D’Agata’s Trickery and Manipulations: Dinty W. Moore Speaks Out

February 27, 2012 § 169 Comments


Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore responds to the John D’Agata brouhaha:

This argument makes me entirely uncomfortable.  I have no wish to be the voice in the room that says “Oh, art has limitations,” and I do believe that literary nonfiction writing is art.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

He is selling a lot of books.  He is getting ripped by the New York Times here and here.  He is angering  folks.

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.

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§ 169 Responses to D’Agata’s Trickery and Manipulations: Dinty W. Moore Speaks Out

  • shirleyhs says:

    I haven’t read this book, but I listened to the author on the NYTimes book review podcast and felt vaguely troubled then. You have explained my own disquiet. Thanks. If readers can’t trust the label of nonfiction to mean a serious effort to tell the (admittedly subjective, but not deliberately lying) truth, they will eventually leave in disgust. Is this all about getting attention?

    Actually, I’m not sure that Duchamp urinal was a good idea in 1913, either. It destroyed the idea of the beautiful.

    Wow, I sound like a curmudgeon. And I’m not.

    Am I lying?

    • MKE says:

      “Actually, I’m not sure that Duchamp urinal was a good idea in 1913, either. It destroyed the idea of the beautiful.”

      No. It actually CHANGED the idea of beautiful. It challenged the idea of “fountain.” Good art, for me, advances the ideas already present in the canon. The fact that you see the modernists as having “destroyed” the idea of beautiful, to me, ironically means they succeeded in making art, because they challenged the conventional perceptions (yours) of what is acceptable in art. “Make it new” was Ezra Pound’s catch term that defined the modernists, and this ties directly to your comments as well as Dinty’s comment that he “wish[es] there was another name, another genre…” That’s like a fine artist saying, “I wish there was another mode of acceptable art besides realistic painting, but alas there is not, so we must continue with the definitions that are in place. Let me paint another duck pond.” If the modernists had stuck doggedly to that belief, art would remain stagnant. Then they would not be “making it new.” It’s absurd that if someone has the audacity to try to create a *new* genre or a redefined mode of artistic expression, they are dismissed by others. The point is, if John D’Agata does not “break the rules” then no new term for that hybrid genre will ever come about, and we will remain stagnant. D’Agata is absolutely right that “nonfiction” is a garbage heap of conflicting forms- journalism, medical writing, academic writing, essay, lyric essay, etc. etc. Until we start referring to these things with more accurate terms than the catchall “nonfiction”, then people will remain as miffed as they are about John’s writing. Dinty’s point about John Dagata’s work in the “Nonfiction” Writing Program speaks directly to this.He has no choice but to operate under that misnomer, because nobody has as yet acknowledged the vagueness of that term. I am certain that John D’Agata would much prefer to be working in the Essay Writing Program, since that is actually what people are doing there. It sounds like the basic message here is, “These are the unfortunate constraints that exist. Better suck it up and work within them. By no means should you ever challenge them.” What is that? Seems counterintuitive to making art.

      • Jmes says:

        Okay, I don’t get it, and yet it seems pretty obvious. He’s presenting something as non-fiction, which means it’s not fiction, which – I think – supposedly means it’s true. But then it turns out it’s not actually true. I don’t know, it just sounds either overly-clever or opportunistically lazy. But couched under these terms of groundbreaking/rulebreaking it seems to want another higher status. It’s obviously fiction, but he wants the cash value of it being accepted as truth, when plain and simply it is not. In short, he strikes me not as a Duchamp but simply delusional. Another James Frey or Bernie Madoff…

    • Barry Silesky says:

      Clearly Duchamp’s toilet didn’t destroy “the beautiful”; it instead enhanced, modified, altered the definition– which is what art has always been about. Such is D’Agata’s idea about this new field, “creative non fiction.” The endless discussions surrounding it merely continue obfuscation of what I think we all realize is the point– that any essay or facsimile strives to affect the reader with its telling and that project begins with the supposed audience’s understanding of just what exactly the piece is. That understanding is driven by the collective, cumulative experience of the readers. The NAMES / LABELS with which the writing piece is described is ultimately the kind of pedantic, academic discussion that gives all of us a bad name and distracts from good writing. The point is that the contract between writer and audience be understood. If something is termed “non-fiction,” we assume its details, facts, etc. are true– that they exist or have in the world our 5 senses inhabit.

      D’Agata is making clear his efforts at expandinng the common understanding of the term “creative non fiction”. But as long as he is clearly explaining the idea fueling his efforts, discussion about its value/ truth etc. is so much coffee, tickling the pedants’ tongues.

  • thisfrenzy says:

    “But I reserve the right to complain, and to call something a self-promotional manipulation, when I see it that way.”

    Yes!

  • I think you hit the nail on the head: “He is selling a lot of books.”

    • MKE says:

      All of the proceeds of which go to the family of the boy who committed suicide. John D’Agata has no financial interest in the book selling.

      • AB says:

        Dinty, to even suggest this is about profit is offensive and ignorant, frankly. It has nothing in the world to do with money. Levi’s family is comfortable with what John has written–and it’s my opinion that he has been nothing if not considerate and compassionate to them–and so to suggest what he’s done is for fame or fortune is disgusting and untrue. Besides, you’re really one to talk about taking advantage of situations for profit.

  • Amy Holman says:

    This is a good response, Dinty, to all of what has arisen here and out there, especially in light, last week, of the fabricated editor-author exchange. Norton’s and Iowa’s frames are notable.

    I still like the suggestion from a commenter last week that you organize a videotaped panel to talk about these issues, and perhaps a series of panels on specific points–not only derived from D’Agata’s posture on essays. Your concerns over the dismissals of nonfiction are perceptions that I’d be interested to hear argued in light of society and politics.

  • M. G. Stephens says:

    That John D’Agata is getting up a bunch of academic noses and putting their knickers in a twist is a good thing, whether it is fiction or fact. Like the universe itself, he is opening out the argument, not shutting it down and nailing it to the floor. If he is not John McPhee, so what? One reads McPhee for his facts. One reads D’Agata for his prose.

  • Sonya Huber says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful and clear-headed post, Dinty. I think this is part of a larger conversation about how we approach and work with truth. Some poets, for example, would have no problem taking “poetic license” to change a fact to suit an individual aesthetic, while for others, the nature of the fact itself determines the aesthetic approach as well as the ethical approach to the material. As you point out, the terms defining a genre can’t be represented by the techniques chosen by a single author.

