D’Agata Redux: New Ways of Understanding

February 15, 2012 § 10 Comments

Nuria Sheehan on Hamline University’s Grout blog weighs in on the D’Agata discussion, seeing some merit in both sides of the argument:

Reading the correspondence between D’Agata and Fingal I feel as if I should be disturbed over D’Agata’s flexible approach to facts. That his choices, while not as extreme as Fray or Mortenson, are still motivated by the same urge — to willfully change actuality in order to fit the writer’s idea of what the narrative could be.

And I find myself agreeing with many of the comments on Brevity criticizing D’Agata. As Judith Kitchen eloquently comments, “I prefer to think we are humbled by the real world, and what really happens.” And Laura Miller’s comment that “he’s actually taking reality and reducing it to something simpler and more in line with conventional views of the world” gets exactly to this point that I’m struggling with.

However, unlike Miller, in D’Agata’s writing, particularly in About a Mountain, I see a more unconventional view of the world than in nearly any other book I’ve read in the last few years. (And I should make a note here that I’ve moved from discussing the essay that was the germ ofAbout a Mountain, to just looking at the book. I should also note that in the book D’Agata includes a notes sections at the end that documents the facts that he changed.)

In the book, D’Agata reveals not only unexpected and unconventional narratives, but forges and entirely new way of looking at environmental, or any other kind, of catastrophe. With the lyric prose and tireless listing, he actually makes me feel, truly feel the impact of Yucca Mountain. This nearly physical understanding was far more meaningful than hundreds of news articles on the subject could ever come close to achieving. And right now, this seems to be the critical work of creative nonfiction. It is not information that we are short of, but ways of understanding and living with an overwhelming amount of information.

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§ 10 Responses to D’Agata Redux: New Ways of Understanding

  • FS says:

    True. Good points raised on all sides.

    Perhaps it is a question of definition, of categories. A fact is a fact until it is no longer a fact: a group of dogs can be three or 700. A group of dogs in the shelter is not a group of dogs at the dog park; however, in the foggy world of creative non fiction, is it the facts we play with or the words? Because we know that no two people see the same thing the same way, and even eye-witness testimony is suspect, a finer expectation of the facts might be in order, as well as some explanation for where slippage is allowed. I don’t care if it is 25 or 30 stores: I’m not that type of fact checker, but if I am checking the facts, then I will want to know, to what decimal of accuracy?

    If, as I was taught, the art of creative non-fiction is in using the techniques of fiction and literary writing for real life, true life people, situations, and weaving magic with words while simultaneously, sticking to the objective, provable facts, then I would expect the facts to be accurate, precise, true and evident to all. Anything less is a story taken from real life and enhanced, mixed up, and fictionalized in parts to meet the definition of creative license. I am not convinced that creative non fiction implies creative use of facts, even if it’s only creative use of facts to establish setting, and not the substantive facts of the piece.

    A writer who wants to make art with words, and to play with the facts and stay in the non fiction genre has to buck the writing establishment. As a reader, I would want to see a huge caveat at the very beginning of the piece: NOT ALL FACTS IN THIS STORY ARE TRUE.

    Which is kind of sad because truth is stranger than any fiction and in the hands of a skilled writer, is just as compelling for a reader.

    Which leads me back to the beginning. Perhaps the issue is one of categorization and genre.

  • Tracy Seeley says:

    As I commented over at the Grout site, it’s always a false choice to say that in creative nonfiction, we can have great writing, or we can have facts. The beautiful thing about this genre is that it’s a both/and proposition. D’Agata’s writing is fabulous; I love it. But there’s no reason we have to change the facts in order to write compelling, lyrical (or jagged or gorgeous or wildly extravagant) prose. And there’s no reason he has to, either.

    • FS says:

      Seems as if there are multiple considerations … need for a common vocabulary, shifting boundaries, bringing facts to life in new, inventive ways that move people, that bring a truth to light, or to heart, which is what any great story teller, writer, journalist does.

      I’m intrigued by the ferocity of some of the views, and wonder what that stems from. Surely in the field we can wonder why there’s a need to have such a binary system view? Red-pencil proofreaders and fact checkers will have a view, writers/artists with have a view, readers will have a view, and editors and publishers and reviewers will all have their views. What is the current state of writing and where is it going? What do futurists have to say, and oh, will it even be a Western world-centric state?

      What’s wonderful is the conversation that’s been launched about creative non-fiction (a clumsy name if ever there was one).

      Critical, academic musings on CNF aside, perhaps increased speciation (of writers and of their writing) coupled with finer and finer specialization of genres — for precision marketing of published works — is challenging all writing norms, not just fiction. If the writing reflects the changing universe we’re in, perhaps the markers and the measures have to adapt as well, BUT, and this is a big one, regardless on the genre or the writer or the reader or the critic: let there be agreement on the parameters for what’s considered a malleable factoid and what must remain a solid, true unalterable fact.

