AWP 2012 — Dear John, I’m Afraid it is Over …

March 8, 2012 § 44 Comments


Dear John,

I’m afraid it’s over between us.

You know how important you’ve been to me. I’ve adopted The Next American Essay for classes. I reviewed The Lost Origins of the Essay and sang its praises. Carl Klaus and I have included your 2003 headnote about lyric essays, the one that introduced Jenny Boully to the world, in our new anthology, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. I admire you, John, but admiration isn’t enough, and now you’ve even undercut some of that admiration. It’s over, John.

But, nevertheless, we should talk. I owe it to you to tell you what I really think.

What I think, John, is that you’ve fallen between two stools.  You have, but the essay hasn’t. Let me explain. When Karen Rosica called you a “journalist poet,” indeed a “passionate journalist poet,” you should have just gone with it. You should have thank her and moved on. I know the word “journalist” bugs you. Don’t let it. That’s the way it is with our genre – by which I mean, the essay, not the lyric essay, but of that, more in a minute. The essay has always been about facts and literature, about memory and imagination, about journalism and literature, about plain old truth (aka accuracy) and Truth with a capital T. But when she said “journalist poet,” you apparently got your dander up. The adjective and the noun seem like they’re in contradiction. So what? Contradict yourself, be large, contain multitudes.

Instead, you’ve turned it into a false either/or, John – Fish Wrap journalism versus Pure Poetry. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I think you know it. That’s why you went looking for an adjective yourself. How about ‘lyric essay’?” you said. And you were right and I like that about you, John. I really do. You and Deborah were out ahead of us all, giving a name to those beautiful essays that weren’t afraid to be beautiful, essays we were already reading and teaching – “Living Like Weasels,” “The White Album,” “Delft” – but not yet calling lyric. And then you went further/ You went looking for new ones and found them – “The Body” and “Ticket to the Fair.” Thank you for that. You gave those essays a name, you collected them in one place, you re-imagined anthologies, making them almost essays themselves by writing your headnotes as one long narrative essay (yeah, a little self-satisfied sometimes and show-offy, but hey, that’s you, John, and that’s okay – the book worked, it really did).

You kept going and I was still with you when The Lost Origins of the Essay came out. Sometimes, it did feel like you were pushing too far, but hey, that’s what you do and we’ve all got to do. I understand. You’re shaking things up. And even then, some of it made perfect sense, right from the start. When you put it in this new context, “On Some Verses of Virgil” was immediately transformed into a lyric essay for me. Of course, I thought – it’s not about Virgil and hexameters, it never was – it’s about sex and lyrical digressions. I even liked, as a kind of thought experiment, the idea of reading “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as a lyric essays, though I finally decided that the one is a prose poem and the other is a short story.

I have to say, John, you’re an 8-hour day. You’re learned and heavy. You really are. It’s a lot of what drew me to you originally – all that learning, all that classical learning. I mean you translated your own Latin and Greek in The Lost Origins of the Essay. The trip back to Mesopotamia and Heraclitus, the willingness to range across Europe and Asia in search of lyric essays was …well…a trip. Mind-boggling really. Thank you. The book Carl Klaus and I edited is the better for it. You got us searching outside the Anglo-American tradition, and that improved our book, for we found new essays about the essay – lots of them – by Latin Americans, French Canadians, Germans, even an Australian. I don’t think we’d have done that if you hadn’t gone there first.

I understand why you went in search of an adjective to put in front of “essay.” People have looked for adjectives for centuries. Before we had lyric essays, we had periodical essays, formal essays, informal essays, review essays, romantic essays, and, of course, personal essays. And, with your classical background, I know that you know that what that word “lyric” can bring is its classical Greek connotations – a solitary song, not a chorus, sung by a single musing singer to the accompaniment of a lyre (pronounced liar).

Well, we’ve ditched the lyre, but I know what you’re going for with the term – the poetic, the densely figurative, the brief exploration of a mood or idea, and yes, a little looser connection to facts. It’s reaction maybe to that ugly, ugly term “creative nonfiction.” Or as Scott Sanders so nicely put it, creative nonfiction is “an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat.”