  • shockedmonkey says:

    Twisted academic knickers and clogged noses aside, it’s hard to see how the “universe” (or D’Agata) is “opening out” any arguments, for sure not any new ones. And he’s doing it in a ham-handed, not-very-eloquent way.

  • Bill says:

    I am largely with you, though with somewhat more sympathy for D’Agata’s position. So much of the anti-D’Agata reaction has been fueled by a failure to notice what is obvious at first blush in the fact-checking book, which is that both sides are enacting a deliberately exaggerated version of their fundamental dispute, a comic Platonic dialogue. D’Agata is frequently ridiculous in his particular justifications in the exchanges; Fingal ( his fact-checker) so extreme in detail that he would create greater error, even if you are strict about being factual. Of course both these people know this about the picture they present. I fail to see how any reading that is at all careful could miss this — so I don’t consider the fact-checking book a trick.

    As in so much, so much if this dispute is a question if nomenclature and definition. My reading of a collection of D’Agata essays led to think he writes the essay as prose poem, and I do think there is a place for that. I wish his facts were the same facts discoverable in the world, because I think that would make his essays more valuable at no cost to beauty, but I can see why he would resist providing disclaimers or roadmaps up front.

    I have no objection at all to a writer’s self-promotion, for his own purpose or as a means to promote his idea of what the essay can be.

    • Amy says:

      Bill,

      Great response. I, too, did not feel tricked by Life Span, as it seems fairly obvious to me that the book is purposely exaggerated in order to spark conversation. And of course, as all art and all writing is, to some extent, a construction, I fail to understand why we are so unwilling to read the book as such.

    • Yes, Bill, but the work under discussion is his About a Mountain, a work of personal journalism. It does have aspects of the essay but is presented more as a journalistic inquiry, like something you’d read in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or Harper’s.

      • Bill says:

        Actually, I believe two works are under discussion — About a Mountain the older one, The Lifespan of a Fact the more recent, and thus prompting a lot of the immediate response. A fact checker might have caught that for you.

        More fundamentally, those who disagree with D’Agata need to do something other than a definitional argument: his work is x (whether journalism, or an essay) and x must have these qualities, therefore he fails. I do agree with those with think if presented as fact, in any format, there needs to be a justification for that.

      • Bill says:

        Also, while I’ve read the shorter essay and The Lifespan of a Fact, I have not read About a Mountain, but my understanding is that it comes with extensive appendices explaining what came from what source, what he was doing, etc. Is that wrong? If true, then the objection is something differeent than misleading the reader or misrepresenting the world (for very long anyway), and I’d be interested in exploring just what that objection is.

  • Bill — when you say that the factchecker’s work is “so extreme in detail that he would create greater error, even if you are strict about being factual,” I’d love for you to cite one example.

    • shockedmonkey says:

      Yes. It’s like saying, “Don’t get too accurate, or you won’t be accurate anymore.” Which is what D’Agata is saying, except the second “accurate” he’s replacing with “beautiful.” The problem is, accuracy isn’t as negotiable as beauty. There are people who don’t find D’Agata’s writing beautiful (I know of at least one), but the number of suicides in Las Vegas during a given year — for example — is not something people can argue very long about, once the authorities who keep track of the numbers are cited.

    • Bill says:

      Good question, as I was impossibly vague there. I’ll pull a couple of quick examples. D’Agata writes that the Coroner said that he boy’s body was found “supine” but “damaged” and “intact.” Fingal says the Coroner’s report only says “supine” and that the quotation marks imply the statements are from the Report — when “damaged” and “intact” came from a personal interview with the Coroner. But D’Agata said the Coroner had said so, not his report. Fingal would remove accurate information because of an inference the reader would probably not draw. (A clue to the fact that the authors are playing roles is that D’Agata does not offer the obvious defense, but rather says it is more efficient to say it is in the Report when he had never said that it was. ) Other examples: Fingal would have the term Las Vegas only refer to the city proper, when even much of the strip is outside the city limits (if the book is to be believed.) The term Las Vegas is slippery, admittedly, but restricting its meaning to that of a city tax collector is ignoring its other possible meanings and would truly be confusing. Fingal challenges a statement from a magazine in part for being from 1995 instead of 1994, when neither date appears in D’Agata’s text, and what D’Agata wrote was factual. When D’Agata says every incident in a hotel in the city of Las Vegas is recorded by thousands of cameras embedded in the ceiling, Fingal challenges the statement on the grounds that it would be illegal to have cameras in private places like bathrooms, so it isn’t technically true. But the statement (information not in quotes but conveyed by someone else to D’Agata) applies just as well to the context whether or not there are indeed some places of which it isn’t true.

      So I think it is fair to see Fingal as presenting an exaggerated version of his position, just as is D’Agata.

      • I don’t see most of your examples as “leading to a greater error.” Saying something happens “just out of town” in a desert sprawly city would be better writing–it’s more accurate and lots of those town names sound nice.

        To write that ‘every incident in the city of Las Vegas is recorded by thousand of camera embedded in the ceiling’ is not only wrong, but just awful writing; it smacks of Hunter S. Thompson imitators in 90s issues of Rolling Stone. The only difference is that in the D’Agata it’s an exaggeration represented here as fact.

        The maddening part is how the lies are so embedded in the writing, without any admission to it being full of lies, the methodology so hubris-filled and hacky, that it’s hard to pick it apart.

        Why, for example, would it be important a coroner only “say” something to the “writer”? Why couldn’t the three words, if they must be in quotes, be both from a coroner’s report and a personal interview? The word “supine” is a term of art in coroner report-ese, while the very general terms “damaged” and “intact” would never appear in a report. I’ve done hack medical writing over the years, and so to read all three words as being in “quotes” without the differentiation sounds not only kooky, but pants-on-fire lying.

        To mixing technical and conversational in quotations is sort of like writing the following hypothetical sentence with a straight face: “The doctor told me Dinty as having gone through “subdendocardial infarction” after he had “chest pains” and was “driven” to the “hospital.”

        To ask if the doctor really would have said myocardial infarction while smoking a Winston outside the ER one day is cause for a query from even the most stoned of proofreaders, as would the word “supine.”

        Let me take a crack at what you describe as an exaggerated problem:

        “In his/her report, the coroner describes his body as “supine,” which means XXXX. When I met him/her later, he used words like “damaged” and “intact.”

        The proofreader wouldn’t “remove” the quotes, as you say. He would simply remove the baldface-lying-about-it-being-said-by-the-coroner problem. The splitting up of the source material attribution might lead to interrogations of the different terminologies–and aren’t word-riffs a tried-and-true trope of the lyric [sic] essay?

