The Fifth Genre

February 24, 2012 § 29 Comments

No one ever said John D’Agata wasn’t an interesting guy, just that his claim that he doesn’t write nonfiction but works in some fifth genre, the essay, confuses many of us — in the writing, editing, teaching world — who have always counted the essay as nonfiction.  Turns out even his latest book, Lifespan of a Fact, is only marginally true …

” … we both knowingly amped up the hostility of our comments.  I think of the form of the exchange between Jim and me as an exaggerated farce.  At its core is a real argument, a debate that we really had and that continued throughout our real-life fact-checking process.  But at some point during that process we also decided to do a book about the process … and turned the volume up on how we discussed these issues.  …. we knew that most readers would probably not be fascinated by two dudes having a sober discussion about the very nerdy issue of veracity in nonfiction.”

These nuggets come from a very interesting interview over at The Kenyon Review blog.  Here’s D’Agata on where he fits in the nonfiction spectrum (in which he contradicts himself, perhaps, on his previous claim that he does not consider himself a nonfiction writer):

“There is absolutely no difference between McPhee and me—other than that McPhee is about ten thousand times more talented than I!  The other difference of course is that McPhee has chosen one set of artistic restraints and I’ve chosen another. “

On teaching his views on fidelity to fact to Iowa MFA students:

“… by no means do all of my students agree with my rather lefty approach to the issue.  In any given year, we have students in our program who identify themselves as literary journalists, memoirists, lyric essayists, and everything else in between.  And none of them has a predictable opinion about facts in ‘nonfiction.’  However, no matter where these students fall on the “veracity” spectrum, I can guarantee that every single one of them identifies him or herself as an artist, first and foremost.  …  Actually, I take that back.  I do have one student currently who is genuinely struggling with the term “artist.” He doesn’t like it. And he’s also kind of unhappy in the program, unfortunately, because I think he feels out of place and misunderstood.  So I just lied.  I apologize.”

John D’Agata makes some good points, of course, but still leaves us scratching our heads.  John, can we just settle this and just call what you do the “fessay” or the “essaction”?

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§ 29 Responses to The Fifth Genre

  • But, John, McPhee is working in a tradition, which he honors. Your work appears to be but, as you say, isn’t, because you change inconvenient facts. So I think there is a difference, other than talent.

  • Richard. See -> “The other difference of course is that McPhee has chosen one set of artistic restraints and I’ve chosen another.”

  • If I were to advise John D’Agata (which I won’t), I’d say, “Why not just stick with the facts, even as an artistic challenge to demonstrate your chops?” My own writing stems from my unwavering attempts to relate verifiable reality. Montaigne, too. He says as much, which is good enough for me. However, I’ve studied the essay in depth and for a long time (in relation to my life so far), and I must recognize that writers have been doing fictional essays from almost the first moment the form made its way across the channel. Certainly the great 18th and 19th century British essayists were. So I agree with D’Agata that “essay” is its own genre, and “nonfiction” is a general expectation of that genre, but is not historical. Additionally, we’ve got plenty of humorists through more recent history (at least through early twentieth century) whose work (rife with exaggeration, even “fiction”) we call “essay,” typically with no batted eyes. One of my contemporary favorites is Ian Frazier, who was not actually married to Liz Taylor, nor does he advise the crows, nor is/was he a coyote captured in Central Park. Maybe those things aren’t essays, but he calls them essays, and I’m grateful that he does. I’d have to check, but maybe the “tall tale” marriage to “essay” is an American contribution to the French genre (and, as D’Agata notes, maybe people have been writing essays forever, since long before 1572). Still, I’m bothered by some of D’Agata’s conflations (not by the exaggeration game that he and Fingal have perpetrated in tLoaF) because I disagree that they were necessary, and I wonder why he wouldn’t just indicate his departures.

    Who here is bothered that Charles Lamb borrowed Coleridge’s childhood and ascribed it to “Elia” in “Christ’s Hospital, Five and Thirty Years Ago”?

