The New Yorker on D’Agata: Simply a Hack

February 11, 2012 § 12 Comments


Hannah Goldfield weighs in at The New Yorker:

D’Agata’s responses are, rather than thoughtful and collaborative, hostile and delusional. He sees himself as an artist, not a reporter—even though he’s written a reported story about something that very publicly happened in real life—and therefore completely exempt from the responsibility of fact-checking. “Hi, Jim,” he writes, in the book’s first e-mail excerpt. “I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the ‘article,’ as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker…. I have taken some liberties … here and there, but none of them are harmful.”

There is, of course, comedy to be found in this set-up, at least for journalism geeks; Harper’s excerpted some of the choicest bits in their “Readings” section. D’Agata acknowledges that there are thirty-one, and not thirty-four, strip clubs in Las Vegas, but, he says, “the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ so I changed it.” When Fingal points out that Levi Presley, the subject of D’Agata’s essay, was not the only person in Las Vegas to commit suicide by jumping from a building on the day he did, D’Agata replies, “I think I remember changing this because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”

What D’Agata fails to realize is that not only are these liberties indeed harmful—even if only to the reader, who is trusting the writer to be accurate in his or her description of what exists or took place in reality—they are also completely unnecessary to creating a piece of great nonfiction. The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of “Truth” or a true “idea”—is preposterous. A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack. If I’ve learned one thing at this job, it’s that facts can be quite astonishing.

.. This question, no matter how it’s interpreted—as a nihilistic sigh, or as an argument that all that matters are the broad strokes—is a royal cop-out. Altering and cherry-picking details is an easy, hollow game for a writer. The challenge, and the art, lies in confronting the facts—all of them, whether you like them or not—and shaping them into something beautiful.

Read more at The New Yorker

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§ 12 Responses to The New Yorker on D’Agata: Simply a Hack

  • Wait, wait, wait. I read that article and I thought D’Agata was being facetious. I laughed all the way through it. So it was serious? I really feel dumb.

  • Eva Hunter says:

    Absolutely! When do journalists learn that it’s not O.K. to fabricate or change facts in literary nonfiction? Does not someone losing a Pulitzer Prize, or another person being blasted as was the subject/co-writer of “Three Cups of Tea” teach the rest of us anything? If a writer wants to embroider on his or her material–fine. It’s fiction. As someone who has written it for 30 years, I know that literary nonfiction is not a “crossover genre” as many people seem to think, but it is still, absolutely, NONFICTION.

  • He wanted the death to be “more unique?” Really? Oh, and “thirty-one” and “thirty-four” are rhythmically identical.

  • Amy Holman says:

    I like how Goldfield says that “facts can be quite astonishing.”

  • This is what I love about the genre: “The challenge, and the art, lies in confronting the facts—all of them, whether you like them or not—and shaping them into something beautiful.”

    • Tamara says:

      This line reminded me of when I insisted that my daughter’s dad–who hand letterset her birth announcement–include the half-ounce and half-inch of her measurements. My convincing argument was that this was his artistic challenge.

  • Cris Mazza says:

    Goldfield’s response is a succinct gem. But I too thought D’Agata was being facetious, or trying to stir a controversy (what better publicity?) with a tongue-in-cheek expose about his editing process. Either that or beating critics to the criticism before anyone else commented on the inaccuracies he chose to include.

  • “As a fact-checker myself, at this magazine, the prospect of reading such a book—of such a book existing—excited me.”

    I do like what Hannah Goldsmith has to say, but I guess she’s a fact-checker, not a grammar-checker. Behold the dangling modifier! Bane of my teaching existence! You’d think the New Yorker would employ copy editors as well as fact-chekers.

  • Mardi Link says:

    “I wanted his death to be more unique.”

    Then write FICTION!

  • One of my mentors in the Goucher MFA nonfiction program–a former New Yorker writer–noted that whenever a fact-checker caught an error of hers, it was an error of convenience. Even with something as seemingly irrelevant as the color of a tie, there was a reason she hadn’t gotten it right–in misremembering, she’d gone for what seemed more consistent to the character, for what she would expect to find. When pressed to investigate the errors, she always found “inconvenient facts” that without exception ended up leading to deeper and more interesting truths.

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