        It also has the added benefit of being not a lie.

  • megscottharris says:

    The rest of us are somehow stupid for not understanding his project, he seems to suggest, especially in his dialogue with the fact-checker.

    Great response, Dinty! I could write a better response by massaging the facts just a bit…which would still be kind of truth-y only a bit more art-y…

  • Lisa Romeo says:

    I was already kind of disgusted by D’Agata’s arrogant, dismissive, holier-than-thou stance, and had worked up sympathy for his factchecker (a truly thankless job in most cases anyway, though one I admire); then, learning here that the D’Agata – Fact-checker exchange is ALSO partly made-up, truly made me want to wretch.

    I don’t care if it makes me sound old, old-fashioned, or overly rigid, I still like the idea that when writing in this genre, we don’t get to make stuff up.

    Nonfiction writers make something artful out of what’s NOT fiction. Fiction writers make art out of what IS fiction. If there is to be another category that’s part fiction, part nonfiction (also art, I agree), then let’s be clear and call it something else, then, and make it clear to readers.

    Instead of opening THAT discussion, D’Agata seems happier insinuating that everyone is stupid for not immediately agreeing with him that facts and fact checking don’t matter in nonfiction.

    Dinty is right on every count, here. Especially the one about the controversy helping to sell books – which profits D’Agata, Finley, and the publisher. But it costs us all.

    • Lisa Romeo says:

      That should be Fingal, not Finley. My inner fact checker just kicked in. Apologies.

    • MKE says:

      Correction. D’Agata has never insinuated that “everyone is stupid for not immediately agreeing with him that facts and fact checking don’t matter in nonfiction.” What you are missing in his entire argument is that he thinks “facts and fact checking don’t matter” in the ESSAY. John D’Agata has repeatedly stated that he does not write “nonfiction.” He has said repeatedly that facts DO matter in journalism. He makes a very clear distinction between essay and the rest of “nonfiction.”

    • Bill (not Roorbach, I checked) says:

      Daniel:

      I agree that many of the points of contention between D’Agata and Fingal can be solved by rewriting that seems to me to come at no cost to the points D’Agata wants to make. But I disagree with your analysis of my examples. First of all, D’Agata’s text was accurate about the coroner’s description of the body. The coroner had described the body as being “supine” “damaged” and “intact” — D’Agata made no reference in that sentence to the report or the conversation — it was Fingal who decided the quotes implied it came from the Report. D’Agata wrote nothing about having talked to the Coronor in that passage. D’Agata was quoting the Coroner’s various statements in order to contrast them with the statements of others, to show the variety of opinion about what happened to the body. Not having the book in front of you, you naturally assumed that Fingal had a stronger point than he actually had — my point is that he did not.

      I think you completely miss my point about what the term “Las Vegas” means. The usage which confines the meaning of “Las Vegas” to the city limits is not the most common usage, nor the way most readers would understand. To say something happened outside of Las Vegas when it occurred on the Vegas Strip would be to confuse, not enlighten, a reader, when there is no reason to use a technical definition of Las Vegas — one is not more correct than the other. If I say to someone I’ve moved out of Los Angeles when I moved across the street into the municipality of West Hollywood is always factual, but is accurate or misleading depending on the context. The point is that “Los Angeles,” like “Las Vegas” can have many meanings — the legal city limits is only one.

      And take the statement that “every incident in the city of Las Vegas is recorded by thousand of camera embedded in the ceiling” — who is it that is supposed to have contempt for the reader? The writer who writes this without signalling that some exaggeration is involved, or the critic who thinks a reader needs to have it explained to him that this statement is one that might not be literally true in every respect? As to whether it is bad writing — well, surely that depends on the context, no? (As I said, in context it is reflecting the thought of someone talking to D’Agata.)

      Dinty’s note on which we all are commenting was measured and restrained, and I appreciate that — so much of the commentary here and elsewhere seems driven by a fever of moral condemnation of D’Agata, for being a liar and an arrogant one to boot, that I think it leads to a loss of perspective. I certainly think that was true of the NY Times Book Review piece about Lifespan of a Fact — I think any reviewer who misses the purposeful ironies and exaggeration has done a very haphazard job of dealing with the work.

      • Bill not Roorbach —

        I think I might have misread your example about the coroner’s report? I read your example, from the book, as: the word “supine” appears in the text of the report, while “intact” and “damaged” comes from the coroner’s mouth, i.e., spoken. Is that correct?

        If that’s the case, I stand by my example. “Supine” wouldn’t be a word someone would bring up while grabbing a smag outside the hospital talking to a reporter–err–essayist. It’s a bad sentence otherwise and the conflation-compression of source material and interview is just plain careless, false-noted writing.

        As for Las Vegas and its geography, fine, I’ll defer to you. Using your example, thought, I’d sure like to know where in the Los Angeles area you moved–West Hollywood would work for me. Plus. it would sound better, right?

        And hey, I don’t know where this “contempt for the reader” comes from, as it relates to the cameras in Las Vegas line? Not sure how to address that.

        But now that you brought it up.

        I will say the general tenor regarding this conversation among CNF academics, here and elsewhere, seems way too measured, if anything, kid glove-y, genteel. If this were a some popular memoirist, someone who sold books and was not a self-appointed bigshot at Iowa, we’d be all up in this, getting on bloggy soapboxes–moreso than now, that’s for sure. We’d also denounce how bad the writing is on top of breaking our trade’s sacred commandments. Instead, we’re talking about lyricism and, to use your term, “purposeful ironies.”

  • Dana says:

    Yes. Well said.

  • D. Crawford-Parker says:

    I find the statement “One reads McPhee for his facts” interesting because this “one”–me–reads him for his prose, and presumable D’Agata does as well, since he included McPhee’s essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens” in his anthology The Next American Essay. To dismiss McPhee in this way is to miss what makes his writing engaging to me as a reader.

    I, too, find D’Agata’s posturing in all of this a bit disappointing. After all, in his description of the lyric essay in the 1997 Seneca Review, D’Agata refers to “its overt desire to engage with the facts” and its “allegiance to the actual.” Perhaps he has forsaken this desire, this allegiance, which may result in the dismissive responses that Moore fears. But it is also dodging the challenge of producing the art of the actual that the essay at its best engages in.

  • Neuroskeptic says:

    If you’re writing nonfiction, you don’t make stuff up, and if you’re good at it, you don’t need to.