So yeah, I understand, John. “Nonfiction” as a term sucks and you’ve got to dress it up with an adjective, but “creative” isn’t much help. Creative as opposed to what? Destructive? And if “essay” as a term is pulled toward nonfiction and journalism, I can understand wanting to dress up “essay” with an adjective. But, you’ve got to be careful, John. In your hurry to get away from journalism and to get some of the cachet of poetry, you can go too far.

I like lyric essays but I don’t think there is such a thing as pure poetry, at least not on this earth. Which is not to say pure poetry is not a worthy goal. It’s a fine, but tricky, goal. Seeking after pure poetry can lead one to beautiful flights of language and high lyricism, indeed some of the best essays we have, but it can also lead to disengagement, solipsism and art-for-art’s-sake. I think investigative reporting, the slick paper of commercialism, the hurry-up of deadlines, and the political engagement of journalism can be good things for an essay, even a lyric essay.

Look at your own anthologies, John. Take John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” which is the first essay in The Next American Essay. I’m glad it’s there in your anthology, but as Lynn Bloom has pointed out, “All anthologies…deracinate their material—old or new—from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.”  McPhee’s essay appeared originally in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker (though you messed up, John, and said 1975 – probably could have used a good copy editor or fact-checker). I love McPhee’s essay – its braided narratives, its history of the Gilded Age, its ongoing Monopoly game, and its walking tour of Atlantic City in 1972 when racial strife, economic decay, and rampant drug use have made it a bombed out shell of its former self. But, the essay is also a comment on The New Yorker, the magazine that is its and McPhee’s home.  The essay’s irony, indeed its lyricism, rings with a new sound when you read it next to the ads for Sony, Estée Lauder, Lord & Taylor, and L. L. Bean that surrounded it when it was in The New Yorker.

Or look at another one of your selections, another one of your lyric essays: Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” her famous disjunctive and helter-skelter good-bye to Sixties. Three sections of this essay appeared originally as installments of her “Points West” column in The Saturday Evening Post.  The Saturday Evening Post, John! The Saturday Evening Fucking Post! Norman Rockwell’s magazine. Didion discussed the context of these pieces in Paris Review interview, in which she recalled how she and her husband John Gregory Dunne moved to California in June of 1964. “I started doing pieces for The Saturday Evening Post,” she said. “We needed the money because neither one of us was working.” The Post, she explained, was “on the verge of folding” and so “would let you do whatever you wanted.” What had once been the magazine of Norman Rockwell, now was trying unsuccessfully to rebrand itself as some weird combination of Esquire and Cosmopolitan. The section of “The White Album” on Huey Newton and the Black Panthers appeared in an issue the cover of which promised to explain “How Barney Rosset Publishes ‘Dirty Books’ for Fun & Profit.” The section about Jim Morrison and The Doors was illustrated with a photograph of Lizard King without a shirt and had a cover that featured a teaser in which Vanessa Redgrave announced, “I’ve Always Known I Was Sexy.”

Even lyric essays, even your lyric essays, were published first in general magazines, middlebrow magazines, political magazines, women’s magazines, and even, heaven forbid, commercial or mass-market magazines. Writing to make a point or a buck certainly has its dangers, but it does not necessarily preclude one from writing lyrically or creating something of lasting literary merit.

John, you’ve ignored where at least some of your lyric essays came from and you’ve begun to draw too sharp a distinction between journalism and the lyric essay. And, as a consequence, you’ve ended up arguing too strenuously against facts and prose and journalism and mass culture and commerce. On the first page of The Next American Essay, you announced, “I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.” And in the opening of The Lost Origins of the Essay, you wrote, “I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.”

Well, all and good, John, but you’ve gotten carried away, and I’m starting to distrust your motives. Don’t write essays just so you can be a poet, John. Don’t write essays just so you can wear a beret. Maybe it’s time for you to come home to America, maybe it’s time for you to stop being quite so high faltutin’. I worry that you’ve gone so Continental, so post-modern, so highbrow, so, dare I say, lyrical because you’re running away from journalism.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not running to journalism and mass culture exactly, just not away from it. And neither am I arguing that Hollywood, television, slick magazines, and the lure of big book deals have not been treacherous in their own ways. Nor am I arguing that little magazines and alternative presses do not play a role, an important role, in the struggle against monopoly capitalism and for art. What I am arguing is that this is the way it is. We live in a world in which commerce touches everything and art is never pure. All of these things – slick magazines and little magazines, blogs and books, high culture and mass culture – make up the terrain in which art is made and read. I am arguing that we must proceed on all fronts and that there is also a role to be played by those who publish in mainstream magazines and get paid in cash rather than copies.

