Why storytellers lie

In the wake of Mike Daisey's exposure as a fabulist, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human arrives at the perfect moment. The Atlantic's Maura Kelly examines Jonathan Gottschall's argument that storytelling's deceptions emerge from deeply human needs:

When we tell stories about ourselves, they also serve another important (arguably higher) function: They help us to believe our lives are meaningful. "The storytelling mind"—the human mind, in other words—"is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence," Gottschall writes. It doesn't like to believe life is accidental; it wants to believe everything happens for a reason. Stories allow us to impose order on the chaos.

And we all concoct stories, Gotschall notes—even those of us who have never commanded the attention of a room full of people while telling a wild tale. "[S]ocial psychologists point out that when we meet a friend, our conversation mostly consists of an exchange of gossipy stories," he writes. "And every night, we reconvene with our loved ones ... to share the small comedies and tragedies of our day."

Regarding Daisey, what I found most upsetting were not the lies about his visit to China, but those about storytelling itself: he lied about the nature of the lies we love. He expected others to accept his claims as journalism, and when exposed, excused this by appealing to dramatic license, to our acknowledgement that stories' truths may be complex and counterfactual.

This wasn't an attempt at rebuilding confidence in the underlying truth of his narrative. In his contempt for storytelling's subtle consensual boundaries, Daisey's only real demand was that all stories be seen as no more truthful than his.