  • Gary Presley says:

    A solid, thoughtful, dispassionate argument, Dinty. D’Agata may be the literary equivalent of Sasha Baron Cohen at the Oscars. I would have more respect — and more interest in his work — if he’d simply said, “I’m trying something new here. Not fiction. Not fact. The spooky thing is, if he’s teaching this sort of stuff at the U of I, what’s going to happen down the road.

    • MKE says:

      Have you listened to John D’Agata speak? He clearly says “I’m trying something new here. Not fiction. Not fact.”

      • It’s a good thing he’s the director of the I’m Trying Something New Here Program then.

      • Cris Mazza says:

        I’ve been reading through these comments with interest and a fair amount of willingness to see both sides. I have to wonder, though, if you are D’Agata’s publicist. Your whole stance to defend him, instead of putting forth some idea about the genre-in-question, indicates that for you, this whole debate is about *D’Agata*, and not about a genre or sub-genre with an identity crisis (to put it simplistically). Or maybe this particular blog-debate *is* about D’Agata and maybe shouldn’t be. There are others who exaggerate or alter “facts,” but who don’t offer their practice as fodder for discussion. So here’s another side-trip this discussion causes me: why do some interviewers want to ask fiction-writers for the “real events” that inspired a book or happened in the author’s life. I recently was asked “how much of this novel is true?” (with the express purpose of knowing which parts). Are novelists required to stay in the “this is *not* fact” realm? Just questions, here, not a counter-attack. I have five minutes before my graduate novel-writing seminar and sometimes carry these ideas (from this blog) with me.

      • MKE says:

        @ Cris: I am not his publicist. I don’t even practice what he preaches. I am, however, correcting people when they basically completely miss the basis for the argument. Of course, if John D’Agata’s argument is misinterpreted, then I am going to have to defend his basic position before we can debate the merits of his argument. If John says, “I believe X” and someone says, “What a fraud! If only he said ‘I believe X’ then I could accept what he is saying” (as above), well yeah, of course I am going to correct them. It’s baffling to me that people keep completely missing the point. Over and over John D’Agata has said “I don’t call what I write ‘nonfiction.’ I don’t call what I write ‘articles'”, and over and over, people say, “If he’s going to call himself a nonfiction writer, then he better stick to the facts! When I read an article, I want to know that it’s true.” It’s absolutely absurd.

    • AB says:

      As a student in John’s program, Gary, I can assure you and everyone that John is in no way assembling a “not fact/not fiction” army. It’s insulting to think we’d go so willing, or that John would even attempt to mold us in that way. We’re taught to think critically about essays: ones we read, ones we write, the limitations put on writers through genre. It’s an honor to have John on staff, whether we agree or disagree, and he’s in no way condemning us if we don’t align ourselves with his aesthetic choices. Get over the “What is he teaching our youth?!” bullshit, because he’s teaching us quite a bit.

    • Susan Zakin says:

      Sasha Baron Cohen is much funnier.

  • Bob Shea says:

    A thoughtful, precise essay, Dinty. D’Agata is following the proven product marketing script and “branding” technique of today’s corporate world. Acadamia may think it’s above such hustling but D’Agata shows that creating “controversy” sells however small the teapot for his tempest; a tempest with weak wind although it’s from a blowhard.

  • Thank you for weighing in, Dinty. I admire and am grateful for your leadership here. I too came reluctantly to your position—in fact, in a comment on this very blog a post or two ago—and you have stated succinctly but completely the salient issues in this flap.

    I do fervently wish, D’Agata’s unique stance toward his apparent journalism aside, that we could call nonfiction itself something other than nonfiction, a label that defines it in an inherently pejorative way. Nonetheless, we seem to be stuck with that uber label unless we go deeper into the categories that D’Agata shuns but that everyone else uses: memoir, essay, literary or personal journalism, newspaper beat reportage.

    And in these subgenres there are expectations in the literary world, if not firm rules: the form of the work itself makes a promise, based on literary and publishing history if nothing else.

    D’Agata is an outlier, of breathtaking bravery or hubris, take your pick, who may actually help clarify distinctions—I hope not harden them. Nonfiction is so diverse and unruly! There is so much creative foment under way. Since he is open about his fabrications, and argues they are irrelevant, maybe he’ll do some good in a roundabout way. I am certain that he has furnished journalism instructors, at the least, with enough “never do this” fodder to last their teaching careers.

  • […] Moore responds to the Lifespan of a […]

  • Joe Bonomo says:

    I wrote this on Brevity’s fb wall: I’m still concerned about the limits/definitions that we insist on concerning “actual experience.” Experience is simply too enormous, multiple, confounding, contradicted by objective/subjective representation, and slippery to be defined as “actual” or not. We know now that D’Agata distorted “actual experience”—and now we read his work accordingly. Would a disclaimer, as D’Agata placed at the end of About a Mountain (“dramatic effect”) solve the problem for some? Or are the problems bigger?

    I’ll add: D’Agata is asking us to be skeptical of what we call what we do, to be skeptical of naming anything, as naming by definition limits what’s named. Of course there are boundaries here, but I think that D’Agata is asking us to seriously question the possibilities and limitations of essay writing, as an impulse and as a form. Good things.

  • Cathy Day says:

    As someone who writes “nonfictional fiction,” I think a lot about that weird room where fiction and nonfiction hang out and talk to each other. I wrote a book about the circus history of my hometown, and at a certain point early on, I had to decide, “Is this going to be fiction or nonfiction?” I went with fiction, because I knew I wanted to change things, invent things, dramatize things I didn’t witness, But I know two visual artists who have also created art from my town’s circus history: a video artist and a photographer. Did they have to decide “is this going to be fiction or nonfiction?” Sort of. We don’t think of classifying the visual arts in this way–according to genre–unless a visual image is being presented to us as documentary, as journalism. I wonder if visual artists have this same kind of ethical discussion regarding “truth” that prose artists do, if that might be a helpful way to think about this issue. But let me say also that I agree with you, Dinty, and I thank you for articulating your position publicly.

    • Bob Shea says:

      I agree with you, Cathy. And yes, as journalism begins to emphasize the image/photo/video in storytelling…and that’s what all this discussion is about, right?…ethical questions remain large and frequent. I therefore believe it’s necessary to decide “Fiction/imagination or Non-fiction well told?”.