    • Amy Holman says:

      These are really good points, Pat. I still think “hybrid” is a good term, as it draws from a few different genres.

  • Joe says:

    Good stuff, Pat.

  • Seth says:

    Sounds to me like it’s time for Mr. D’Agata, the Brevity folks, the River Teeth folks, and the Fourth Genre folks to get themselves in a room, with a film crew, and hash all this stuff out.

  • Will Jennings says:

    Right. Because most everyone here actually believes that when Orwell brought the gun into position to take aim on the elephant, that this was the exact and literal moment at which the entire allegorical and metaphoric connection to “Empire” writ-large clarified in his mind and those exact words or reportage emerged, etched by strong synapse such that he would recall them, precisely, at a later date to include them at such pivotal point in his essay. Or, you could, like a sentient being, accept that with a crowd of native peoples surrounding him, his anxieties and human qualities and common failings instead became the occasion for him to be more worried about looking the fool and missing. But that the story, the “essay” was made better in his making by making the memory of that moment something else. Indeed.

    Sorry Genre Guards. I’m with Mr. D’Agata. And can we stop with the snark. I get it. You’re offended.

  • Orwell does not claim anything like what you’re stating above, Will. He begins with his ideas about imperialism, then, in his third paragraph, he writes as preface to the elephant story, “One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” Claiming that the event was “enlightening” seems utterly true because it’s an interpretation after the fact, a result of his many experiences and thoughts on the subject, and the elephant story is illustrative. Once he centers into the scene of the shooting itself, he remains there, narrating.

    Of course, as you suggest, all linguistic narration is some form of recreation, but if we act like there’s no difference between a sincere attempt to represent external reality and a knowing variation of that reality (under the expectation of fidelity), then we’re on the slippery slope to no discernment of any difference at all, and that’s preposterous (and stupid).

    By the way: where are you finding snark? Besides in your “genre guards” characterization? I know many of the people discussing these issues, and I find them (in person, in writing now) to be thoughtful and utterly intelligently theoretical about the whole deal.

    • Will Jennings says:

      Patrick: in the FaceBook iteration of this blog and posts, D’Agata was characterized as “ninny”, “hack”, “tool”, etc. And all of that has been part of this discussion from its beginning. D’Agata argues, and I think with articulate, cogent precision about a legitimate, grounded in a trajectory of historic practice no less, practice of The Essay.

      As for Orwell:

      “And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

      I’m sorry, Patrick, but the first sentence in this passage puts an exact, chronological marker on The Moment when “I First Grasped (which we can suggest is a reasonable assertion of both exact and representational: grasp the idea, grasp the gun, grasp the moment).
      He brings it into a mixture of exact moment and recreated, re-membered (in the corporeal sense) assertion of his experience, extrapolated onto the larger experience of many under the construct and practice of colonialism. That it is moving, articulate, and compelling requires him to conflate and impose the recognition of synaptic pattern from his experiences “then” into a narrative of thought rooted in the later “now.”

      • Before I duck out to lunch with Darrell Spencer: my apologies. You’re right. I gave the essay a quick skim and didn’t see that passage you quote right above. I guess I’m glad that Orwell at least also prefaces the narrative with the “thesis” about imperialism, too. I shall try to return to the conversation later. I do think it’s fun to see people thinking about these things.

      • FS says:

        I agree that challenging the genre or perhaps the boundaries of non fiction is a good thing.

        I am less convinced by D’Agata’s argument as to how he gets there. I’m not sure that writing lyrical essays full of interesting stylistic writing precludes using mundane facts, which D’Agata seems to suggest.

        There are other writers pushing for more essay representation in the writing world. I think that’s all good. Healthy, even.

        One day the question of what to do with those pesky facts that might interfere with the real and true truth will get sorted, I’m sure. 😉

        You’ve all likely seen this wonderful take on the issue, but in case some have not, the NYT has chimed in on this and in totally delightful and highly readable take.

