How Negotiable is a Fact in Nonfiction?

February 9, 2012 § 64 Comments

Writers and readers are buzzing about  John D’Agata’s back and forth with his fact-checker as excerpted in Harper’s, and  also about yesterday’s response from Salon writer Laura Miller.

In the Harper’s piece, excerpted from a book-length discussion, D’Agata again and again suggests that changing facts is just fine for flow or rhythm or convenience.  For instance, when D’Agata lists 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas whereas the fact checker sees only 31 listed, D’Agata responds:

D’AGATA: Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of “thirty-four” works better in that sentence than the rhythm of “thirty-one,” so I changed it.

Or when D’Agata suggests a woman in his article is from Mississippi when she is actually a Las Vegas resident:
D’AGATA: I realize that, but I need her to be from a place other than Las Vegas in order to underscore the transient nature of the city—that nearly everyone in Vegas is from someplace else. And since she did in fact originally come from Mississippi, I think the claim is fine as it is.
Or when he suggests that a key event occurred on the day of a young man’s suicide, when in fact it did not:
D’AGATA: It was part of the atmosphere of that particular summer.
FINGAL: Then isn’t that how it should be framed?
D’AGATA: No, because being more precise would be less dramatic. I don’t think readers will care whether the events that I’m discussing happened on the same day, a few days apart, or a few months apart.

Ridiculous, wrong, confusing for readers, and bad for the genre, but D’Agata has his admirers.  They do not include Salon’s Laura Miller, who writes:

D’Agata … offers the “rhythm” defense more than once, and when Fingal raises legitimate questions about his attempt to present suicide as a universal taboo across cultures and historical periods, he stoops to the retort, “Wow Jim, your penis must be so much bigger than mine.” (Although it must be said that this is a pretty fair characterization of the tenor of their arguments.) It’s not until late in the game that D’Agata engages Fingal in a substantive discussion of what he’s trying to do, best stated as “taking liberties” to make “a better work of art — and thus a better experience for the reader — than I could if I just stuck to the facts.”

D’Agata’s stance is that the lyric essay is so different an animal than other nonfiction that it does not require an adherence to facts or honest memory, that it can be altered at will because language rules over logic or veracity.  That’s a sexy stance, and it is gaining some traction, but unfortunately it also plays right into the wheelhouse of those who want to endlessly criticize creative nonfiction. For many lazy writers, it is also an easy way out.

The discussion will continue, certainly.  Let us know your thoughts.

Here are the links:

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§ 64 Responses to How Negotiable is a Fact in Nonfiction?

  • Lyn Fenwick says:

    I am writing a book about a homesteader in Kansas who kept a daily journal for most of seven years. After transcribing 480 pages over a period of eleven months, I believe I can discern emotions and opinions not stated explicitly. In that case I do not qualify them with “it appears” or “we may assume.” I am writing history, but I want the reader to experience the immediacy that I felt reading the journal. Of course I have done extensive research about him, his neighbors, the community, the period, etc., but I don’t want it to read like a textbook. Even so, facts are facts, and misstating them for flow or emphasis is no longer nonfiction. Find a Las Vegas resident from out of state! Find a more creative way to say it if the flow is wrong!! If you don’t like troublesome facts, write fiction. Lyn Fenwick,

  • says:

    I’ve no problem with writers who decide to include fictional elements in their nonfiction writer as long as they explain their choices to their readers. I just wouldn’t include that work in the category of the essay (lyrical or not). D’Agata enjoys being a provocateur. He would like to be Quentin Tarantino but ends up instead sounding shrill and kinda lazy as a writer.

  • Mark Dykeman says:

    At some point, altering details, facts, etc. by definition must push a piece out of the non-fiction realm into fiction…

  • judith Kitchen says:

    One has to ask why one is writing–surely “drama” isn’t quite enough, is it? Isn’t the writer doing some self-exploration as well? Why the need to dramatize by playing with facts when what we want to do is make something of the facts we’ve been given? It’s harder to do, but surely D’Agata could rise to that challenge. I think he’s playing far too fast and loose not only for my taste, but for my idea of integrity. I prefer to think we are humbled by the real world, and what really happens. We all know about subjectivity–and make room for it–but when things did not happen on a day someone claims they did, well, as I say to my classes, where do you draw the line?

  • My issue with this, ultimately, is that it just seems lazy on D’Agata’s part: he can’t write rhythmically in the realm of facts? Isn’t that the lyric essayist’s job is in some way? His argument about the event and suicide as being “part of the atmosphere” misses something crucial to the correlative relationship between the event and the suicide, which is the event didn’t cause a sudden triggered suicide but rather left an indelible mark that (I’m assuming here) gnawed at the person who committed suicide. It’s the difference between a crime of passion and premeditation.
    Yes, there is room for subjectivity, personal meditation, and the unreliable memory, but these have nothing to do with deliberately distorted facts.