      (In Canada, budget allowing, we’ll hold a Royal Commission on it. In the meantime, readers read what they read and like what they like. 😉 )

      • Tracy Seeley says:

        I would LOVE to see a common vocabulary develop in the field, which we can then get out there into the reviewing world. I find that many reviewers have such a limited understanding of the big and varied field of creative nonfiction that it’s hard for them to wrap their heads and critical assessment around certain works. Plus, let’s award a million dollar prize to the person who comes up with a workable name besides “creative nonfiction.”

  • judith Kitchen says:

    Part of the reason we keep talking in circles is that in this genre we have no real critical vocabulary. Years ago, we presented a panel at AWP suggesting some terms that might be used when talking about Creative Nonfiction–ones that would at least allow us to know whether we agree or not, as it’s possible to know whether you agree with a reviewer of poetry or fiction since you understand the terms they are using. Though I’m not sure that terms alone would solve what is, essentially, a difference in our definition of purpose. The writer’s purpose.

  • Yes, overall I agree I these points. That truth is stranger than fiction and also your statement, Tracy, that D’Agata or any other writer shouldn’t have to change facts for lyricism.

    Yet, somehow I feel that D’Agata’s writing is doing something completely different — different even than some of the other sorts of very exciting lyric nonfiction. That it is so much more immersive, so much more subjective than other nonfiction, lyric or otherwise. And that the power of his writing to make us feel something about these subjects comes from this sort of radical subjectivity.

    Still, as I said, I agree with many of the comments on the original post and it does make me a more than a little uncomfortable. But it’s an intriguing sort of uncomfortable.

  • And yes, I imagine that a shared vocabulary, especially when it comes to discussion around reviews or those coming from outside of CNF, would be helpful. I’m hoping there will be some interesting discussion around this at AWP.

  • Shad B. says:

    I’m entering this discussion a fair bit late, but it’s something that I had to take my time in considering. A persons first instinct is to immediately crucify D’Agata for his approach to essay writing (at least, that was my first instinct). However, I did study science for several years while in college and I continue to keep tabs on recent research and areas of investigation.

    What I’ve found is this: truth is different than fact.

    I can give you all the facts in the world, but you may never understand the truth of those facts. On the other hand, I can give you a story about science–it probably won’t consist of the facts–but it will give you the truth. And I’m wondering now if this isn’t the same concept that D’Agata is working with. How can he give the reader the truth?

    I think that before that answer comes about, everyone needs to remember that memory is fallible. Extremely so. What is usually perceived will probably not be fact. This is why eye witness testimony is now considered with extreme skepticism in the court of law. Even if you ask 1,000 people about an event they all witnessed, you will get different facts. But what those 1,000 people can contribute to… is to the truth of the event.

    I think one of the most important questions in all this is: Which do you want out of your nonfiction; truth or fact? Not all stories can be told factually and get at the truth.

    • Tracy Seeley says:

      Shad, again I’d suggest that it’s a false choice to say we can have facts, or we can have truth. In creative nonfiction, the goal at least for me (and many others) is that we can and should have both. And the question in D’Agata’s case isn’t about the inaccuracy of memory. I think we’d all agree that memory is a terrible record keeper. The question is about D’Agata’s conscious and deliberate alteration of facts which can be verified. Things like what date something happened, or whether one person or more than one person jumped to their deaths on a certain day in Las Vegas. Since you have a background in science, you know that even telling a story about science doesn’t give a scientist permission to alter the data in the service of the story. The question here is whether a nonfiction writer has permission to do the same.

      • FS says:

        There is the science of writing and the art of writing, and there are those in the fields of science and in writing who alter the findings, manipulate the data, distort the results, to support a hypothesis. If the purpose or value of facts, data, evidence is to provide objective proof for a conclusion, then it is incumbent upon the presenter of such facts and data that they be as clean, irrefutable as humanly possible.

        In the art of writing, play with the facts as much as is humanly possible — we call that all sorts of fiction, sci-fi and fantasy — or perhaps a new genre of Imaginary Non Fictions. 😉

        In this case, a writer fudged facts, ostensibly for the cause of art (why is art a cause?) To push a boundary..? To get a conversation going? To show the inherent issues within the genre. Who really knows because trust — a contract a writer has with readers of non-fiction that the facts will be the facts — has been frayed, even as the push against the genre’s boundaries have been pushed. The writing’s good. No argument there. And maybe that’s all that matters. Just don’t call it completely factual and verifiable and true non-fiction. There are clearly fictionalized elements. a story with stretched, played with and manipulated facts and data is still a story; a story where reality fuses with the writer’s manipulation of time, events, and all the good stuff that writers get to play with to lead readers along.

        If a writer alerts readers to the fact of altering data and facts, can it be called CNF? Or is it simply, creative writing, using real life events as inspiration to impart a world view?

        A writer writes regardless of the genre. Non fiction is often the world of academics and journalists and biographers and memoirists.

        Now about that contest to rename it. I’d agitate for fewer categories, not more. Let’s just call it by the earlier category of non fiction. The fact that non fiction can be executed creatively helps with niche marketing of workshops, classes, book promotions, shelf placement and creativity gurus.

        Creative non fiction is dead: long live creative non fiction! 😉

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