      • Additionally, just as I leave for home (I sometimes wish I didn’t have to work for a living): I am a big fan of John D’Agata. I have his books (all of them); I’ve used them in classes; I really love how much he crusades for the essay. Total respect. But I have a nuanced disagreement with him on this issue. Then again, not totally, since I recognize that essayists have been fictionalizing for centuries. Still. It’s fun and worthwhile to think about these things, and I’m glad he’s bringing them up and inspiring us to discuss. You’re right, though, that we shouldn’t call names.

  • While we keep talking about the writer, we seem to be forgetting the reader. I’m wondering how it is that people read if they don’t have some expectation of what they are reading? That is, don’t we enter the piece expecting to think in certain ways? Not to think certain things, but to follow a process of thinking and wondering? In nonfiction (and for me that does include the essay), I move back and forth between the text and my own understanding of the world, hoping they will shed light on each other. In a novel, though, I enter the text for the duration, living in a world I know I will assess only when the tale is complete and its possible meanings available. The process is quite different. When I review poetry, I keep reminding myself that a poem is a fictive construction, just so that I won’t “judge” the narrator. But in an essay, we open ourselves to judgment, right from the start. That’s part of what makes it an exciting form to work in–and I think we might begin by holding ourselves up to the most scrutiny. I like to believe in myself as a presiding sensibility, or what Philip Lopate calls a tracking consciousness. And I want a reader to trust that I’m trying to find my way toward understanding, not forcing one on him or her.

    • Amy Holman says:

      I don’t necessarily need to know whether something is a specific genre , or not, nor do I believe it at all times. Fact and truth are related yet different, we know, and a novelist and a playwright can each tell us truths within the course of their storytelling without giving us experiences or facts. Sometimes, I do want to know, but just because I don’t, doesn’t mean that I lose something as a reader. Readers are different from each other, and they can also have their attentions diverted, and their sensibilities cultivated, and their expectations altered.

  • FS says:

    Writing evolves: if it didn’t, we’d still be writing Greek tragedies or comedies and epic poems.

    It’s challenging to isolate the core issue — the role of facts — and what role facts are supposed to play in a genre called, so far, non fiction, which has, so far, been characterized or perhaps loosely understood (at least in Canada) as telling real stories, about real people and real events, in real timelines, with real, verifiable facts, using techniques of creative writing.

    But that thing about being true to the facts — isn’t that one of the cornerstones of non-fiction writing? And if a writer takes from real life events and mashes them up with imagination isn’t that fiction as we understand it today?

    Perhaps we have more tolerance for untruths — after all, we lived through the ‘facts’ of weapons of mass destruction, and faulty reporting and excellent reporting on things that were never true. And for the last 20 years, we’ve seen a shift from news to infotainment, and a major reliance on opinions, opinions of experts presented as facts, even up here in Canada. So perhaps D’Agata belief about writing, and art, is simply part of that social change.

    I shall refrain from commenting on that 😉 except to say that
    I am not a huge fan of any institution or individual duping the highly dupable public: if a writer is going to play with the facts, put it in neon letters at the front of the book, article story. Let the reader know, set the context. Don’t hide it at the back. I am also not a fan of writers duping editors or publications with fake facts: there is a social contract for non-fiction writing pieces. A matter of honour and trust.

    Because human beings and their institutions naturally categorize things, (and dare I say that worlds of media, academia AND publishing are guiltier than most) it’s not too surprising that categories of writing — or rather publishing — and their supportive infrastructures would be challenged by someone who says, yes, but no, I’m not going to follow that rule. That challenging part of a long tradition in the writering world, young boy writers challenging the status quo, introducing new forms.

    So yes, another genre or a sub category — Factionish? Fictionalized Truthiness?