    • Tess says:

      >My issue with this, ultimately, is that it just seems lazy on D’Agata’s part: he can’t write rhythmically in the realm of facts?

      Seriously. Thirty-one or thirty-four strip clubs? Why not “thirty-odd”? It doesn’t take THAT much ingenuity to find solutions to these literary problems that stay within the boundaries of accuracy.

      • Gydle says:

        seriously, I agree. From a strictly rhythmic point of view, both “thirty-four” and “thirty-one” have three syllables. Am I missing something?

  • Dave M says:

    I think the point here is that the essay or nonfiction book by its nature—late, artfully composed, written from a single POV often external to past events—does a very poor job getting readers access to the facts or the historical record when held up against newspaper reportage, say, or a police report. We can compare this to Franzen’s old lament about the inadequacy of the social novel to uncover or report life in the age of cable news. If, then, NF as we’re trying to make it does a poor job of getting facts across, what might it do well? And what might it do well that novels can’t? These revelations about fact-checking don’t spoil the effects D’Agata goes for and achieves in his book. Nor do they render his carefully developed arguments false. Alone, facts may work like this, but not in concert.

    • DaveM,

      You ask: If, then, NF as we’re trying to make it does a poor job of getting facts across, what might it do well? And what might it do well that novels can’t?

      Well, if D’Agata simply goes the way of the novel — use real life, but embellish, round off, and change where it helps the flow and atmosphere, then he is not finding what personal narrative does well, he is finding what fiction does well.

      As for this: These revelations about fact-checking don’t spoil the effects D’Agata goes for and achieves in his book. Nor do they render his carefully developed arguments false. Alone, facts may work like this, but not in concert.

      I disagree. Spoils it for me, and for many.


      • Chase says:

        Gosh. I can’t think of anything more disappointing than learning that purported facts are actually fiction. Not to get too spiritual, but if our chosen ‘medium’ is creative non fiction and the universe conspires to bring us certain facts and circumstances then we have to honor that. Otherwise, we’re just cutting holes in our creative container, which is, in my opinion, not of integrity and therefore damaging to the creative spirit.

        Limitations often breed some of the most extraordinary inventions. Look at the airplane.

        This dude is missing an opportunity and he doesn’t even see it.

      • Dinah says:

        Dinty, I’m with you. What’s more, if something “was part of the atmosphere of that particular summer,” isn’t that plenty interesting? Isn’t that a beautiful phrase, in fact? And doesn’t it leave room for all kinds of truthful conjecture and riffing? And, as is possible in our genre, where we get to think on the page, what if D’Agata were to admit–on the page–that he WANTS to fabricate–WANTS to tell us events conspired on a particular day at a particular time, and is forced to simultaneously reckon with the the truth AND his urge to tweak it! Now that’s the stuff of nonfiction: that’s why it’s layered and resonant. It’s not about whether or not events line up in a satisfying way–that’s very nearly beside the point–it’s rather about how we feel and think about events when they don’t line up, as much as when they do…

      • Exactly. Every book is a contract you make with your reader. Life allows only so much time to read anything, so if part of the contract is factual veracity, then you lose your reader’s trust when you break that contract. The whiff of in-authenticity can be a real deal-breaker.

      • Lyn Fenwick says:

        Dinty, Thank you for your reply. I am disappointed by the number of people supporting D’Agata’s choices. I think it reflects what is happening in journalism today as well. Advocacy is not journalism, and fiction is not non-fiction. Lyn

  • judith Kitchen says:

    It completely spoils it for me, as did the revelation that Annie Dillard never owned a cat. As did the fact that Wilkomirski was never a child in a concentration camp. As . . . there can be real ramifications to this kind of invention. And it’s not all that hard to indicate when one is imagining, speculating, even conflating, so that the reader feels honored, not a dupe.

  • Kristen R. says:

    1. a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.
    2. anything resembling such a composition: a picture essay.
    3. an effort to perform or accomplish something; attempt.

    The essay makes no claims of verifiable truth. The constraints of “creative nonfiction” are contemporary and, for whatever reason, have become arbitrarily imposed upon the essay. (And, as a side note, I’ve never once seen John D’Agata label himself a “creative nonfiction” writer.)

    Additionally, if we’re to look at “cultural studies,” by which Norton marketed the book:

    Cultural Studies:
    1. Interdisciplinary field concerned with the role of social institutions in the shaping of culture.