      Post-processing/editing capability is now within easy reach of anyone, not just artists or journalists. So…what is the truth being represented in word or image? If you tell me what I’m reading or seeing captures factual information in an artful way, I will decide to trust as well as enjoy your voice/eye. I read John McPhee as a master of weaving fact and experience in the real world with a voice that is unique and trustworthy, moving me to an experience not easily replicated in other genres. And he’s done it where the work speaks for itself, without academic debate or the kind of posturing/marketing represented by D’Agata and Jame Frey.

  • Joe Bonomo says:

    Cathy, I agree, and made a similar point on fb: One understands that a Modernist painter is rendering the “real world” through his imagination and shaped with his tools; the subject of an Expressionist painting is half what is painted and half how it’s painted. Perhaps that’s what D’Agata is doing in his lyric essays, a literary version of painterly Expressionism or Impressionism. An abstraction of the physical world that we accept in painting—why not in an essay? Because of the tragic nature of the event D’Agata essays? Because he’s writing in declarative sentences, not in poetic lines or with willful abstraction?

  • BK says:

    This is such a level headed and precise response. It shows, in and of itself, that elegance and clarity, not trickery, is deeply satisfying for reader and writer. Thank you, Dinty.

  • shockedmonkey says:

    The points D’Agata makes that are worth considering — those about levels of abstraction, about experience varying from perspective to perspective, and about “truth” being relative in these regards — were made by Korzybski and general semantics a long time ago. They’re still being considered by writers and artists. But when he deliberately cites wrong numbers because the right ones don’t sound as good to his ear (this is actually in the “Lifespan” book), well … come on.

  • Cathy Day says:

    @Joe, What is it about words (and not a painting) that makes us need to know “Did this happen? Is this true?” Personally, I do believe the answer matters, however. D’Agata does seem to be arguing that the lyric essay is a kind of art installation.

  • Joe Bonomo says:

    Cathy, I’m not sure, except that perhaps abstraction is more historically acceptable in the visual rather than the literary arts, though that doesn’t feel exactly right. And, yeah, I think that D’Agata’s arguing that the lyric essay is a kind of literary Expressionism, or maybe Impressionism. Not purely “representational.” And, of course, this can go too far. But he’s writing at the boundaries, and admits to it, embraces it.

  • FC Gritner says:

    Journalists, by acting like courtesans and publishing glorified press releases handed to them by those in power, have killed their own profession. John D’Agata’s just here to dance on its grave.

  • Dinty Moore’s essay is a measured and eloquent response to D’Agata’s nonsense. For me, the “artistic”challenge of writing nonfiction is precisely the requirement to honor facts: you can’t just make up a more convenient ending, a wittier conversation, a more dramatic scene. That’s what makes it hard and worthwhile.The real crime in fabrication is that you are cheating the boundaries of your art– so you are really fooling only yourself. Not getting caught cheating is not the same as accomplishing something worthwhile while being scrupulously true to the contract with your reader, not to say the real lives about which you are writing. I don’t actually think there is any high-minded project here. I think what we are seeing is careerist self-promotion of a very cynical sort (and it is working, if lots of attention is what you crave), and the attempt to excuse lazy research and claim some kind of high literary value for fairly average writing. Whenever I hear any writer (or painter or musican) claim to be an Artist, I’m reminded of the sleazy B-movie chafacter who claims to have class. If you have to claim it for yourself, chances are you don’t have it. And then I remember the definition of character: it’s how you behave when nobody is watching. When nobody is watching, some writers take shortcuts and then fool themselves into believing that somehow that makes them smarter than the rest of us who struggle to find and understand those inconvenient facts. Sure, we get things wrong, but the art lies in how closely you can approach truthfulness while riveting the reader’s imnagination.

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    Humans have a complex relationship with labels. The child’s self defense ditty “sticks and stones will hurt my bones but names will never hurt me” is desperately clung to precisely because labels are an important component of the way we construct reality. It reminds me of the Tom Wolfe article I read years ago in which an artist bragged that if people became angered at the expense of public money for three boulders out on a lawn, then it was good art. The anger proved its value. It sounds like D’Agata is indulging himself and the critics in a verbal equivalent, bending labels and then reveling in the resulting anger.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  • alex c says:

    I read About a Mountain for a grad-level class a little over a year ago (haven’t had a chance to read Lifespan… yet) and wrote a response about how it twists facts into a new narrative. Frankly, I thought it was pretty brilliant. I can’t really comment on how either D’Agata (or Fingal) comes across in this debate (arrogant, haughty, likeable, whatever), but to get upset about what he did in that book strikes me as incredibly small-minded and closed to new possibilities of form.

    Of course, I say this having read the footnotes along with the “story” and grasping what was going on while reading it, so for people to say he was being disingenuous, well, you didn’t really read the book, did you?

    And I can’t believe the whingeing about “oh no, he’s teaching this to the children! ” Jesus, get over yourselves; guy wrote a fantastically CREATIVE work that’s gotten you all talking about the value of this endeavor and its limitations. How is this bad?

  • So many good thoughts in both Dinty’s post and the comments. I especially like Phillip’s comment that “the ‘artistic’ challenge of writing nonfiction is precisely the requirement to honor facts” and to do otherwise is both unfair to the reader and, essentially, frequently, lazy. I haven’t quite worked out all my thoughts on this issue, but this is the bit that offends me most as both a writer and reader.

  • Thank you for this clear and measured response, Dinty. I agree with you, especially with regard to the marketing of About a Mountain and the potential repercussions of D’Agata’s aggressive, even arrogant, approach to these thorny questions.

    That said, I do think Joe is onto something, but I think the way around the problem is to find new labels that renegotiate the contract with the audience. D’Agata does that more successfully in his anthologies, I think, where he works to define and exhibit “lyric essays.” But, as you point out, About a Mountain was marketed that way, at least not by Norton.

    Taxonomy has its place. Find new labels for new kinds of writing. And D’Agata has done that. He staked out a new term, but now he isn’t using it. He’s trying to appropriate the term “essay” instead. The adjective and the work he’s done to claim it are important. Even now, after the fact, D’Agata has not, at least in the responses I’ve seen, used “lyric essay” to describe Almost a Mountain or the piece that prompted it. I haven’t read the new book yet, but in the excerpts I have read he tells Fingal that the germinating piece is an essay — plain and simple. He seems to be trying to get by without his adjective,the one that points to the project that he started with Deborah Tall at the Seneca Review and has continued in his anthologies. We need the adjectives. A formal essay is a different animal from a personal essay.

    Or we need other kinds of markers. Periodical essays written by the Spectator or the Rambler featuring characters like Will Honeycomb or Sir Roger de Coverly are different from what Montaigne was writing. They are full of signals that tell us readers they are mixing memory and imagination in a different way. And no one was getting fooled in the way that I think D’Agata and certainly James Frey have fooled people.