  • On Orwell as example:

    Some sources say that Orwell killed that elephant with a single shot and that all the pathos of the suffering elephant dying slowly as he is shot again and again is fabrication. If true, wouldn’t that constitute a “knowing variation” of that reality?

    • I’ve also read (don’t have my sources here in front of me; apologies) that he never witnessed that hanging he centers “A Hanging” on, that there never was a dog licking the condemned man, etc, though he may have heard others tell the story. So, then, was Orwell a propagandist? Probably.

  • grapemouse946 says:

    Isn’t he trying to open up how we approach an essay though? Aren’t preconceived notions of how we read or think fair game for an “artist”? I know people hate it when someone calls himself an artist but, he is, a very good one.

    I also think his body of work goes some way toward priming readers that he has a unusual relationship with the form by today’s standard, so I’m not sure he’s as cheap or tricky as some think. “Halls of Fame” is pretty experimental. His anthologies track the essay back in time and create a sound foundation for what he does, and he even includes some fiction and poetry in there as “essays”. “About a Mountain” is organized by sections “Who”, “What”, “Why”, When” etc. but then dissolves away into “Why”, “Why”, “Why” as the facts (ding ding) fail to line up and give answers. It looks like journalism but disintegrates into something much looser and abstract. The reader is given a warning in the first section if you read closely. It’s not a publisher’s disclaimer but it’s there so, again, I think the reader expectations are not totally disrespected.

    I think in that book and the Believer essay you are experiencing HIS process of “thinking and wondering”; his impression of trying to find meaning but coming out on the other side in a different place than he expected. Isnt’ that where an essay becomes lyric? I’m sure many here can school me on terminology. I don’ think that necessarily deprives the reader of anything as we afford the same rights to fiction and poetry.

    This is also interesting from Kenyon Review:

  • Amy Holman says:

    If you are going to put words into the mouths of real people with their own names and move them about on the page, you can have a legal problem on your hands. You may even have that problem if you are reporting on what they did say at a specific juncture. It is hard to be a figure in someone else’s art.

    D’Agata’s viewpoints on the essay are part of the mix that make writing interesting, and his influences, including Didion and McPhee, are all setting the scene and remarking on it in literary ways.

    Get Didion and McPhee in on that panel discussion, too.

  • Ray Gibson says:

    There are the few rare outliers of the fourth genre: Bernardo Soares’ Book of Disquietude (an autobiography without facts by Pessoa’s alter), Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines (newspaper headlines strung together), Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (which is a biography that throws its voice), Jose Saramago’s Essay on Blindness (which is actually a novel), Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (a documentary of unreal events), etc. But, they announce their intent to subvert genre, wearing it on their sleeve or dustjacket if you will. This does not seem to be D’Agata’s intent. If his lyric essay on a Las Vegas suicide and a nuclear waste disposal site is a collage, consider the word itself. You can glue all the photos you want together, but when you start adding other things it becomes mixed media. A painting can be so impasto it has depth and texture, but it’s not truly a scuplture. The only real fuzzy spectrum between nonfiction and fiction is memory, but willfully misremembering is fiction. Fiction is either a statement of possibility (If there’s a Prince in Denmark named Hamlet, then suppose this) or a deliberate ignoring or tweaking of facts in their raw state to pursue a truth (Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms versus his actual wartime experience). Nonfiction and essay, even if a collage or mistaken in memory, adheres to a pursuit of both fact and truth. And truth is not whatever you want it to be plus your own will-to-power.

  • Will Jennings says:

    And if you really want to get a full on snark attack, then the NYT Sunday Review of Books is a really shovel after shovel of chum.

    • FS says:

      Hmmm… perhaps there’s a cultural difference. Not being an American, It didn’t read to me as snarky in the least, not in the way of the FB comments.