    Again, where is the claim of “verifiable” fact?

    D’Agata’s extraordinarily generous gifts to the essay as a form in the last fifteen years do nothing to damage or threaten the genre of “creative nonfiction,” and I’m hard-pressed to understand why the community of such an underrepresented genre is so set on nipping at the heels rather than examining the root of what’s truly being debated.

  • Laura Miller says:

    Great discussion. But, again, a lot of this is moot: D’Agata doesn’t claim to be writing “nonfiction,” and if his work were forthrightly labeled, most of this overblown fuss would be unnecessary. I’m willing to appreciate a work that the author admits to be partly fabricated and partly true (such as Lauren Slater’s LYING). But beside the label issue, here’s the crucial question when you reduce it to just the morality of accuracy: How good is the art that truth is being sacrificed to?

    The final point of my piece is that fidelity to fact might make D’Agata a *better* artist, not just a more truthful one. Most of what he does in “What Happens There” is change interesting or rebellious facts into the biddable servants of a bunch of cliches about alienation in Las Vegas. The style that trumps accuracy is a grandiose beat-poetry-style “soulfulness,” self-important and hackneyed. Do people who read this really feel closer to the dead boy the essay is ostensibly about? Or is it mostly just a cryptopaean to the intense artist dude that is John D’Agata?

    The basic thing the inept fact checker fails to do — namely, call up the sources and talk to them himself — would introduce other people’s voices into a discussion of what story D’Agata gets to tell. Maybe they’d challenge his version of what they said, or of what happened? Then we’d really have a interesting dust-up over the nature of facticity, eh? But instead, it’s this arid exercise in pose-striking.

    • I agree, I agree, I agree. Why would you ever take liberties with fact when you’ve got so much staggering reality out there to share instead? Especially when your choices in which facts to fudge are so meaningless…

    • Dinah says:

      “The final point of my piece is that fidelity to fact might make D’Agata a *better* artist, not just a more truthful one.”


    • Fact-checkers check facts. That’s it. That’s why it’s an entry-level job. They don’t ask for alternate accounts, nor ask sources questions for which there are already answers, nor ‘introduces other people into a discussion of what story’ someone gets to tell. That would be, respectively, a private detective, a lawyer, and a talk show host.

      Also: Fact-checkers are often–now, sadly, more often than not–unpaid interns–and they do exactly what this fact-checker did: query the author.

  • Gary Presley says:

    I don’t mind (generally) vagueness in memoir, but I think ‘reporting’ should be accurate even in a lyrical essay.

    I think that memoir is generally a “memory of life,” and thus when the writer ‘remembers’ what happened in 1966 and tells us about it, we assume he isn’t consulting a diary (unless we are told so) and thus we recognize the memory may not be factually accurate but we are to assume it isn’t deliberate. That in itself is revealing as well; memory may provide a truer truth than a diary.

    As for the lyrical essay, not so much. Or at least until I learn that Frank Sinatra didn’t really have a cold.

  • Annie says:

    One thing that drives me crazy about this discussion is how impossibly rigid people feel the need to be about their stance. Why is there no room for any gradation at all?

    Is it really useful to compare a fabricated childhood in a concentration camp to a misstated (purposefully or otherwise) tally of strip clubs? Really?

    If your sensibilities are so delicate that those *lies* affect you in the same way, then, well, I don’t know how to talk to you at this party.

    • Dave M says:

      Yes. Precisely. It’s these kinds of slippery-slope complaints that keep us NFers from never talking about how D’Agata’s book works, what its complex structures seem to accomplish. There’s so much we can learn from this work about formal possibilities, but now all we in the community can do is condemn and ignore. As artists, why are we continually focused on what we can’t do?

      • Kristen R. says:

        But the work is right there! We can and should be talking about what its complex structures accomplish. Condemning is the opposite of what this community should be doing – it’s what it’s CHOOSING to do. And one thing that seems for certain is that no one is ignoring these books – the furious flurry that sprouts up all over the Internet each time D’Agata releases speaks to that.

    • amyebutcherAmy says:

      I’m with Annie entirely. What D’Agata has done here is light a torch to a conversation that, frankly, should have happened a long time ago. Regardless of how we feel about his particular aesthetic or the ethics behind his artistic decisions, we’re talking and generating a buzz, one that’s absolutely crucial to the further emergence of this supposed “fourth” genre. I welcome D’Agata’s addition wholeheartedly, and I think he’s done nothing but good in establishing a place for creativity within “truth,” and in literature.