There’s an American essayist on the essay I think you should read – Berton Braley. He’s a funny guy who wrote a piece, called “On Being an Essayist” for The Bookman back in 1920. In it he said that the “elect” had become too protective of the essay, and literature more generally. The essay, he said, was possessed of a “Little Lord Fauntleroy complex.” It was too intent on being literary and had become “a precious, precious thing.” The essay needed, said Braley, to romp around again and get “all mussed up with the butcher’s boy and the rest of the crowd in Dugan’s back lot,” it needed “to play with the rough common boys of Popularity and Commercialism.”

I know you’d like to do that too, John, and that a respect for, or at least attraction to, journalism is some of why you wrote About a Mountain and let Norton bill it as “an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas,” a “[b]earing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story.” “Facts,” John? “Facts”? I’m for facts. You’re not for facts. I understand there’s a gray area. I understand memory must be supplemented by imagination. I understand we need, sometimes, to compress time and accelerate a narrative. I understand that the stage can get too crowded and we might need to delete a character or fold some others into a composite character. I’m not a dodo, and I love the idea at least of writing a book about the gamble that is Yucca Mountain and the pit of poison that is Las Vegas, about your mother’s life and Levi Presley’s death, but geesh, changing the timing of that poor dead boy’s death. Necessary? I don’t think so.

John, I don’t think I’ve changed. I think you’ve changed. I still love lyric essays. But I don’t love you anymore. I do hope we can still be friends.

Sincerely,

Ned

Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of the just-released Essayists on the Essay. The two previous sentences are true, but he does not always tell the truth.

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§ 44 Responses to AWP 2012 — Dear John, I’m Afraid it is Over …

  • Looking forward to your new book, Essayists on the Essay, Ned!

  • anonymous says:

    After the D’Agata affair the term ‘lyric essay’ makes me gag

  • Faye Snider says:

    Thank you. Dinty, for posting Ned’s exceptional piece of writing. I had to leave the conference early and Ned’s words read like a fresh breeze clearing out the detritus after the storm.

  • Chester Cook says:

    THE HUMANITY, THE HUMANITY. The man is but a man is but a man. Do you believe that we do not, each day, deceive ourselves? That we know ourselves completely? That our memories are real? That we know others, and that we know the world? We only know the constructs, language being the more omnipresent and powerful construct–conveniently for you writers. Let the man make an argument about what we can and cannot know. The youth of tomorrow will need it. The narrative is dying, and the network will prevail. How will we find the truth in that? Perhaps you will not live to see, but others must.

  • KH says:

    The inability of nonfiction types to tolerate even a single iconoclast is interesting. What is the source of this abiding insecurity? Why the cultish need to loudly and publicly purge someone who won’t conform?

    • KH –

      See here. This is why I think D’Agata’s tricks hurt all of us who care about literary nonfiction:

      http://brevity.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/dagatas-trickery/

      • KH says:

        Whether or not you recognize these to be conservative sentiments, they are. And the question is then — do temperamentally (not politically) conservative writers tend to self-select into “nonfiction” writing? To a lot of us, I think the community’s deep-seated fear of ambiguity comes as a shock.

    • Fiction writers police the nonfiction genre just as zealously as its practitioners, maybe more so. In his review for the New York Times Book Review of About a Mountain, novelist Charles Bock wrote:

      “To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.”

      At that time, the changing of the boy’s death date was the only known fabrication because D’Agata hadn’t admitted the others.

  • Katy Read says:

    Fabulous speech, Ned Stuckey-French. I watched that AWP panel and afterward wrote a newspaper blog post expressing my dismay at how strongly some audience members defended making up stuff in what is ostensibly nonfiction. http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/blogs/141347663.html

  • CC says:

    Amen, @KH. This conversation makes everyone look bad. A stunted view of what the essay can accomplish is precisely what John is resisting.

  • FS says:

    Interesting. According to all the propaganda we get, Americans are doing away with adjectives and adverbs. Have we been misinformed?