      So from my cultural disadvantage, I read it as an amusing and funny, pointed take on the actions and comments of a writer who’s got a certain take on art, and on writing and on the business/academia side of writing and his beliefs about his creative, artistic license. To be the arbiter of what art is and is not — in the world of writing — might tend to establish someone as a target, which is unfortunate, but expected. There are strongly held views on all sides of the prism of creating. Whether the final product is a work of art? Goodness only knows.

      I don’t know the term or category of the art of manufacturing and reshaping facts, but that’s a creative act too — some businesses do it all the time ;-). Is that PR? Advertising? Infotainment? Historical fiction writers do it all the time.

      D’Agata’s bright, no doubt. And a good writer. Publishing that wee ‘marking of territory’ between him and the fact checker is either very smart or very dumb, or something else altogether, and has perhaps launched a broader conversation about the genres of writing out there — which is needed.

      • Will Jennings says:

        “This book review would be so much easier to write were we to play by John D’Agata’s rules. So let’s try it. (1) This is not a book review; it’s an essay. (2) I’m not a critic; I’m an artist. (3) Nothing I say can be used against me by the subjects of this essay, nor may anyone hold me to account re facts, truth or any contract I have supposedly entered into with you, the reader. There are to be no objections. There are to be no letters of complaint. For you are about to have — are you ready? — a “genuine experience with art. This is so liberating!” = snark.

        “Perhaps by now you’re asking, Who does this D’Agata think he is? For one, he is a writing teacher at the University of Iowa. He is also a self-appointed ambassador of the essay, a literary form he feels has for too long been “terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public.” He is quick to tell you he’s not a journalist (and that’s a fact). He is also, he explains, not running for office (thank goodness, although I’m sure he’d be great at it).” = snark.

        “(By this logic, the West Bronx Academy for the Future, in New York, must not include history in its curriculum.)” = snark.

        “He’d argue that people who have read his work (though how many is that, really?) should understand what they’re getting into the moment they see his byline.” = snark.

        “But let’s conclude on a positive note. I’m happy to report that if appearances are to be believed, D’Agata and Fingal didn’t kill each other at the end of those however-many years. They are shown together in a photograph on the back of this book. I suppose Photoshop could have achieved this trick, but the image implies that Fingal still walks among us. The galleys for the book had described him as a “writer”; now, we are told, he “designs software.” But in case he is writing, I have a very important message for him: Stay true, young Jim. Stay true.” = snark.

        Were I to write:

        “Let’s write a book review by my rules! 1) I can, as Marvin Bell notes in a poem from Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, “…we all know how many times a critic reads a book: less than once”; 2) I can be quirky and snarky because I sorta don’t seem to like one of the authors, so I can disguise my umbrage and contempt with parenthetical quips! (And exclamation points!!!); 3) and while defending a genre and its many most respected authors, I’ll just extract what suits my tone instead of respond with substance because I want to make a larger point that I don’t think this book or author merits serious consideration (Stay True, NYT Book Review, Stay True!!!).

        That would be me writing snark.

  • Kerry Howley says:

    It’s not confusing. Nonfiction is a commercial category. “Essay” is a genre. If you are actually interested in the essay, rather than in being very offended by the character John D’Agata created to debate the character Jim Fingal created in Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata has edited a couple of enlightening anthologies. They include essayists like Montaigne, Thomas De Quincey, William Blake, Christopher Smart, Paul Metcalf, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Thalia Field. If this doesn’t strike you as a “tradition,” I don’t know what will.

  • FS says:

    I think this qualifies as snark, even above the border. ;-).

    It’s an opinion as to whether a genre is based on commercial category — as in made up — or tradition. Here, we treat is as a genre of writing that is distinguished from fiction — perhaps an evolution of journalistic writing. It’s still to new a thing to draw a trajectory of its history, and we don’t know where it’s going to land because it is not a genre that everyone is comfortable with, and as we’ve seen, boundaries blur.

    The essay is a brilliant type/classification/category of writing. Let’s hope essay writing and reading by the reading public falls back into favour.