      It goes without saying–or I thought it did?–that the bigger problem here is not D’Agata’s incidental retelling of a Las Vegas summer but instead the rigid guidelines by which we essayists–and essayists alone–must adhere to. So rarely does anyone call out a fiction writer for basing his story on reality, and while I find D’Agata very far, far (light years, really) from Frey, it’s been mentioned many times that Frey tried unsuccessfully for years to market his book as “fiction.” The problem is not one solely for the writers to grapple with; it’s the market, and it’s precisely the very rigid opinions found here and elsewhere.

      Call it what you will, I frankly don’t care if the suicide happened in June or July. I don’t care if Dillard never owned a cat. What’s most important for me here is the essence of story–one very unchanged, I’d argue, by these aesthetic alterations.

  • M.K.E. says:

    There seems to be a willful dodging of the underlying drive of D’Agata and Fingal’s debate here. It’s reductive and dismissive to purport this to be the same old tired debate about simple journalistic/”nonfiction” ethics. D’Agata is fully aware of the choices he is making and is actually asking us not to debate whether he fudged this or that detail and whether or not that makes this nonfiction or fiction, but to reconsider deeper notions about the essay as a form. It seems like a lot of people would like to shove this back into the journalistic integrity debate that D’Agata very clearly distinguishes as irrelevant to his point:

    FINGAL: To be honest, I suspect your casual interviewing strategy is going to be a problem.
    D’AGATA: Well it might be a problem, but with all due respect, it’s your problem, Jim, not mine. I’m not a reporter, and I have no interest in pretending to be a reporter or in producing journalism…

    FINGAL: Well, OK… I guess… but this still seems to violate about ten different rules of journalistic integrity.
    D’AGATA: I’m not sure that matters, Jim. This is an essay, so journalistic rules don’t belong here.

  • Lucas M says:

    I would, for one, say that the speed and anger of the Salon response, as well as this whole conversation, reflect at least a little success on D’Agata’s part. The Harper’s essay (not lyric essay, just essay) is meant to dramatize an argument and pull others into that argument. That is exactly what has happened.

    I don’t understand, then, how we can’t bring ourselves to read a little artful construction into D’Agata’s persona on the page. Even the most sticklerish in this forum would agree that the narrative self is always going to be a bit of a fabrication, turning our real perspective into a character. So why should we assume that the voice on the page in Harper’s is trying to present himself as some automatically-correct sage. He is testy, snarky, openly pretentious, insecure. He is letting himself be flawed, showing himself to be a bully, at times, and also pretty sensible at times, too. Regardless of where folks fall on the essay/CNF spectrum, are we really supposed to think that John D’Agata isn’t a skilled enough writer to have a handle on how he comes off on the page? The “hackneyed” or “self-important” or “preening” qualities that readers have so brilliantly discovered in D’Agata are all part of the experience of this essay.

    Like it or not, the reality is that most of the people furious with D’Agata aren’t working in the same field as him. It is convenient for a memoirist to say, “Of course, memory is fallible. But how dare someone engaging in reportage occupy those same liminal spaces.” Just as it makes sense for really good, really successful journalists to look at D’Agata’s liberties and bristle. If the goal of an argument is to provoke passionate, thoughtful responses, than D’Agata succeeded. Regardless of what you think of D’Agata, fresh art, powerful art, is meant to be challenging.

    • Annie says:

      Beautifully said, Lucas M.

    • Kristen R. says:

      hear, hear.

    • amyebutcherAmy says:


    • M.K.E. says:

      Indeed. Just look at all the clucking he’s managed to provoke.

    • Hmm…I agree that fresh, powerful art should be challenging, but I don’t know that this qualifies for that accolade.

      I don’t know that it’s clear that D’Agata fudged certain facts for any artful purpose. It seems more like he just kinda felt like it. I don’t know why he’d try so hard to craft that persona for himself…is that even a persona? Someone who does things that piss of his entire genre, and/or bewilder them, Emperor’s New Clothes style, into saying, “Oh, he’s such an interesting artist!” When really they’re thinking, “huh?”

      Of course it’s clear that Harper’s published the piece it did to play into everyone’s distaste for lies-in-nonfiction. And I’m sure they knew they’d rile up the masses. That wasn’t hard to guess. Good job editors, your web traffic done spiked.

      I don’t know, I get what you’re saying about having a persona in an interview, but I don’t agree that it makes sense to pointlessly change meaningless facts in a work of nonfiction that you’re going to have fact-checked. Unless that’s all part of the point, to create an argument about meaningless facts being fudged, in which case it’s so meta that I think whoever’s bristling is justified in doing so! And for the record I’m not bristling. I’m still stuck at “huh?”

