In Fairness to John D’Agata

February 12, 2012 § 28 Comments


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 recent critiques of  his fuzzy fact-checking and odd Harper’s excerpt.  “Disagree with him, fine,” MKE writes. “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.”

In the interest of fairness, we found the PRI radio interview MKE cites as a good explanation of D’Agata’s approach and transcribed a fair bit of it.  Here it is:

I don’t consider myself a journalist. I never received training as a journalist … I know that I do an overwhelming amount of research and I’m often interviewing people but what I then do with the information is dramatically different.

I like playing with the idea of journalism and our expectation of journalism. So I like making something feel journalistic and then slowly reveal that that approach isn’t really going to give us as readers what we want from the text, that we need to try a different sort of essaying, and then the essays become a lot more associative and the perhaps become a bit more imaginative and start taking the problematic liberties.

I think it is art’s job to trick us. I think it is art’s job to lure us into terrain that is going to confuse us perhaps make us feel uncomfortable and perhaps open up to us possibilities in the world that we hadn’t earlier considered.

I think that we have to be fooled before we are really able to wonder. So philosophically my issue is that we’re not allowing an entire genre – nonfiction – to have that kind of a relationship with the reader.  And that’s for me, as an artist, that’s problematic.

The entire interview can be listened to (and downloaded) here.

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§ 28 Responses to In Fairness to John D’Agata

  • The formatting of this post is confusing. Is D’Agata speaking from “Here it is:” onward? Can you block quote all the rest of the paragraphs if so?

  • webuyballoons says:

    “I think that we have to be fooled before we are really able to wonder.”

    i like this idea. more please? expound?

  • Sorry about the earlier formatting. All of those paragraphs come from D’Agata. The formatting is now fixed.

  • Sure, fine, fool us, but I return to my comment–all texts create a contract with the reader. A set of expectations. The writer can go right ahead and ignore that contract, but that writer may just lose a few readers. Or lose credibility. The depth of wonder exists in the authenticity of the work, whether it’s fiction, non, poetry, or spoken art.

    Not a journalist? So what.

    • Lucas M says:

      It’s crazy that, in this framework, a traditional journalist subject to fact-checking is automatically both un-lazy and morally righteous. These seem to be the two biggest slams being leveled at D’agata – he’s morally flawed or, worse, he’s lazy. The lazy one even more offensive. I had a really similar gig to Fingal’s a few years ago, interning as a fact-checker at one of the very fancy New York political magazines. I would routinely get work in that made aggressive but common arguments and then included this gem in places: “[insert strongest fact here]”. That is lazy. That is easy. And, according to the “contract with the reader,” these experts are supposed to be rigorous, infallible. That is a very common move in established journalism. To say that D’Agata’s thought-process, one which led to this seven-year back and forth with Fingal, is wrong, fine. But, lazy?

  • I have no clue whether or not D’Agata is lazy, and frankly, I don’t care about that. What is that, anyway? Lazy? I don’t make moralistic judgments of anyone, let alone writers! But I do know that some of his writing choices have taken the focus off what could have been the more important nuances of his book and that’s really too bad, isn’t it?

  • I don’t see why nonfiction filled with fact can’t do all of what he wants nf to do. The tighter the limitations the greater the possibility–contemporary formal poems are evidence of that. Maybe nf isn’t, in general, lyrical and reflective enough for him, I could agree with that–too many memoirs I read are flat in tone and structure all the way through and I get bored, not “fooled” into the deeper possibilities and connections. Eh.

  • For me, the C in CNF is meant to be about the writing not the content. I disagree completely with D’agata and I think it is vitally important to have the ‘rule,’ if any, be “the facts, ma’am, nothing but the facts.”

    In the end, a writer is alone with her material. We know when we are crossing a line. We know when we are lying and it does matter. In his book “The Four Agreements,” about ancient Toltec wisdom for life, don Miguel Ruiz’ first agreement is, “be impeccable with your words.” This is good practice in life and in writing.

    One of my stock jokes about fiction versus nonfiction is that, “fiction is the truth clothed in lies and non-fiction is lies clothed in the truth.” The reason this is funny (I think) is because something of the truth resides in it. I say this because all writing is subjective–unless the writer is some sort of computerized being. What we see in his memoir is depicted through the lens of the writer. This is why the facts are imperative.

    I know when I read a memoir that I’m viewing content from another’s eye. I know and expect that the writer’s emotional experience of content will be illustrated. I understand that memories can take on a life of their own. For me, all of that is understood with CNF. But changing facts or massaging material to suit dramatic purposes is bullshit. If I have occasion to read D’agata again–he will ever be suspect. Which facts did he tweak for the good of the sentence flow? What facts did he “need” to change for drama affect? He does himself and those who publish him a disservice.