    I think humor helps too. When Duchamp did toted his urinal into the Armory show, he had the decency to turn it upside down, label it “Fountain,” and sign it “R. Mutt.” Some people still got pissed off, so to speak, but at least there was a joke there that others were able to get.

    • Kinbote says:

      But wasn’t D’Agata entirely — if not up front, then round back — about what he was doing? Aren’t there extensive endnotes? If we go down the road of blaming an author for marketing at odds with the content of a book, we will have lots if books to condemn, fiction and nonfiction and neither.

    • alex c says:

      “essay” just means “to try”. how is it not applicable to what D’Agata does?

      why is it incumbent upon D’Agata to label this new thing he made?

      and what’s this “contract with the audience”? I’ve never heard of such a thing before.

      • Kinbote, I don’t think he did signal in the original piece in The Believer that it was a lyric/fabulated/”poetic” essay. That, I believe, is part of why Harper’s pulled out when they found that what seemed to be one thing was really another. I don’t have About a Mountain in front of me, but I do think D’Agata is at least somewhat responsible for the jacket copy. I’ve always been shown it in advance.

        Alex, the contract can be established in many ways but as a reader I want to know what I’m reading. Something published in the Washington Post as a feature story is read differently than something published as an essay in a little magazine. “Once upon a time…” says fairy tale. And as I said above, a nom de plume such as The Rambler brings with it yet another set of conventions and expectations.

      • Kinbote says:

        Well I didn’t read your comment as referring to the piece in The Believer. But I will say that I hold different expectations for magazine pieces — I’m more open to thinking I don’t know what I hold in my hand and have to figure that out as I go. As for “About A Mountain” I think D’Agata entirely blameless. The Norton publicity copy I’ve seen in searching calls it a personal story and a portrait. The book comes with extensive notes explaining deviations from fact. And the book itself signals what it is. Google David Ulin’s LATimes review, calling the issue of invention in the piece moot, as we experience the book as a fluid mix of reportage and conjecture. It would be different in at least a lot of little ways if he wasn’t open about it, but he was.

        I was surprised to hear Geoff Dyer say his collection Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered . . . [or whatever it us called] was published in the US as nonfiction and the UK as fiction. Surely the ethics of Geoff Dyer’s work don’t vary much as a result. The actual work will often being complicated.

        I’d be glad to consider any jacket copy or marketing from About A Mountain that people consider false, but no one here has actually quoted any.

      • alex c says:

        yes, but the great part about all this is that you don’t get to know what you’re reading, you have to read it to figure it out (and even then it’s not clear). it’s not holding your hand on a guided tour of a museum, it’s presenting you with a wealth of [carefully curated] material and allowing you to piece things together yourself.

        of course, if you read the footnotes while reading the main text, you’ll quickly come to realize something is amiss. that’s where the fun begins.

        he’s defying conventions and expectations, which seems to be why so many folks here don’t like it. he isn’t actually doing anything “wrong” however.

      • mandylen says:

        Etymologically speaking, “essay” did once mean “to try” and also “to weigh” or “to test.” (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=essay) And one of the things I love about the personal essay is that it incorporates those historical definitions into its contemporary form. But “essay” as we use it today is a noun that contains the verb. And this noun also contains specific ideas about truth, which can’t be arbitrarily dismissed.

        Contemporary essays can take several different forms. When I teach my students in a class on Literary Nonfiction about the personal essay, I have to distinguish it from the use of the word they are most familiar with: the academic essay. Both forms contain the idea of trying, both are meditative, but the academic essay requires citation and demonstrated, highly-transparent factual reliability. When a student writes an academic essay, the implied contract with his or her reader (the professor as well as other scholars), contains this reliability. This is a non-negotiable quality of this kind of essay. The personal essay, while not requiring citation, does require a kind of rigorous and honest reflection. To ignore or change facts for convenience or for aesthetic value negates that rigor.

        It is not incumbent on D’Agata to label this new thing he’s created, but as Ned points out, he can’t rightfully appropriate a label that contains within its very nature an implied commitment to truth, as the word “essay” does today, both in academic and literary contexts. And, as Dinty points out, this implication of truth is perpetuated by D’Agata’s publisher and his public position as a teacher of nonfiction writing. That he’s doing something creative and innovative is good for both readers and writers, but that his approach simultaneously undermines the work of essayists is a legitimate concern of those who read and write in this particular genre.

        Comparing D’Agata’s work to that of modern artists doesn’t really work for me. Instead, I think of fine art street photographers like Gary Winogrand or Henri Cartier-Bresson. Because it is explicitly interested in timing, composition and the reality of daily life, street photography makes an implied contract with its viewers that every element within the frame actually existed, as represented in that particular moment in time. Part of the challenge of the genre is capturing real life in a way that’s provocative and aesthetic and engaging. If a street photographer were to alter her image because the composition would be a little better if the woman on the right was a red-head not a blonde, or if he digitally removes one of the people from the frame, he or she is no longer doing street photography. The image may have greater aesthetic value with the change, and it may still be called art, but it cannot accurately be called street photography.

        I’ve always admired writers who are willing to work within that gray area between fiction and nonfiction, and to raise provocative questions about the writer’s responsibility to facts, truth, and to his or her readers. But the writers I admire, people like Lauren Slater (in her “metaphorical memoir” Lying) and Dave Eggers (in his novel/autobiography What is the What), do this in a way that is playful rather than manipulative. They raise important questions about genre without undermining others who are working within those genres.

      • Joe Bonomo says:

        I like the photography analogy.

  • While I appreciate loyalty, if you are posting to this blog anonymously, and you are a current student in the program where John D’Agata teaches, it would be good to mention that, in fairness. That doesn’t make your points wrong (or right), but it is salient information. The vast majority of people here are commenting with their names made public, but a few of you who are coming in anonymous have connections you aren’t sharing with everyone. As blog administrator, I can actually see who you are, and will not say any more except to invite you to be more forthcoming and honest here.

    • alex c says:

      not a student of his, never met the guy (and hadn’t heard of him before being assigned the book). I attended The New School (as a poet), for what it’s worth.

      • shockedmonkey says:

        Not a student of his, or very well educated all around, but you probably knew that. Sorry if I whinged.