    One can’t pretend to know what causes reactions in another person, but it seems that the label of journalist is no longer the badge of honour it once was in the minds of a few people. Perhaps the strategic error was in commenting on the writer — “passionate journalist poet” — and not the writing — which might be to say, were I to comment on his/the work in question:

    “writing in a style that does not fit neatly into any single category or current genre but nevertheless marries poetry with some journalistic reporting and faked facts, it’s held together with considerable passion which all combines to weave an interesting and thoughtful story …”

    As pointed out, we need people who stretch the boundaries, if not break them entirely. We need entirely new thinking about writing, and specifically about mind-limiting genres. It’s unfortunate that it happens around ego, but such is the way of the world. Is anyone talking with the marketing peeps about new names for non-fiction?

    • What if they’re the wrong boundaries to be stretched? What if the idea of genre and genre-naming has nothing to do with truth, but expectations of form, or marketing, or–god forbid–helping the reader? Why equate notions of ars gratia artis with making up stuff for no other reason than some faux manifesto for self-promotion?

      • FS says:

        Hmmm….good questions. What if there were no boundaries in writing, and what if the writing stood on its word-weaving, storytelling merits, and a statement at the beginning that says the facts in this story are true to everyone’s best knowledge and evidence, or the facts in this story have been conjured from my own imagination and is a work of fiction

        Not to be binary about it, but there are factual stories and there are made up stories, with an imaginary, constructed spectrum between the two poles, with offshoots going many different ways with different names for ever more refined genres.

        Perhaps the question is not what if they are the wrong boundaries, but under what circumstances is it helpful and healthy (as opposed to unhealthy and hurtful) to stretch boundaries of genres in art? Is there any pure art anymore. Isn’t there a school of thought that says all art is derivative which would suggest that all boundaries are blurred? Off topic, I know…

        Honestly, I don’t think that genre and genre naming have anything to do with the truth or The Truth — what ever that might be, although Dr. Seuss touches on many universal human truths in all of his stories. :-) I would not want to confuse facts/evidence with truth/The Truth. (Relativity of many truths notwithstanding.) Or genre. Non fiction is less about the truth I think, than about actual fact, series of events, that are by our consensus-based definitions, real. Verifiable.

        I mentioned boundaries because I think the point about boundaries and art and creating is such an old one as to be meaningless to all but the people who care about information management and filing and library sciences today; however, in the world of academia and critique and modelling for future writers, it’s always a good place to start. First we learn what the tools are, how they are used, then we learn to use them and THEN we do what we want with them.

        Genre MIGHT be a marketing concept/construct, but it’s also wayfinding for readers and agents and publishers and libraries — those people who buy the product of the creativity, whether that’s a piece in a magazine, a writing workshop or class, or the book. (IF thats the goal of the writer)

        Expectations are dangerous — and I say this with a somewhat arched eyebrow — IF we are to talk of expectations, then what readers expect of non fiction is part and parcel of the non-fiction genre and its definitions and how it’s written and sold. We could digress into consumer behaviour and marketing psychology, but that would be boring. Four words: video trailers for books.

        I was taught that non fiction concerns itself with real life, real events, real people, real places, real feelings, real history: in other words, things that are not made up or fabricated or imagined. I was also taught that the writing of non fiction can be and is as elegant and as literary and as poetic and as lyrical as the writer is capable of making it. I found it a rather silly statement on D’Agata’s part — that non fiction can’t be art. But I had an even sillier thought: I was reading some of this stuff at the same time I was watching the Westminster Dog Show. Somehow, I made a connection between standard of the breed, and writing genres, and the judges. :-) And I have to agree with one of the other commenters — lyrical essay? Like lyrical poems, like the classical Greek and Roman stories. Oh please.

        For me — and I can only speak for me — D’Agata’s comments about his work and about the genre struck me: playing with the facts because they didn’t fit the cadence or his vision of the story, that non fiction can’t be art, and that the purpose of art is to trick. His sharing of the exchange between him, writer dude and fact-checker dude was quite inspired, if not a tale of two territorial terriers. Both had valid points, and both were trying to mark higher up on the pole. All in all it’s fascinating and has generated great discussion and debate.

        I wasn’t intentionally equating art or art for art’s sake with fabricating facts, or contorting facts to fit a vision of a creative piece of work. But if facts are viewed as part of the raw material to be shaped into a work, and become distorted to the point of being unrecognizable, or can no longer be part of any body of evidence of fact, can it claim to be a work of non fiction? (I won’t argue if it’s art or not, since I am of the opinion that if writing is considered an artform, then non fiction can indeed be art, if the writer is that good.)