    The art of CNF comes from making the writing flow with the facts; it’s verisimilitude. Perhaps D’agata should present his work as based on real events instead of as CNF. Even in lyric essay the same rules apply the lyric part comes from the language used not from getting creative with what actually happened.

    And yes, I guess I do agree that failure to take the time to revise a sentence so that it flows with the correct number is lazy.

  • I think to really understand D’Agata’s stance, we have to read his Graywolf anthologies. His intros & arrangements of others’ essays essentially essay the essay. His interviews and the Harper’s piece give us glimpses, but a deep engagement with his anthologies alter the way one experiences, sees, and feels the essay–and it’s this altered view of the form that he wants to promulgate.

    His main intention is to remove essay from its widely accepted position as a sub-genre of nonfiction. Instead of placing it under that broad category of nonfiction–right alongside journalism, narrative nonfiction, memoir, academic writing–D’Agata wants the essay to fly the arc between not only all categories of nonfiction, but all categories of fiction–including poetry, fable, and myth.

    If fiction and nonfiction traditionally lie on either side of the axis, D’Agata believes, then the essay should be free to travel back and forth. To D’Agata, it’s a matter of (re)defining the essay form.

    • I agree with you Lee, and I think that mission is, not to be too articulate about it, really cool.

      I guess I haven’t gotten a sense, from the excerpts I’ve read (granted, it’s easier to spew opinion than to find time to read a whole book, which is unfortunate), from his monographs like the one recent press, that the execution really works.

      It kind of bugs me, and perhaps it bugs other writers, that so much of the execution here seems to involve a media spectacle. Shouldn’t the writing itself tell us about its own prevarications, assumptions, and factual queerness? I think so. And perhaps D’Agata does this brilliantly. Again, I’m spewing uninformed opinion. Conceptual opinion. Maybe, if someone else has more data and thinks this point is interesting, they might run with it.

      But in short, I love the idea of screwing with form, messing with genre, tricking the reader into a place of unexpected inspiration. Love it.

  • Once the thing flies over to fiction it isn’t non-fiction anymore.

    Fictive personal essay, say?

    It can be the love child of literature and journalism if you want, maybe.

  • Nancy Geyer says:

    I too think it’s important to understand D’Agata’s stance and his attempt to (re)define the essay form. (For Hannah Goldfield in the New Yorker to call him a “hack” says more about the limitations of that magazine than it does about D’Agata.) I’m glad to see more possibilities for the essay and am grateful to D’Agata for helping to make that happen.

    But of course no single person gets to define “the essay,” or the lyric essay, for that matter. And essays will always come in many forms, requiring different ways of reading.

    I will probably always want to know, within reason, whether what appears to be factual is in fact factual — except when I understand that what I’m reading travels back and forth between fiction and nonfiction (nice way of putting it, Lee), in which case I’m comfortable with the blur. If D’Agata is attempting to liberate essay readers from this need to know, I will forever be among the imprisoned.

    Is it as simple as slapping on the “lyric essay” label, then? (This is not about “CNF.” D’Agata never made that claim.) I know lyric essayists who do not massage facts the way D’Agata does and probably would not want readers to make that assumption about their work. But the answer isn’t to label essayistic works like D’Agata’s “fiction” as if they were short stories or novels.

  • libraryscenes says:

    D’Agata words make me question if he wishes to forge an Avant movement within the realm of essay; the form to not be confined to any one genre. Who does this really help, though, the writer or the reader?

    Hemingway stated that “A Moveable Feast” could be considered fiction. He had taken some liberties for a sundry of reasons. That said, is D’Agata really going beyond Hemingway?

    I read non-fiction essays because I wish to obtain knowledge. My choice of genre (fiction or non-fiction) is based on reading for entertainment verses information. If I’m lucky, a gifted writer shall present both within non-fiction; but, I only desire that artistry if it is the truth.

    We blur the lines in everything these days; must we add non-fiction to the mix?

    • MKE says:

      “I read non-fiction essays because I wish to obtain knowledge. My choice of genre (fiction or non-fiction) is based on reading for entertainment verses information.”

      Really? I read newspapers or magazine articles or biographies to gain knowledge. I didn’t read “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” for knowledge. I don’t think people read David Sedaris for knowledge. How about Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets”? Are you really reading that for its facts about the color blue? You seem to actually be making the case for a separation between what people are calling “nonfiction” and the “essay” (or whatever we want to call the genre D’Agata is speaking about). They are two different beasts. There is writing about “true stories” for information, to appeal to the mind (in which case accuracy to fact obviously matters more), and writing about “true stories” for art, to appeal to the senses and to move someone emotionally and aesthetically.

      • libraryscenes says:

        Most interesting and thoughtful commentary, thank you. You’ve got me with “Bluets”, for I’ve not read. Thanks to Google, I read a bit of an excerpt, and think we both know that this book is of the lyrical bent and address the colour blue in relation to the author’s personal stories.