    • Citizen says:

      For Iowa students understandably anxious about publication and career prospects who think it is outrageously bullying of Mr. Moore, a tenured professor, to so transparently attempt to silence Mr. D’Agata’s student defenders by suggesting that an undisclosed relationship amounts to a failure of forthrightness and honesty, I invite you to use TOR to hide your IP address. https://www.torproject.org/

      • Okay, I apologize if I seemed bullying. I just thought it would be nice if we all wore our name tags on the front of our sweaters. I am not witch-hunting any Iowa students. I am actually quite supportive of Iowa students. browse through the past five years of Brevity and see how often they have been published in our pages. Damn fine writers in that program. If some people feel better posting anonymously, I will respect that, and drop my suggestion that they come forward. I don’t want this to escalate.

    • MKE says:

      This is coming a bit late because I was away, but I am not worried about being blackballed merely for voicing an opinion. I have total faith that my writing community at large is capable of having a debate without it turning personal when it comes to our writing. Everyone’s writing stands for itself, and what Dinty says is true. He has published many students from Iowa’s program, and I don’t think he’d turn away good writing because of an affiliation with John D’Agata. Iowa students aren’t puppets. We are all adults with wildly different writing practices, backgrounds, and aesthetics, like any program, and John D’Agata certainly isn’t going to change that. I am in the NWP. I was not trying to deliberately hide that, I just never use my full name in any comments sections because I am somewhat paranoid about the permanent nature of the Internet and the fact that ten years from now, people who have nothing to do with this conversation and no business voyeuristically watching me from outside this context might read this (I would be fine sharing my name with you all if it was not archived on Google and was blocked from people outside this community, but that isn’t the case.) I have issues with Internet privacy. And I didn’t say “John” or indicate that I know him, because I honestly don’t think it’s at all relevant to this debate, and I feel like it would not be engaging with the conversation in a way that is respectful of him as a writer and considering it from an intellectual stance rather than a purely emotional stance. John D’Agata is a grown man who can take care of himself. I am interested in the questions he is raising. We are having a back and forth of ideas here. If you must know, I myself do not subscribe to the full range of his beliefs on this matter in my own practice, and I have told him so, so this is not a personal issue for me. Forcing me to make it one feels incredibly reductive.

  • Joe Bonomo says:

    “Taxonomy has its place. Find new labels for new kinds of writing.”

    Well put, Ned. After all, I think we’d all agree that artful nonfiction writing, like all imaginative writing, has a great elasticity. Let’s see how it can go where it goes, all the while theorizing and debating, closing the book and reaching for another one if we want to. If we must suffer under the tyranny of genre (is that too strong?) then, OK, let’s pretend that genre is a house that we’re building where we don’t yet have a blueprint, uncertain as to how many rooms, floors, or acres we’re dealing with until we’re done.

  • megscottharris says:

    I don’t think there is any gripe about the beauty of the writing. The point is what is true? And which facts and how many do writers alter before the writing becomes an act of fiction and not of fact?

    I also think the onus lies on the writer to state what he/she is writing; if it is not entirely obvious. Say Lewis writes “The Chronicles of Narnia” and calls them fact. The astute reader will at least doubt that he is reading journalism or CNF given some clear evidence…I don’t know, Aslan, the wardrobe…??

    There is Peggy Rambach’s novel “Fighting Gravity,” which she identifies as fictional memoir, about her marriage to Andre Dubus. We know that the writer was married to Dubus. We know at least some of the story is true. But Rambach calls the book ‘novel’ because she is not attempting to accurately portray events as much as experience. I think she bases the book in experience and builds on the emotional content of her marriage to Dubus; it is her experience from her purview. Oddly, I think her disclosure adds to the works credibility. If she’d presented it as memoir (ala James Frey) we’d eventually have encountered a big crash and burn around the writing and cried foul. One fact in question throws all facts in question; once credibility is lost it’s lost.

    I know some folks love D’Agata’s writing but that doesn’t make it right to change facts around. Suppose he was a suck-y writer, would we be as easy on him for his deception? You perhaps also love the airbrushed body of that magazine model; but that doesn’t make it her real body.

  • Brixton says:

    Part of his “aggression”, or his persona’s aggression, may be frustration.

    From a recent Salon article on David Foster Wallace:

    “The same goes for [DFW’s] massaging of the facts in other essays …. the idea that Wallace’s occasional use of invented dialogue makes him, by definition, not a journalist is a laughable one.”

    “But the essay, it seems, stretched the truth of what happened to Wallace at the AVN Awards…..Nevertheless, this may be the reason Wallace called his nonfiction stories “essays” and not “journalism,” but from a perception point of view, it almost shouldn’t matter.”

    There’s barely a whiff of any controversy about massaging facts in that piece. The writer is tripping over himself claim Wallace as a journalist while D’Agata is trying to disassociate himself from that space and getting annihilated in Times and the New Yorker and by others for the trouble (clumsy as it may be).

    And where were the Harpers fact checkers then? No wonder D’Agata thought he had a little leeway.

  • Joe Bonomo says:

    Meg, that’s a good point about airbrushing/photo-shopping, and I think that brings the argument back to genre and expectation. We aren’t morally opposed to Monet’s Cathedrals, when they clearly don’t look like “factual” buildings–ie, what photograph would accurately document. They were Monet’s impressions of reality, and they were his truth, and truth in and of themselves. We hold the essay to a different standard. IU wonder why.

    • megscottharris says:

      Joe, I agree with the impressionism idea as it applies to writing. A writer can use this device to, give an impression of reality, as Grace Paley did in her short story, “Wants” where she compresses time by writing, ”if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them any more. But you’re right. I should have had them for dinner. I think this same device can be used by the writer of CNF and or/essay to give the impression of time passing, a teeming room of people, and etc.

      But if we extrapolate the Monet example…we know the artist’s impressions were based on solid bricks and mortar. If the artist had added a turret here or a window there we perhaps would not have given him license. It is the erecting of an “exact” impression of the Rouen Cathedral that gives the artist credibility. Monet, in painting the Rouen, was doing a study of light. Brush strokes change from one work to the next; but the subject is static. So the point, for me, is that D’Agata shouldn’t need to mess with the subject. Write it true and write it pretty too, just sayin’.

      • Joe Bonomo says:

        Facts may be static, Meg, but I’m not so sure that subject is. To D’Agata, Levi P was, rightly or wrongly, a metaphor/symbol for a certain Las Vegas that D’Agata came to know. I think that to D’Agata the subject of his essay was less what Levi did (static) than what it suggested in a larger sense.

      • megscottharris says:

        Joe, I don’t think you lose the metaphor by sticking to the facts. Do you?