        D’Agata doesn’t like some aspects of the genre and it seems to me that what he’s done with is approach to his book create something that exists between total fiction and total non fiction. Sort of like what some biographers do. Does it need a name? Or a more distinct disclaimer? What was never clear to me in any of this with his book is what would be wrong with adopting the genre of fiction: there’d be no fact checking, no debate.

  • dlmar says:

    Saw this live at AWP, glad to have a copy, Ned Rocked

  • Joanna From Cyprus says:

    Thanks for recommending Berton Braley.

    • You’re very welcome, Joanna. Here’s a full citation:

      Braley, Berton. “On Being an Essayist.” The Bookman: A Review of Books and Life 51 (Aug. 1920): 646-48.

      And if you liked Braley, you might also like these two pieces, which are just as funny and profound:

      Holliday, Robert Cortes. “An Article Without an Idea.” Broome Street Straws. New York: George H. Doran, 1919. 80-87.

      Waters, John P. “A Little Old Lady Passes Away.” The Forum and Century 90.1 (July 1933): 27-29.

      To plug shamelessly, all of these, and more, are included in the bibliography of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (U of Iowa P, 2012).

  • Bridgett says:

    I saw this panel at AWP, and the naked anger from some of the members in the audience was surprising. I was so glad to hear the panel members come down on the side of truth, and I was grateful for Ned Stuckey-French’s “letter.” It is absolutely true that remembering and writing and remembering and trying to tell the truth are activities fraught with deception. We deceive ourselves all the time, but when we call ourselves essayists or cnf writers, we say to the reader–I’m doing my best to tell you the truth.

    Carol Bly wrote succinctly about honesty in her book “Beyond The Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction.” She posits that while “in the private sector and in the entertainment world dishonesty is acceptable much of the time, it is not acceptable in writing we trust to be ‘nonfiction.’” She goes on to say that “people read creative nonfiction expecting a kind of spiritual or psychological history, no matter how personal the history. We read someone’s nonfiction to see how we might manage in that author’s circumstances, or to learn from the author how we might give our own life more meaning–or if we are only in a mildly curious frame of mind, we read to note the author’s circumstances and find parallels or nonparallels with our own. If the author has lied, however, about the events in a memoir . . . then we haven’t got true data to mull over.”

    The book is a long argument for telling the whole truth as Bly discusses our inherent tendencies to gussy up our thoughts and asserts that “because we live in a nonjudgmental, vapid culture, people commonly tell writers, ‘You are too hard on yourself.’ We had better look askance at that remark when it comes to literary fixing. much writing is sloppy and casual, poorly thought through, full of classic beginners’ mistakes; likely most of us are “not hard enough” on ourselves.”

    It is disingenuous to say that as essayists, we are getting at a more subtle truth, and that to get at that truth, we have to somehow fudge the facts. The facts are the beauty of the truth.

  • Bridgett, I miss Carol very much. Thank you for quoting her. She was a dear friend — funny, serious, uncompromising, hard-working, sometimes irascible, but always, always fiercely committed to good writing, clear thinking, and the search for kindness in the world. She would have had great fun with all this.

    • Bridgett says:

      Carol Bly’s insistence on telling the truth–looking deeply inward to do so–has been important to my growth as an essayist. I wish I had known her myself.

    • I miss Carol Bly too, and I didn’t even know her personally. I have all of her books and wish there were more. I’ve thought I might do a periodical search to see what I can find.
      Many years ago, I told a friend of my mother’s, an elderly Japanese man living in Minneapolis, that Carol Bly was my favorite contemporary writer. The next time I talked to Fumio, he said,

      “I called her up and told her.”

      “What?! What did she say?”

      “She said she’s very happy to know she’s read by people on the West Coast.”

      • Jeanne, I remember hearing Richard Ford say once that we should all write fan letters to the writers we like, that he sent one to Jane Smiley right after reading A Thousand Acres. My wife is a novelist and she loves it when she hears from a retired librarian in Kansas or some other stranger in a far flung place like the West Coast. I’m glad your friend called Carol up and told her that, and I’m sure you are too. I used to get calls from her out of the blue myself and I relished them.