        “…Staggering Genius” is a memoir, ergo, seems not to relate to the essay. However, yes, one does read a memoir to gain knowledge of a person’s life. If that life is an oddity, or the author is able to creatively present their trials, all the better.

        Sedaris is of course read for knowledge! After all, I’ve never worked as a n elf at Macy’s, so it is the only way I can try that job on for size. Seriously, Sedaris, is considered a humorist. Yes, he writes essay, but the added label of humorist seems to change the game, genre.

        D’Agata is not a humorist, but a literary writer of poetry infused prose. He can be hitting hard with works of serious subject matter; writings on people, place, and events that are beyond personal musings. He is talented; his artistry is lauded, so, I don’t believe that he cannot write in a factual manner. I think it is more his desire to break the boundaries, to say, that 100 percent honesty is old school. The artist as writer must break from from the confines of labels. Brilliant, however, it remains then up to the reader to research to figure out what details of truth have been changed.

        I probably shouldn’t be writing this afte a long night at work, My apologies if this doesn’t read clear.

  • Brixton says:

    The essay came from “About a Mountain” — every change made he made is noted in the back of that book. I don’t think it’s fair to say he’s trying to get away with something and violating some “contract” he apparently signed. Someone may shelve his book in “nonfiction” but he writes “essays” and I’m pretty sure that D’Agata’s 1,000+ page anthology project on the history of the essay has given him some insight on what’s appropriate for the genre. Maybe some readers and reviewers are guilty of laziness (I question how much of his backlist Laura Miller has read because “taking reality and reducing it to something simpler and more in line with conventional views of the world” is far from what’s going on in “About a Mountain” or “Halls of Fame” or the intros to the essays in his anthologies).

    Also, he had a review of Joan Didion’s “Where I was From” in the Believer (http://www.believermag.com/issues/200310/?read=article_dagata) years ago which had some interesting insights into his thinking perhaps:

    “Claims of authenticity in nonfiction have long been the form’s strongest selling point. In other genres, authenticity is an idea that has evolved since Aristotle into the more sophisticated concept of mimesis—perhaps the most important notion engaging literary criticism today—but in nonfiction the term mimesis is used almost exclusively to define a concern much less literary than that which concerns poetry, fiction, or drama. In nonfiction, mimesis means veracity: Are the facts in a text verifiable or not?”

    I don’t think it is so wrong for writers to explore this; I think we can handle it. If you walk into an art gallery and see a photo by a certain artistic photographer you’re probably not reading that photo as photojournalism. Sometimes “realistic” photos are staged but still have merit in that we start asking other questions. The people who tell D’Agata to call what he does fiction I feel would say call that photo a painting.

    “About a Mountain” is, among other things, about the breakdown and limitations of FACTS in a hyper-informational world (the book’s section headings are “Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why Why, Why”). Maybe some can write him off as a hack or troll after changing 31 to 34, and other heinous crimes, but I think he’s up to something bigger and more integrated than a “stunt” or some form of laziness or cheating.

  • “I don’t think it’s fair to say he’s trying to get away with something and violating some “contract” he apparently signed.”

    I was speaking figuratively when I used the term “contract” as in setting up a frame of some kind, teaching the reader how to access the work, or whatever you wish. Actually, it’s the term Dave Wallace liked to use with us in workshop. Made sense to me.

    It’s an interesting conversation. Sorry it seems to have rankled you.

  • Brixton says:

    The contract thing comes up a lot, that wasn’t what rankled. It’s more the abuse from those that have a lot of sway. How long is “hack” from the New Yorker going to follow him around for? David Foster Wallace was a supporter of D’Agata’s and helped him promote the first anthology on Bookworm radio. I think between the three anthologies and the fact-checking book he’s actually trying pretty hard to create a frame for the work.

  • Yeah, it can get pretty rough out there, I guess. I’m really glad people can express their various opinions on cnf. And it’s also important to see how certain folks “with a lot of sway” can affect the way work is received. It could really backfire on the New Yorker, for instance, if the “hack” job turns out to be completely unwarranted. They, too, have much to lose!

  • […] are fairly inconsequential lapses and lies. For a nonfiction writer, the debate about facts continues hotly. Issues of Truth vs. truth have become career issues. But what about life? What […]

  • KH says:

    D’Agata’s critics are leaning on two quite lazy cop outs, the first, and most annoying, being “but facts are beautiful!” Anyone who has ever written anything remotely factual knows there is a trade-off between rhythm and facticity. To expand on an example D’Agata employs in his book, “coroner during the years 1992-1996 except for a hiatus during 1993” is clumsier than “then-coroner” is clumsier than “coroner.” And if you think factual precision should ALWAYS win out over rhythm, write competent legal briefs, not unreadable essays.

