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.


  1. Don’t know about imposing order on chaos. This seems to be a ‘modern’ phenomenon – a scientific fantasy. I would say a story’s true purpose is in the suspension of disbelief in imagining the possible which prepares us for meaningful communication – sexual/economic and technological and the acceptance of chaos and limits. The problem is mathematical. Sexual communication (about the body) economic and tehnological communication all require maths but handle it differently. If you get your maths mixed up you may well start to fantasize about imposing order on chaos. The confusion of mathematical systems (their collapse into one) is where the mind feels the need to suspend disbelief and create/the state/capitalism, etc.

  2. ‘modern’ ? As a conscious, rational explanation, yes it is, but as a phenomenon, no it isn’t, very few stories are in a random order, with events having neither cause nor consequences linked to the story tacked on for whatever reason.

    There is very little noise, almost everything in stories is meaningful to a degree.

    Even the weirdest, unpredictable stories have very little noise. Just look at Effinger’s Nick of Time series ? You never know what’s going to happen next and have no way to predict, but after the facts it still all was linked to the story (except maybe Brannick’s treason in the first trip to the future, but that was used to distract the reader, prime him for a treason that never comes, and ends up being ironic since Hartstein is the one ending up as a – kind of – traitor).
    Even most of Beckett or Giono plays end up having a very high direct causality relationship to the “story”.
    Even Wodehouse ends up tying up “loose” ends.
    And that’s been a problem with most mystery fiction… everything told is meaningful, making prediction easier. 

    In fact since the beginning of storytelling, not tying up loose ends seems to be a cardinal sin, the only genera exempt from that rule being the “slice of life” style, because what follows should be self-evident…

    1. Imposing order is not the same as finding meaning and I suspect the desire to impose order on a text is the same as the desire to impose order on the world. I prefer limits which are inherent in any text to order which is a creation of the mind. Order values linear thinking and counting over and above binary and logarithmic thinking. Acceptance of chaos and limits values binary and logarithmic thinking over and above linear thinking and counting and is a creation of the brain.

      1. Oh, so basically it was a strawman… forgive me, I thought you had something intelligent to express.

  3. Don’t know what the article is on about in terms of the Daisey stuff, but I like the extract in the middle. I think it’s very true.

    Humans always look for meaning, everything from numbers meaning stuff, to mystical sky gods, to “fate”. I think it’s also why conspirarcy theorists thrive.

    Imagining there’s just evil people in the world that want to kill you is harder to deal with than a board of people in suits, plotting things in secret offies. So people concot elaborate stories to try and make order out of it. It’s easier to understand that someone behind a desk is plotting bad things for money, becuase we all like money. But few of us want to seriously harm others, so that’s a harder thing to understand.

    So stories are born.

    Plus those people are nut jobs I suppose too. ;)

  4. 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

    Daisey’s arguments remind me of the postmodernists in the 1990’s “science wars” who claimed that science was just a “narrative” to explain the world and not necessarily better than other explanations such as magic or gods. For a while, this “nothing is true” attitude was a serious movement in academia.

  5. Literature was not born the day when a boy crying “wolf, wolf” came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels; literature was born on the day when a boy came crying “wolf, wolf” and there was no wolf behind him.

    Vadimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature

    Thanks for this post, although I’m not at all sure about Daisey’s “contempt for storytelling’s subtle consensual boundaries”: I’m not sure what those boundaries would be, or if they’re consensual, or widely shared. He told a story that compiled some facts together, and fabricated others, but so what? His story is essentially true, and emotionally resonant, which is what’s needed when talking about issues as big as globalization, labor, the security state, etc. I believe George Washington also didn’t cut down that cherry tree, now that I think of it. . . .

    Now if only everyone could stop their collective handwringing over Daisey, postmodernism, “truth,” and all the rest. Stories, we haz them.

  6. Garrison Keillor has made up a whole town filled with hundreds of people. A few years back,  was a brouhaha about whether David Sedaris was entirely truthful about the stories he told growing up. But, these people to be  story tellers. They may be pretending to talk about their life, and their might even be an element of truth to their tales (For example, rumor has it that David Sedaris might actually be gay), but in the end, they are story tellers.

    Daisy is different. It wasn’t Daisy telling us amusing little anecdotes about his trip to China. This was Daisy as reporter of the TRUTH. Nothing changes if every fact that Sederis mentioned in his stint as a Santa elf doesn’t check  out, or if we find out that Lake Wobegon really doesn’t exist. No one cares whether Frank Dobie’s tales of Texas might have stretched the truth a wee bit. These stories are simply entertaining in their own right. The same can’t be said of Daisy’s tale of his trip to China.

    1.  Moreover, Daisey was demanding that Apple change its policies specifically in response to the things that he said he witnessed personally. He did so repeatedly, and repeated his lies in the process, and when he was finally caught, tried to fall back on the idea that his personal lies didn’t matter. Well, then, why’d you make ’em, Mike?

  7. I hope that due credit is given in this book to Messrs Pratchett, Stewart, and Cohen for coming up with and expanding on the idea of Homo sapiens as a story-telling animal in one of the Science of Discworld books.

  8.  One of the things about l’affaire Daisey is that I understand the impulse behind what he did perfectly; it’s the same impulse, really, that drives the phenomenon in fan fiction known as the Mary Sue. You want to be part of the story, and moreover to be part of it in a way that really matters. That’s why Ensign Mary Sue ends up on the bridge of the Enterprise or on the away team rather than doing routine maintenance in a Jeffries tube, and it’s why Daisey talked about personally meeting kids and old people permanently disabled by toxic chemicals, instead of doing a one-man show on his horror at reading about them on Gizmodo. But most people who imagine themselves as part of the story are willing to acknowledge that they’re not really part of it without having to be embarrassed in public first.

  9. We tell stories about everything because that’s really all we’ve got. All language is symbolic: words are not things, the map is not the territory. And whether you talk about it in terms of cultural bias, observational drift, perspective, etc., almost every story is going to be different, depending on who tells it, when, to whom and why. All of my stories about the Challenger disaster, for example, start with the phrase, “I was in the student lounge playing pinball when I heard a loud shriek from the TV room.”

    Add that to the fact that what we’re describing is largely perceptual, not actual, and you’ve got to admit that almost all stories are, no matter how “true,” probably not particularly accurate. And the more accurate they are, perhaps the less useful.

    Hmmm… Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as applied to narrative. You either know exactly what something is, or why it’s supposed to be meaningful, but not both…?

Comments are closed.