      • Lucas M says:

        Oh, I wasn’t arguing about the pointlessly changing facts part. I’m just talking about this particular essay, which dramatically presents two sides of an argument. So when I was talking about the persona, I just meant the persona on the page that people are deriding as smug or pretentious or whatever. Both voices in the essay and both arguments are shown to be flawed and silly at times, but pretty compelling at other times. That’s part of the appeal to me. It’s not about agreeing with D’Agata’s fact changing or agreeing with Fingal. It’s about seeing how fascinating funny and petty and exhausting and endless the argument can be. I don’t think there’s anything intentionally bewildering or too-cool-for-school about this piece.

      • Lyn Fenwick says:


    • Laura Miller says:

      I dunno, as practitioners of an emerging genre, aren’t you bugged by the fact that these stunts might cause many potential readers to label the lyric essay as “that thing where people make up facts and then get self-righteous about it,” and then dismiss it out of hand before giving the work itself a chance?

      It’s not the essay that’s challenging here. The essay merely recapitulates a lot of very familiar opinions about life in Las Vegas. Consequently, no one is attending to the actual content of the work. The only arresting thing about it is the method and ethics used to write it — which is why that’s all anyone is arguing about. I’m not a lyric essayist, but if I were, I’d be kind of annoyed by this development.

      When New Journalism came along, it transgressed many traditional journalistic traditions, but the people who wrote it could point to their subjects and say: “This is the only way to do justice to this. See how much better/truer it is when I have the freedom to employ more of a personal voice and perspective?” But with the D’Agata essay, he’s actually taking reality and reducing it to something simpler and more in line with conventional views of the world.

      You can’t point to the content and say: Oh, he’s getting at something here that he couldn’t get at without changing the facts. There’s not much evidence that the writing is better because he changed the facts. It seems like the point of changing the facts is really to cause a fuss about changing the facts. An entirely unnecessary fuss.

      The fact that this gambit has provoked a lot of discussion is not a very good metric for determining its seriousness or substance. Anyone can provoke a lot of argument if they push the right buttons. On the Internet, we call those people trolls.

      • Lucas M says:

        Yeah, for sure I’m bugged, as I’m sure my snarkiness on this forum is revealing. Part of the issue, though, at least for me, is that I don’t consider myself to be coming of age in a burgeoning community of lyric essayists. The term “lyric essay” has always gone a little over my head. I also don’t think that D’Agata is calling this newer stuff of his lyric essay. I think we’re (perhaps rightly) hanging that term on him from when it was a new and sexy-ish thing ten or fifteen years ago. I agree with you that the New Journalists were reacting against a changing world that couldn’t be fully expressed without their liberties, but to give them that license because they’re work is now comfortably aged, kitschy and psychadelic is unfair. They pissed people off. Intentionally. They wrote pissy manifestos aimed at the New Yorker, etc, etc.

        I agree with you that, to me, changing the number of strip clubs from 34 to 31 is pointless and not exactly a work of brilliant artistry. But, again, the point of the Harper’s piece wasn’t to say that it was the most artistic move, it was to show the argument. If we want to talk about D’Agata’s work as a whole, then I just fundamentally disagree with the assessment of it. About a Mountain was a beautiful book. Yeah, the portrayal of Vegas was along the lines of what I’d consider Vegas to be having never been there, but that was just part of a huge (and very well-researched) discussion of toxic waste, of the easy assumptions we make about how we’ll leave the world in 10,000 years, about the ways we silence ourselves and put ourselves in danger. If you don’t like the book, fine, but to consider it ONLY a hackneyed portrayal of Vegas just isn’t reading very hard.

        And, yeah, I agree that all of this fuss might not be wholly necessary and could be ultimately detrimental to D’Agata, since we focus on this over the skill of his writing. But the “nonfiction” community isn’t as interesting as it was when the New Journalists were writing. Instead of About a Mountain, Patty Smith’s totally capable memoir-by-numbers about coming of age and being artsy won the national book award. That is the standard we set. Within that context, it seems worthwhile to note that some of D’Agata’s champions have been the likes of Ben Marcus and David Foster Wallace – great, respected, cutting edge writers. Lyric essayist or not, I’d rather aim for that sort of praise and company.

      • Agree. This is perhaps the worst starting off point to discuss facts in fact-based writing.

  • Doug Wallace says:

    I don’t think blatant facts should be altered in creative non-fiction regardless if it’s a lyrical essay or not. At least memoirist have a excuse….”It’s from memory,” which any criminologist will tell you is the worst of witnesses.

  • says:

    I would agree that the D’Agata is trying to create an argument for his ideas. He just hasn’t convinced me that he’s right.