        Not everyone can read it as such but I feel I just wrote a fan letter of sorts to John D’Agata. The psychiatrist and social critic Rollo May once wrote that the opposite of love is not hate but apathy. John’s work leaves few people feeling apathetic, certainly not me.

  • Patrick Ross says:

    This is by far the best response to the D’Agata kerfuffle I have read. I wish I had heard it at AWP but I missed it in the chaos that is the show. Thank you, Dinty, for posting it.

  • This is great, but I am surprised that “Ticket to the Fair” has been claimed as a lyric essay. But then, I can never remember the lyric’s definition, really. I’d say DFW’s great essay is what D’Agata’s book presents itself as but isn’t: a personal narrative in the tradition of the essay and of journalism. The strong persona puts it in the essay camp, the going out after a larger and additional subject and using the self to observe and experience and interact is rather journalistic–and nothing to be ashamed of. DFW even played with the idea of being a reporter in such essays; he had fun with it: the brainy nerd encounters the world, taking notes on a napkin, etc.

    Some of the most gripping, important, and artful nonfiction essays and books meld those traditions, and often I see each side, essayists or journalists, claim them. As you point out, D’Agata’s publisher emphasized the journalistic aspect of About a Mountain. But so does D’Agata by going out and reporting, as when he visits the dead boy’s family, and he increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How (plus Why, Why, Why, which is great, I must say).

    Maybe we need to go back to the lost origins of journalism so that we’ll see it isn’t just the denatured stuff mullet wrappers do but personal and artistic, like much of Orwell’s participatory and immersion work. But in both the essay tradition as I understand it and in the journalistic tradition as everyone understands it, the beauty is partly fidelity to objective reality. We read essays and journalism with reasonable expectations of factual honesty, even as most of us desire an intensely subjective narrator. Who, by the way, treats readers as friends or allies and not as enemies or stooges.

    I would not judge About a Mountain harshly if it were presented as poetry, but it isn’t. By the same token, the excerpt I have read of The Lifespan of a Fact indicates clearly to me that it’s exaggerated, humor in service to a larger point. Other than pointlessly changing the date of the boy’s death, I don’t think About a Mountain indicates its duplicity but offers itself as a sincere and righteous inquiry.

    I also agree that changing the boy’s death date seems like it involves an additional transgression.

    • K.N. says:

      But we know now that DFW fudged a lot of his “reporting” in his essays, especially “Ticket to the Fair.” Knowing such, does that mean the piece can no longer be called an “essay?” Can no longer be beloved?

      http://www.theawl.com/2011/10/a-supposedly-true-thing-jonathan-franzen-said-about-david-foster-wallace

      Also, as was pointed out in the comments thread of the last time on this blog we all wrung our hands about this, there are copious notes provides at the end of About a Mountain that detail the changes of “facts.” All so-called “duplicity” is noted.

      • Katy Read says:

        ^ “[W]e know now that DFW fudged a lot of his ‘reporting’ in his essays …”

        I would say the Awl account describes the extent to which he fudged as very ambiguous.

      • K.N., I admire Franzen as a writer but do not consider him credible where DFW is concerned even though they were “best friends.” I followed that flap closely.

        I bought D’Agata’s book some time ago I have only read passages (it has kept sliding lower in my TBR pile and I have just dug it out ). So I don’t know whether what he was slammed for in the NYTBR, for changing the boy’s death date, which he admitted in the book, is something he did with all the other factual changes he has recently highlighted in The Lifespan of a Fact.

        Folks who have actually read the whole About a Mountain: is it true that he really admitted all in the footnotes?

  • I did not speak up during the commenting period after Ned read this aloud at AWP ( I just sat back and enjoyed the fireworks), but I already see some similarly defensive comments here, so I’ll ask:

    Why do some of us want to allow John D’Agata the space to adopt the jerk persona in The Lifespan of a Fact, yet we deny Ned Stuckey-French a similar space to adopt the jilted-lover persona? If one of D’Agata’s motives or goals was to trick people, get them talking, thinking about issues, complicating an overly simplistic regulatory view of fact in nonfiction, then he’s succeeded, and nobody who agrees with him ought to be upset that Ned continues the schtick. I suspect that John D would get a good laugh at this letter, so I recommend that we all just continue laughing. Thanks, Ned.

  • Thanks, Pat, for getting the joke, and thanks to all of you for this great conversation.

