D’Agata’s Trickery and Manipulations: Dinty W. Moore Speaks Out
February 27, 2012 § 170 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore responds to the John D’Agata brouhaha:
So what John D’Agata has done in About a Mountain, and how he frames his approach in The Lifespan of a Fact, has unsettled me for some time. To say “No, no, you can’t do that in nonfiction, even nonfiction that is art,” makes me feel wholly uneasy, too much like the fellow who encounters Marcel Duchamp at the Armory Show and complains that he has broken all of the rules.
That’s not a comfortable place for me.
But I still object to D’Agata’s stance, and so – without snark or outrage – I’m going to try here to nail down exactly why.
To begin, I wish there was another name, another genre, one that didn’t include the word nonfiction or essay in it, where John D’Agata could experiment all that he wishes. But we have a labeling problem.
It is all well and good for D’Agata to insist that he is not writing nonfiction as the rest of us see it, that the reader should know that and understand upfront that they have entered fact-shifting territory, but consider:
- D’Agata teaches in the Nonfiction Writing program at Iowa, a visible, important program. That doesn’t mean he can’t write something other than nonfiction, of course, but clearly, absent any other signal, people are going to think, okay, this fellow writes nonfiction.
- His publisher, W. W. Norton, presents About a Mountain, with language such as this: “… an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas … Bearing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story, D’Agata keeps the six tenets of reporting in mind-Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How-arranging his own investigation around each vital question.” Where in that description are we cued into the fact-shifting experiment?
- The book, for the most part, reads like a work of literary memoir/journalism, situating us early on in D’Agata’s childhood and filling us right away with numbers and facts about location and population. It does not resemble the sort of lyric essay D’Agata championed at The Seneca Review, and does not – to my reading — signal genre hybridity.
Why is this a problem? What concerns me is not that D’Agata has done this – he can write what he writes as he wishes – but that he has gone so public, so big, so “in your face” and aggressive about his lofty goals to create a new art space. The rest of us are somehow stupid for not understanding his project, he seems to suggest, especially in his dialogue with the fact-checker.
D’Agata has to know that this plays conveniently into the hands of so many who would diminish our field:
— those on the political right who criticize journalists for “just making everything up,” as if those women never did accuse Herman Cain, or as if the President’s birth certificate had not been verified over and over.
— Those who want to discount the entire memoir category as baloney because memory is not a perfect tool. Many, many beautiful books have been denigrated in this skirmish.
— Those – and yes, this is an inside-academe concern, but it is real – who want to suggest that nonfiction is not art or literature, not a valid area of study. Even at Iowa, nonfiction is segregated from the vaunted Writers’ Workshop and housed in a separate department. Creative nonfiction is still a new field, and it has not been wholly embraced or accepted.
Why gives these folks such an easy target, so much new ammunition?
This will all blow over eventually, I imagine, and the discussion itself is a good one to have every now and then, but my opinion – and this is just my opinion – is that John D’Agata is trying to have it both ways: he is a prominent educator in an important Nonfiction Program, he publishes books in the nonfiction category, he writes in a voice and style, in About a Mountain at least, that reads like literary journalism, and then when called on for his changing of facts, large and small, he throws up his hands and seems to say, ”What’s wrong with you, why can’t you see that I am not writing that kind of nonfiction?”
A simple disclaimer, hard to miss, at the front of the book, would have solved everything.
But John D’Agata knows that.
Do I want a world where genre distinctions, the place of the essay in the nonfiction spectrum, and the role of artistry in nonfiction writing can be debated? Yes, I most certainly do.
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.
Will the world of nonfiction writing and those of us who value it survive this brouhaha? Of course. But I reserve the right to complain, and to call something a self-promotional manipulation, when I see it that way.