonna write and publish the piece under a pseudonym anyway, so two psuedonyms wasn't a big deal. As for the fictional constructs/characters named "Harold Hecuba" and "Dick Filth," adult-industry journalists who were "guides and docents" for Matt Rundlet and Willem deGroot (for such were the dual pseudonyms of Wallace); well, as I note above, they were stand-ins for Evan Wright (the future Generation Kill author was, again as I note above, then at Hustler magazine) and myself. And Evan and I made it very clear to legal that we were not going to object in any way to our characterizations by proxy, as it were. I don't think we were asked to sign anything to that effect; I was, after all, a full-time employee at Hachette, and Evan aspired to freelance for Premiere. But I do remember having to reassure legal more than once that Evan and I were "cool."
Still, there were at least two things in the piece that could conceivably be considered as potentially actionable, the first being the above cited throttling of fictional construct Harold Hecuba by real albeit pseudonymous porn performer Jasmin St. Clair. Well, Evan had in fact been accosted in a similar fashion and for the cited sin of having gone public with St. Clair's get-rich-quick scheme concerning pornographic gumball machines, so when push came to shove he said he'd be willing to back that up. The other possible problem point was this statement attributed to Dick Filth, pertaining to the actual integrity of the AVN Awards themselves: "The best perception, backed up by tons of anecdotal evidence, is that they are totally, totally fixed and rigged." Now you don't need a law degree to ascertain just how much legal wiggle room is already built into that statment. But just in case, I believe I was gonna volunteer to be the fall guy on that one. Although my default first position in the event of any saber-rattling on the part of the aggrieved parties was gonna be to say, "Oh, come on, guys." (Some kinda-sorta saber-rattling DID in fact come to pass, and a person at the Wallace-enthusiast website The Howling Fantods was kind enough to preserve it; see here.)
And hand-in-hand with the invention was a particular conscientiousness. Wallace had an innate understanding of the margins he was playing with. When Evan pointed out that the pseudonymous porn performer Vince Vouyer had a real name that was, in a sense, even more ridiculous than his stage handle, Dave was dobermanesque in his determination to pin down that said name WAS in fact John LaForme, although this was a group effort and I do believe it was Evan who was able to track down the relevant documentation. When the piece was making the transition to book form, Dave was crestfallen/irritated at having learned that he had possibly misidentified one of the characters on the Felliniesque Adult Software exhibition floor as director Gregory Dark, and hedged a bit by mentioning Jeff "Hatman" Marton, and so on. There's also the matter of the fleeting moments that he got right in a way that's kind of scary, as in this passage: "Tom Byron, who is 36 and has precisely one attribute, affect the air of a Mafia don at the Sands' bar's nightly porn parties, extending his hand knuckles-up as if for obeisance." Yes, I was there, standing next to him (Wallace), we saw it, and it was exactly that. And on the other hand, no, Dick Filth wasn't drinking Grand Marnier, it was Jack Daniel's, and he didn't HECTOR any waiters for change, that he remembers, and dozens of other not-quite little details that didn't actually happen.
But for all that, well...I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right. We stand by our story.