  • Amy Holman says:

    These are great points. There is a range of writing within the heading of creative nonfiction that includes reportage and hybrid forms of essay, and the vigilance is on the reader recognizing this and not holding the wrong standard to a particular piece. In general, poets and fiction writers do not have to worry about what is true, but sometimes they do. If in writing about a particular town or culture the author gets it wrong, the work will likely have its critics. I do see how the depiction of a particular person who is real being altered on the page can be a problem for a publisher, at least, and that particular person, at most.

  • Dylan Nice says:

    What no one is really talking about here is how I planned a whole evening under the impression there were 34 strip clubs.

  • says:

    Ah, back to the 34 (or 31) strip clubs.

    My newspaper sometimes fact checks the statements of politicians. They use a gauge illustration that looks something like a gas gauge. The measurements extend between true to false. So some statements might be gauged as mostly false or mostly true. So I suppose my newspaper could describe D’Agata’s number of strip clubs as “mostly true.” But that’s silly. It’s incorrect. It’s not true. (Ask the strippers and club owners of Vegas.)

    Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to decribe a statement that our gut tells us is correct–without examination of the facts. He uses it to point out ridiculous arguments. D’Agata is employing truthiness in his writing. Yep, 34 strip clubs in Vegas? Sounds about right to me.

    Truthiness works in fiction but not in nonfiction. If a writer wants to be vague and inaccurate in their lyric essay–that’s ok by me. I just don’t find it interesting for very long.

    What I find even sillier are the arguments that D’Agata’s concepts here are artsy, cutting edge, hip, prescient, generous (love that one!), ground-breaking, (insert descriptor of choice).

    • Lucas M says:

      They’re not cutting edge. They’re super old. I think that’s part of the point. It’s an argument that has always happened and probably will continue to. It’s the argument that Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote inspired with their work. Pieces of Capote’s manuscript marked up by New Yorker editors have been published, dramatizing a similar back-and-forth. And I think Truman Capote was pretty good. I also think that James Agee was good. And further back, I think De Quincy was, too. I’m not saying that I entirely agree with every decision D’Agata makes. I personally don’t see the rhythmic difference between 31 and 34, but it doesn’t entirely change the effect for me. It’s too easy to deride deride D’Agata as someone who is trying to be cool and artsy at the expense of substance.

  • Jim Brega says:

    I think the interesting thing about this debate is that so many people are eager to enter into it and that it arouses such strong emotions. Some cynics may say that it’s because “truth” is in such short supply in the modern world—particularly among politicians and creators of online dating profiles.

    I believe the reason goes all the way back to when humans began telling each other stories. I speculate—and I have no eyewitness reports to back this up—that the primary evolutionary value of speech was to assist group survival: “Follow the trail to the left; there’s a saber-tooth cat at the end of the right-hand fork.” Or “If you follow the path along the lake there’s a berry bush by the big rock.”

    Tribe members had to believe each other’s stories were “true;” their survival depended on it. Only later (again, I’m speculating) did the idea of “creative” story-telling for education or entertainment emerge.

    I believe there’s a primal reaction when people come to understand that something they thought was factual is a made up; it threatens their confidence in their fellow tribe members and their fundamental understanding of the social contract. It’s why there are so many strictures against “lying”—bearing false witness—in our culture.

    Therefore I think it’s important for writers to be clear with their readers about whether they’re reporting or inventing. And if you’re inventing stories about real people, wait a respectful period after their death before introducing, for example, Abraham Lincoln, vampire slayer.

  • says:

    Thoughtful post, Jim. Storytelling is connected to survival behaviors. In our contemporary society, we have many ways to shame liars. Look at Frey and Oprah.

    However, our culture is quite forgiving of those who break the rules if they’re honest about it. What our culture hates are hypocrites. We dislike politicians who present themselves as moral arbiters while behaving differently in private. They are inauthentic.

    Many readers who discover a nonfiction work contains fictional components will take great pleasure in pointing out its faults. This can be avoided by disclosing the fictional elements. (Afterwards and forwards are good things for writers.)

  • judith Kitchen says:

    Well, as someone who relishes every time Albert Goldbarth finds a way to have a fictional component, all I can say is that he allows me to be part of the process and to take pleasure in watching him do what he does–which is pretty much indescribable. The reason this discussion feels old is that theory does not really help us understand “tone”–and tone is really the heart of the essay. The tone of the interview is fairly clear, and I suspect it’s what gets under our skin as much as anything else. For those of us who struggle with these issues, the glib responses feel dismissive–and that’s a reading of the tone. No one has championed the lyric essay more than I have, but I realize that my definition of the lyric essay definitely differs from many others.