    North America is not exactly known for traditions so much as for commercialism and consumerism. Happily, traditions change. But that’s another debate. Speaking of which, there are debates going on as to what literature is these days, and if old literature is the new literature…and it may be academia making the arguments but it’s a good question, even if the snark and opinion get rather terse.

    Good point about characters. From a sociological/psychological perspective, it’s just interesting how the characters or personas present their perspective and all of the reactions. The writer on the page is often a different person in the kitchen.

    For me, and me only, it’s not about the writing per se.

    I wonder about playing with facts, (how far, wide), responsibility to the reading public, and to the interesting and provocative proclamation about art.

    Academia is a place to challenge the status quo, and that is a good thing. Beyond that, the credentials do not matter — I’d still have questions about those interesting personal perspectives of the writer/editor D’Agata, and still think he’s yet another artist in the long line of post WW1 artists who draw up and live to certain creative manifestos.

    Maybe the only genres of writing we need are True, Not True, Partially True and Textbooks. 😉

  • One thing I’ve got to have as a reader is trust in the author. When it comes to nonfiction and/or essay, persona and exaggeration are not what I want. It is one thing to say, “I’m traveling through the lens of time into memory, I’ll let you know when I’m unsure but if you follow me be aware, there be dragons, here.” It is another to make stuff up to make your piece more interesting. That’s a no-brainer. That’s fiction. Frankly, D’Agata seems confused, but what is more disturbing is his arguements remind me of the stubborn resistance of my undergraduate nonfiction students to my correcting them on making dialogue more interesting by making some of it up. Maybe I’m taking too simplistic a view, but in my mind essay is clearly nonfiction. Or should be.
    As to the question of genre, I often think of my prof. from UNCW Philip Gerard’s insistence when I’d worry about writing both poetry and nonfiction, “you’re a writer.” And, that’s enough.

  • FS says:

    The exchange on this issue ranges from interesting, infuriating, comical and of course political: D’Agata call his views “rather lefty”.

    Excuse me? I think I understand that in America, when things do not follow any orthodoxy they are labeled as lefty — used to connote anti-establishment but geez, seriously? How is his position ‘left’, or in any way, liberal, unless he means something like a liberal sprinkling of an imaginative hot pepper sauce of truthiness on a mashup of the facts to fit his writing sensibility of the moment…?

    A debate on CNF is a good debate…and one not likely to be resolved. Such is the nature of debates. Bringing back essays is a grand idea. Good luck with that. It will take a long while for the essay form to lose its elitist baggage. Perhaps a few contests where the winners are some cool people who are not academics or writing teachers or people who hold a Ph.D in creative writing..will help boost the public profile. 😉

    Writing is writing, facts are always distorted and human beings are not rational — according to the science these days, most of us chose the reasons and the facts to make sense of our actions after we’ve done the doing. Although there are some people who are deliberate in their provocations.

    I’ve read all the discussions, and while I am aware of my all too human tendency to label and judge, I still have trouble with D’Agata’s original assertion that non fiction writing can’t be artistic…and so to be more artistic he steps into a quantum mechanics field of writing to bend and warp the facts and timelines to serve the story, and I suppose, his interpretation of what it is to be an artist.

    In his film, Never say sorry, Ai Wei Wei (when asked about fathering a child with someone other than his wife, and how artists are known for such things) said something to the effect that being an artist is no excuse for bad behaviour.

    D’Agata might be cagey with his explanations, but at times he sounds like a 14 year-old boy caught out by his parents, changing elements of the story every time he tells it. We can call the genre “The D’Agata genre”. Or we can call the genre Reality Fiction and give a nod to reality TV as the inspiration.

    Genres are suspect at the best of times, and increasingly, if recents events are to be taken as part of a trend, so are some writers. Let marketers worry about genres. However, if any writer is going to mess with a reader’s head, be honest about it in every possible way: neon signs, posters, first-page declarations and caveats…

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