    One of the aspects of “Ticket to the Fair” that I most appreciate is “Native Companion.” She takes no prisoners and enjoys the ride. Talk about a good laugh. I didn’t know David Foster Wallace, but I miss him too.

  • Andromeda Romano-Lax says:

    Great piece — well argued, and a pleasure to read.

    I’m still confused about the lyrical essay label — and I’ve been looking it up in various places well before the D’Agata flap. I don’t think I’ve come across the same definition twice. If anyone wants to try to define here, I’d appreciate it.

    I’m in an online discussion book and we just covered the Next American Essay. I respect all those who say it was a good anthology, but it bothered me to no end. (Yes, yes — art is supposed to disrupt and to bother. I get it.) Some of the essays, especially those from earlier years, as well as some scattered throughout, were great. But there were many more than I couldn’t imagine getting published anywhere, or read from start to end by nearly anyone.

    Many of D’Agata’s essays read like poetry, but poetry that went on way too long (10-20 pages too long), as if the label “essay” gave them permission to be long, unfocused, flabby, meandering, but not in that challenging “essay-as-essai” way–a writer investigating the twists and turns of his/her own mind–but more like something that has not been revised or is wholly detached from thoughts of what the reader needs to know in order to participate in the same journey. The anthologist’s excuse might be that they are exhibiting innovations in form — and how I wish that were true. But what was touted as innovative — the list essay, an essay mostly in footnotes — I’ve already seen elsewhere, with stronger effect and less self-conscious artyness. McPhee and Didion were writing on deadline (or in need of a quick paycheck), yet their essays read as fresh or fresher than some of the latecomers. So is there really all that much innovation happening?

    I actually did enjoy D’Agata’s interchapter mini-essays, especially his reference to the essay over time, but his takeaway message — that we should disregard facts — ran counter to the strongest essays in the book (from McPhee to the Delft essay, and others that were informed by research and/or journalism). The essays that were the least fact-grounded were often the most indulgent, and even less exact in terms of language. Oddly enough, the journalistic pieces often seemed more “creative,” in other words.

    And of course, aside from the anthology, I’m still mostly bothered by the fact that D’Agata’s “Lifespan” is itself a fabrication. I would have been more interested to know what a real factchecker really would have said. Why? Because like many readers, I still have a stubborn interest in unadorned facts, as well as surprising and artful arrangement.

  • megscottharris says:

    Fiction: Reads letter. Grabs tissue and blots tears from the corner of her eyes. Blows nose.

  • I’m going to get a box of tissues, a bucket of ice cream, cue up The Way We Were, mourn, and move on with my life.

    Thanks Ned, for help us move past denial, anger and bargaining, to acceptance.

    I might still peek at The Next American Essay, though, when I’m lapsing.

  • [...] The final speaker, Ned Stuckey-French, directed his comments straight at D’Agata in a “Dear John…he audience chuckled throughout. My girlfriend crossed her arms. [...]

  • twinprint says:

    Loved this–and will now add it to the growing packet of required readings for discussions of ethics in my creative nonfiction courses. My students’ responses are sometimes a bit like Paul Haney’s girlfriend (and mine, perhaps, a bit too much like Oprah confronting James Frey). But I’m an essayist because of truth, not because of lies. I’m an essayist because I love the mess, and the beauty, I make of art when I tell the truth, discover the truth, honor the truth in my own writing–even when such truths at times seem impossibly out of reach. The minute I stop trying, I become another kind of writer, not necessarily better or worse, but not this kind, not an essayist.

    Jenny Spinner
    http://twinprints.wordpress.com

  • [...] AWP 2012 – Dear John, I’m Afraid it is Over … (brevity.wordpress.com) [...]

  • [...] shock is fairly widespread: viz. Ned Stuckey-French’s outraged post over at the Brevity blog, Dear John. You can’t spit on a Review these days without losing some lubrication on this kerfuffle, and [...]

  • [...] about nonfiction / creative nonfiction / essays / truth / etc. (You can often find him over at Brevity [...]

  • [...] AWP 2012 – Dear John, I’m Afraid it is Over … (brevity.wordpress.com) [...]

  • [...] suggesting that I might want to read it because I’d written a piece about John D’Agata, titled “Dear John, I’m afraid it’s over…,” which appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and in which I’d challenged John’s approach to [...]

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