  • I agree with you Judith. And as Dinah points out, there are so many gorgeous ways to dance with facts and truth in essays–lyric and otherwise–that it seems a shame to miss that opportunity. Especially when dealing with the material of someone else’s life, we should be wary about simply manipulating verifiable facts for our own purposes.

    • Dinah says:

      Exactly. Or else cop to what we’re doing, right?

      Here’s Lawrence Weschler (interviewed by David Ulin) in the LA Times (2009): “… every narrative voice — and especially every nonfiction narrative voice — is a fiction. And the world of writing and reading is divided into those who know this and those who don’t. When I report, I aspire to accuracy, fairness, all those things, but after I’ve gathered the material and I have this pile of notes on the table, that’s when the fun starts.” Fine, good, makes sense. Then Ulin continues: “For Weschler, everything grows out of voice, which is, at heart, a fictionalizing factor: a constructed, and often highly stylized, frame. The narrator — who is almost always Weschler, or some reflection of him (“My journalism,” he gleefully admits, “is first-person journalism, not out of megalomania but out of modesty”) — is the first character, creating meaning out of the maelstrom of raw fact.” But not CHANGING the fact–nuh uh, no need–not if a writer’s voice is evident and strong–reflective of his/her imagination and sensibility–and why write or read if it isn’t? No amount of manipulating facts will make a piece better, nope. Whereas it might keep it from being all it could be…

    • This just in: Brenda Miller and Judith Kitchen rock!

  • Whilst it seems the lyrical essay is a subgenre of artistic measure, it still falls within the category of creative non-fiction. D’Agata’s creative license to obtain flow; keep a narrative rhythm within his writing, seems to devalue a genre, (creative non-fiction) that oft is misunderstood in mainstream anyway. Many seem to question why there is no room for shades of grey; however, as many have argued, greying of the lines is for fiction. One would hope that a writer would honor their craft as an artist by testing the limits within their own skill set; not by testing the limits of truth. ~

  • […] How Negotiable is a Fact in Nonfiction? « BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • I’ve pissed off Dinty once before by saying this, but I’ll say it again here, since Brevity did raise the point, and since I still believe it (sorry, Dinty!):

    Some people are interested in facts; some are interested in story. There are those of us who love nonfiction and feel more comfortable/talented/true writing nonfiction than fiction, yet we still want “story.” I may not remember if my mother wore Chanel n. 5 or Opium, but when I talk about how she doused herself in Chanel n 5 before her dates, I’m giving readers a sense of story that isn’t there if I just say “perfume.” I do believe that as a “creative” non-fiction writer I have that right.

    I know it’s a fine line and slippery slope, and I do think James Frey lied in a way that’s sort of silly, but I don’t actually care. I still enjoyed his book. But his book wasn’t “fiction.”

    I don’t mean to disparage hard-core believers in creative non-fiction as factual work, but I believe journalism must be about facts all the time, and that fiction is the place to try anything and everything invented. But surely there is some place for a genre in between? I think that it’s appropriate to start another genre that is mostly non-fiction with maybe 10% leeway. “Blended fiction”? It can still make a damn good story, which is what I care more about in this kind of writing.

    • Dinah says:

      Yeah–perfume is general. But Chanel No. 5 is such a ‘strong’ description, yet only tells us so much, and only about your mother to boot: If you’re writing nonfiction you’ve limited yourself, haven’t you? Flattened out a portrait, two of them, that could have that much more depth and texture–and everybody benefits (your mother the character, you the narrator, and the reader, too, who identifies (A), and trusts you all the more (B) for having said, I DON’T REMEMBER. And there are so many fun and interesting ways to do that, too. “My mother doused herself in Opium or Chanel No. 5–I can’t remember which…” OR: “My mother doused herself in perfume–was it Opium or Chanel No. 5–I can’t remember which but she smelled like yadda yadda…” OR: “My mother doused herself–was it Opium or Chanel?–the bottle sat on the yadda yadda and blah, blah, blah…” Doesn’t the truth of not-knowing–and saying so– bring up all sorts of possibilities? And establish you as a reliable narrator besides? (Of course, I’m not-so-famously Against Knowing…)

  • Mostly non-fiction with maybe 10% leeway? I call that fiction. A fine genre. Why do we need to start one more?

  • Annie says:

    And what a fun book that would be!

    “My mother walked out wearing her Chanel no. 5. Or was it Opium, I can’t really remember. Oh memory, like my mother, you are so fleeting! She stepped into the car of her new boyfriend, I think it was a Chevy, he was the type of man to drive a Chevy. Though now I think about it, it may have been a Ford Falcon. But my mother, well, she had a lot of men in her life, and the memory of them all just blends together into a Chanel (or Opium) scented haze.”

