Playing with the Truth

I recently landed a gig writing how-to articles aimed at college students for a website that shall remain nameless. The site is predicated on the notion that recent grads are hapless fools, incapable of grappling with real world responsibilities, like renting an apartment or choosing an appropriate 401K plan. As it happens, I really was this clueless at the age of 21. What a brilliant idea, I thought! Sign me up.

The first article I was assigned was called something along the lines of "Online Dating: It's not just for losers anymore." Beyond sending the message that cyber-hookups had gone mainstream, the intent of the article was fuzzy. After all, it's not as if online dating requires extensive training. All you need is a computer, basic hand-to-eye coordination, and low level typing skills.

Luckily, I had firsthand experience to share. The boyfriend and I met online five years ago. And I felt I might have some (dare I say it?) . . . wisdom to offer--like how to determine if your date was high on Ecstasy (he can't stop fondling the velvet couch), or how to tell when a potential mate has developed an unhealthy attachment to his pet, as was the case with 'Neil,' an early prospect who insisted that everyone speak Italian to his Pit bull Bella.

As it turns out, my editor disagreed. While 'sweet,' my online love story was deemed too tame, too female, and sourly lacking in lesbians. "Maybe try to expose the seedy underbelly of online dating, i.e. fetishists and nymphos," he said.

The result was that this:

I hail from San Francisco, where online dating is seen as a prerequisite for citizenship. Still, there was something distasteful to me about the prospect of advertising myself online. It felt low-rent--the social equivalent of selling used furniture on Ebay. So, it wasn't until I'd spent several months going out on a series of first dates - cycling through Mr. Malcontent, moving on to Mr. I Still Love My Star Wars Action Figures, rounding the corner with Mr. Accountants Can Be Fun Too, and ending with Mr. Mysteriously Overconfident - that I determined that online dating couldn't be any worse than real-world dating. Plus, it offered the added benefit of a screening process.

Turned into this:

It used to be as easy as walking down to the local campus pub and striking up a conversation about Derrida with some dewy-eyed co-ed. On a good night, she might end going home with you--maybe even sticking around for a few months. On a bad night (read: most of the time), you still got to enjoy a few brews with your buddies.

These days your favorite pickup joint is hundreds of miles away in a different town, on a different coast. You and your friends are all busy working 80-hour weeks at your brokerage firms/publishing houses/advertising companies. Even on those nights when you do have time to grab an adult beverage, your seduction skills seem to be at a low ebb.

Okay, neither of these passages is likely to win me a Pulitzer. But here's the key difference: One is true, and the other is not. It suddenly hit me: when recruiting writers, my editor had advertised for journalists, but what he was really after was humorists. I backed out of the assignment.

Why? As a journalist, I couldn't, in good conscience, publish a piece under my name that included inaccurate information. Mentioning my torrid lesbian menage a trios in a piece on a minor website was unlikely to cause any real harm. But it would have muddied the line between journalist and humorist, and that's a line that those of us writing for mainstream newspapers and magazines can't afford to cross.

Now do I expect writers like Steve Martin and David Rakoff to abide by the same rules? No, because they aren't in the business of reporting the facts. They are in the business of making people spit milk out their noses, and the requirements of the job are different. While journalism can, on occasion, be entertaining, that isn't its purpose. People read journalism to get information, and they expect that information to be factual. Humor writing has a different mandate. It's there not to inform you, but to make you laugh. And we expect the writer to use all of the tools in his arsenal to make that happen.

For the last few weeks, the journalistic community has been all atwitter over the difference between "humorist" and "journalist" thanks to Alex Heard's "expose" of David Sedaris in the March issue of The New Republic. Mr. Sedaris, you see, has been found guilty of "exaggeration." He has even been caught up in a couple of (gasp) full-blown lies. Because Sedaris's work is marketed as nonfiction, much has been made of his transgressions. Slate's ever-ferocious media critic, Jack Shafer, even went so far as to lump Sedaris in with Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass.

This strikes me as patently absurd. People don't buy Me Talk Pretty One Day for the same reason they read The New York Times. The Times is expected to inform you about the world. Sedaris is only expected to inform you about himself. We read his stories to get a peak into the mind of a self-proclaimed "storyteller," with an absurdist take on the world. And as far as I'm concerned, the more absurdist it is, the better.

If Alex Heard's article was The New Republic's attempt to reiterate their commitment to the truth in the aftermath of the Stephen Glass scandal, it was a fairly pathetic one. Expecting Sedaris to cleave entirely to the truth is like holding the movie Erin Brockovich to the same standard as Frontline.


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I'm not sure if this is a function of overreaction to things like the James Frey incident or if it's the ever popular 'credibility' issue. Tom Waits once started off some of his songs with the observation that you can be watching a movie and be completely bored with it and ready to leave and then someone says "You know, it's based on a true story" and suddenly it's not boring anymore.

When it comes to novels I suppose there is some sort of expectation that a fiction novel has to be either 'chic lit' or Michael Crichton/John Grisham with intense characters and complex plots. Whereas someone like Sedaris or Neal Pollock write much simpler tales that blend fiction and non-fiction. The idea behind them being that you're supposed to share the experience without necessarily believing it is a 100% accurate rendering of what happened.

Here Here Orli
Glad you wrote this piece -

Wait, those aren't both true? Because they are for me, if you replace "brokerage firms" with "physics graduate school".

Ah, I'm afraid you're never going to be a top-deck journo... While it may be true that people read newspapers to be informed, that's not the true purpose of jouranlism these days. The true purpose of journalism is to attract audiences for advertisers.

And what's wrong with still loving my Star Wars action figures? ;)