    Then there’s “Write fiction if you want to play with facts!” Are people this unfamiliar with the essay as a form? Thomas De Quincey? William Blake? Annie Dillard? DFW? Montaigne, anyone? “We don’t need a third genre,” declare the nonfictioners, clinging hard to a nonfiction/fiction binary cooked up in the latter half of the last century. How odd to claim that we suddenly “don’t need” a form that has existed for hundreds of years. I’m genuinely sorry that you all find the world so confusing, so threatening, that you need to erect barriers to the making of art.

    • Amen!

      And amen to the comment that no on person gets to define any genre. I find that the greatest, most interesting artists and writers are the ones blurring boundaries and erecting new kinds of genres (Tolstoy, Cervantes, Hunter Thomson, Eggers, the violinist Nigel Kennedy, artist Alexa Meade…)

  • Wow. What a kerfuffle!

    There are no barriers. And yet, what happened remains what happened and what didn’t happen, didn’t happen.

    People are going to carry on writing according to their own personal guidelines. And so, this argument will remain a circular one.

    Is there really such a thing as an inconsequential lie? If so, what cruel news, particularly on Valentine’s Day!

  • […] Yet Brevity is also giving time to the other side in another post, “In Fairness to John D’Agata.” […]

  • I was a journalist for twelve years. It’s hard for me to get on my high horse about it, because once you leave it you see how many of its practices seem self serving. But good practitioners believe in it, and anyone with any sense knows its important work even if they consider it a necessary evil. Journalism can be a high calling, or it can be shoveling manure.

    I guess my problem with what D’Agata does is that he’s practicing journalism, even if he says he’s doing something different, and journalism’s tradition, which people understand and trust, is of trying to write wrongs and figure out what’s the right action for people and society. So journalism doesn’t sanction changing facts.

    It relies on a great deal of subjectivity, of course; there’s a great deal of subjectivity and creativity in how a story is seen and framed. But to claim you are an “artist” and to change what seem piddling details traduces that tradition and the reasonable expectations of its readers for no good or justifiable or understandable reason.

    I mean, changing the date of the boy’s suicide in About a Mountain seems sinful, somehow, as if the last and only basic right that kid had was trashed and demeaned so D’Agata could make a spurious linkage between his death and the storage of nuclear waste.

  • Brixton says:

    There was an interview in PW where he said “If I were a journalist I’d be guilty of breaking the rules. But I don’t produce journalism. I hold myself to rules essayists have established.” I don’t think it’s fair to paint him as a journalist.

    “Essay” for him isn’t a genre necessarily, it’s an activity, an exploration. That’s why he includes some fiction and poetry in his first anthology of “essays”. It’s not, and never has been, until recently, primarily concerned with being the factual record on a subject. Luckily we have other kinds of writing which is factchecked and we find it in newspapers and magazines, not “literary” magazines.

    Also, the short beginning of the book (a parade, literally, of facts, which mimics a sentence in feinting to accrue meaning) telegraphs that this isn’t a journalistic affair: “… to those with faith in withheld meanings: the dream that if we linger long enough with anything, the truth of its significance is bound to be revealed.” Even if he is riffing off of journalistic structures the work is not trying to be an objective record — its subjectivity and fallibility is written all over it.

    I agree that changing the date of the death is a serious thing to mess around with. He was accused of losing his “moral authority” by the Times review with that particular incident. In the same PW piece he responds by saying: “…I suggested that those events happened the same day; in fact they happened three or four days apart. But the week that review came out I received a letter from Levi’s parents; they thanked me for the book and what they felt it was doing for Levi. That’s the moral test I had to pass.” That may not pass muster for some but I don’t think he’s sinful or reckless and it’s all noted in the back of the book for those do who want the precise record.

    The connection between Yucca and the suicide may not be provable in court but, for him, in his singular experience of living there that summer, it was felt and the connections he makes between them are fascinating and incredibly humanistic if you give them a chance. A newspaper needs to get it right. But maybe an essayist can have more leeway to express their reality as it felt. Perhaps D’agata can do it without changing anything. Perhaps he can’t. My mind’s not entirely made up on it but he shouldn’t be dismissed along the same old lines. That sacred reality people say is so much more interesting can often be opaque and meaningless until we process it, with varying amounts of reason and emotion, and put it in a container. D’Agata just has a different container.

  • […] But I am distressed by how John D’Agata is raising the question, by his seeming disrespect for the rest of us, his dismissal of legitimate concerns and questions, by the fact that even his discussion with the fact-checker turns out later to have been fabricated, and by his idea that art has to “trick” us. […]

  • […] as well: Dan Kois’ piece, “Facts Are Stupid,” up on Slate, and Brevity’s “In Fairness to John D’Agata,” which has created an excellent discussion, largely in favor of D’Agata and his approach to […]

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