    Perhaps you’d have so much “trust” for this writer that you’d slog through 400 pages of this. Perhaps though, the writers that you and all of us have admired throughout our lives have simply chosen to write Chanel no 5 and we have never once doubted them. Nor would we feel betrayed if it were revealed by some time-traveling fact checker that it was in fact Opium.

    I completely agree that opening certain moments up to question and playing with the fallibility of memory on the page is interesting and adds another layer to the work. But I cannot agree that this needs to be done with every. single. detail. This has never been a requirement. Are we seriously pretending that it has?

    In fact, I wish I had a time-traveling fact checker right now. I’d have him go back and find out once and for all if Montaigne and Hazlitt and George Orwell and Thoreau and E. B. White ever wrote anything that merely captured the *sense* of some minor detail. We could finally settle the argument and cast them and their lying-liar essays into the fiction anthologies where they belong.

    I’m sure we and our genre would be purified.

    • Dinah says:

      Annie, point taken–I guess I don’t want to read that book either… And ok, not with every. single. detail. Still… Chanel v. Opium? One or the other as signature scent? I know, I know, it was just an example, the ‘dousing’ was the point as opposed to the brand, but yeesh, consider the possibilities. Depending on the essay, and the essayist, of course…

  • I will forever put to rest that it was Chanel no. 5 that was her signature scent.

    But what of those writers who use the medium of non-fiction to play with the reader through hyperbole? Or those who want to blur the line between fact and fiction for an intended effect? Are they now fiction, even if we understand that they’re writing purely satirical or intentional “lies”?

    I believe it was Dinty himself who introduced me to Fourth Genre. I like things that blur the boundaries, that cross lines, etc. I don’t know. This argument reminds me of those arguments with people who like to be the grammar police (full disclosure: I am often one of those people). Hard-core grammarians insist that the object of the preposition must be an object, and therefore one cannot put in, for example, a subject pronoun (“You’ll sit with Adam and I”). The only problem is that grammar has never been static and never will be. If people keep insisting on putting subject pronouns in for object pronouns, eventually that will become accepted usage, and the rules will change.

    I think the same thing about genres — they’re fine, and when it means something to me, I defend it, but if there is a movement toward a shift, a change, a blurring of boundaries, there is little one can do to stop that. It just reflects a new way of thinking, seeing, and communicating that some dig and some don’t. I accept that, even when I disagree with it (as in the above grammar point; I absolutely hate when people say: “Between you and I…”)

    Ultimately, I agree with Annie — I’d bet my life that the greats of nonfiction massaged, embellished, and shaded when they wanted to. I really think it’s OK up to a point if the point is communicating a great and real story — a very different point from the one journalism makes, which is reportage of facts.

  • I sure do love to write and read all kinds of creative nonfiction. This conversation included.

  • MKE says:

    I think John D’Agata can speak most eloquently about his point at around 22:50 in this program:

    Disagree with him, fine. But don’t underestimate the thought he has put into this. It’s not about him being lazy or cavalier as a writer, as some people who simply don’t get it posit here and elsewhere in this online debate.

  • […] § Leave a Comment One reader, posting in the comments to our earlier  John D’Agata discussion, warns, rightly, that D’Agata hasn’t had a chance to defend his position much in the […]

  • […] than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ so I changed it.” Brevity’s got more over at their blog, but here’s an excerpt from what they’re […]

  • […] The latest brouhaha in the creative-nonfiction world (check follow-up posts, too). […]

  • Diann Martin says:

    This takes me back to the Clinton era, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and so forth, I was taught that honest is the best policy and expect it in non fiction as a sincere reader.

  • Hiss! Bad blogger! You made me agree with Laura Miller about something!
    (For context: I participate in NaNoWriMo.)

    Okay, weird attempt at humor besides the point, I have mixed feelings about this.
    On the one hand, I think it should be okay to modify some details for certain reasons, usually the non-artistic kind. Like the “names have been changed to protect the innocent” scenario.
    Embellishing to make it a docu-drama? Maybe, if it’s done well, and doesn’t change the important details.
    Making up major details out of whole cloth, and lying about easily researched and verifiable details? I don’t know about ESSAY standards (heck, I wrote fiction for all of my essays in one English class), but if he’s writing “non-fiction,” he should be writing NON-fiction. Especially when the reasons for making his changes don’t make any sense to me.

    Though I will agree with his statement about the woman “from Mississippi.”
    If she was ORIGINALLY from Mississippi, that’s a semantics question, not a “fact or fiction” one.
    Just like it would be accurate to say that I’m “from” Michigan, Germany, North Dakota, or Michigan; Michigan is semantically correct, but all of them are technically true.

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