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 nonÃ¢â‚¬â€œfiction 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.
(Also new at Moby Lives this week: a radio show featuring Dennis Loy Johnson and Jessa Crispin has launched, putting an end to a long — nay, interminable — period of rest at the venerable and consistently interesting book blog. Thanks to Bookslut for the pointer.)
Further reading on reality and fakery, but in relation to fiction:
- In Thank You for Not Reading, Dubravka Ugresic examines our cultural obsession with sincerity and truth, and finds that “the reality so aggressively offered to me as authentic is in fact soapified reality, a kind of ‘life for beginners.'”
- Undie Press revolts against what Tim Hall calls “faketion.”
- A.L. Kennedy has denounced our “culture of de-fictionalisation,” which, she says, devalues and increasingly ignores the “emotional, human, psychological truth of fiction, its commitment, risk and its ability to break the bounds of reality,” even as it prizes the “qualified, edited truth of autobiography, travel, celebrity and sexual reminiscence … simply because it has some of the trappings of reality.”