      • Joe Bonomo says:

        Well, Wallace Stevens said an ordinary object slightly turned is a metaphor of that object.

      • Joe Bonomo says:

        That’s not necessarily an answer to your good question….

      • megscottharris says:

        It’s an interesting one because the ordinary object, slightly turned, is still an ordinary object…only viewed from a different point of view.

      • Brixton says:

        I think D’Agata’s “subject”, though, particularly in “About a Mountain” (ironic title), is the fallibility of information and the idea that facts aren’t always “static” — that’s the thread that ties together a city/mirage/playground that suppresses information, a suicide nobody can freeze in time, the limits of language and texts (the Yucca Mountain warning sign), and the idea that most studied, let’s call it fact-checked, piece of land ever (Yucca) is still unknowable. The idea that his first loyalty is to something other than the factual record makes a certain amount of sense is perhaps even a strategy for that book and the essay that came out of it. Many will scoff at that but many should also give the book a chance before allowing journalists to set the agenda.

      • megscottharris says:

        The thing is, you can’t take the writer out of the writing. ALL writing is subjective; point of view may shift but facts don’t.

        We already know that eye witness testimony is the weakest sort of evidence; then there’s the lie and that is an all together different thing.

  • Nancy Kirkwood says:

    So, thanks Dinty for comforting my disturbed mind and giving me a place to send my students when we, no doubt, will discuss this in class this week. Please though, why is this not fiction? D’Agata is not alone in his thinking on this. I’ve heard this discussion from other fairly well known literary nonfiction writers. Why do these writers want to continue to present it as nonfiction? Let’s hear it for fiction, based on factual events, but fiction nonetheless. It provides all the artistic freedom in the world. Oh well, this sort of thing always makes class discussions heated and somewhat entertaining. Thanks again for putting my brain in order.

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    One key thing that has been breezed over in this discussion is Dinty’s statement. He says he is attempting to deconstruct his own feelings. That’s a very powerful and creative project, and I applaud the willingness to look more closely. However, it turns out that this topic touches on impossibly paradoxical features of literature such as truth and artistic arrogance. Who has ever been in a discussion involving more than say 1 person, when all parties agree on these topics? I’m pretty sure I never have been. The most you can hope for is someone to say “it’s paradoxical” or “We’ll never solve it” and get a couple of sage nods. But then, if you don’t disengage quickly, someone else will jump in with the reason why one side is right and the other not. I think the Truth is that we’re a bunch of people who enjoy deconstructing reality and we’re having edgy fun doing it. .

    Jerry

  • Caleb Powell says:

    I read Lifespan of a Fact recently. What matters in literary nonfiction is adhering to the spirit of the truth. What matters in journalism is the letter. Where you fall in this will determine your reaction.

    Parts of the book dragged…especially when Jim actually fact-checked, but when they delved into history/commentary/argument the prose jumped. My stance: for the most part, John is right, Jim is wrong…Jim is almost tool-like in his blindness, all these trivial details have nothing to do with the poetry, or the meaning of the essay. Is Jim really concerned over “at the base” vs. “near the base”? John rounded 6:01:43 seconds to 6:01 instead of 6:02. Jim protests. Is Jim serious? Is that really how it is at The Believer?

    It’s already established early that John isn’t going to adhere, so I find it odd that Jim continues. Jim worries about the distinction between “pretest” and “pop quiz” and John writes, “Jim, respectfully, you’re worrying about very stupid shit.” These tiffs are usally good moments. Then, after a battle over whether the suicidal fall was 8 or 9 seconds, John “fictionalized” it to be 9 and Jim insists that it was 8, finally, John writes: “I think we knew, however, that he really fell for eight.” Jim responds: “Goddamnit.” Great moment.

    So if Jim “gets it” why does he continue? It’s obvious the argument between them was based on a real argument, but the book was staged. But there is method, especially during Jim’s protesting Tae Kwan Do being called of “Indian” origin by John. John really forces this. So many people would instantly think, because Tae Kwon Do is so obviously Korean, that John’s not socially present in the culture. That he’s a “mad” artist. It’s not in the reader’s best interest to be forced to think, “hmmmm, that just doesn’t make sense, Tae Kwon Do originated in Korea , what the heck is John talking about?” The reader loses interest in the story when facts are jumbled to this degree. Changing stats, and details of the hotel, and 95%+ of what John does, though, is acceptable. He does not need to adhere to facts, but he needs to be factual. That’s the key. Underneath is the original essay, and concerns for Levi Presley’s parents, whose opinion might trump art. I would have liked this to be explored more, even though it’s touched upon in the last paragraph.

    The Harper’s excerpt is tightly edited, as the book should have been. Harper’s mercifully took out large, boring swaths. I suspect the editors of the book felt they needed 120 pages, so that’s what it had to be. Could easily have been 30 pages and said the same thing. But I think it’s very cool people are talking about it, at any rate.

    Caleb

    • In the excerpt in Harper’s, the “very stupid shit” D’Agata refers to isn’t whether the “quiz” is to be called a “pop quiz” or a “Pretest”. D’Agata had written that this “quiz” was the last “quiz” that the kid had taken before he killed himself, where – in non-essayistic fact – it had been a “quiz” the kid had taken three years before he killed himself.

      –so maybe not – except essayistically – such a poignant or seemingly near-causal “quiz”.

      (D’Agata also claims to have avoided the wording “Pretest” on the grounds that “half the readers out there wouldn’t even know what the fuck that was.” Daringly essayistic contempt for ~half of readers of the essay!)

      • Caleb Powell says:

        Great points. However, in the book, Jim’s objection was to the semantic use of “pop quiz” vs. “pretest” and not about context. In Jim’s defense, though, John didn’t strengthen his essay by bending facts, and in John’s defense, readers probably wouldn’t care one way or the other. It was a double moot point.

        But if, indeed, John added pseudo-bathos to the essay by forcing a coincidence, then that deserves criticism.

      • Well, Fingal mentions both, no? –first “‘Art Protest’ rather than ‘pop quiz'”, then the (okay: not quite) three-year gap between that quiz and the death. It’s being pointed to the time discrepancy that triggers D’Agata’s mini-outburst:

        “OK, you’re probably right that this wasn’t his “last” quiz. But it’s more dramatic to say that it was, and I don’t think it’s harming anyone to do that. It’s not like there’s a quiz out there that’ll get jealous if we claim that this was Levi’s last quiz. Really, Jim, respectfully, you’re worrying about very stupid shit. (By the way, also very stupid would be calling this quiz a “pretest”, because I kind of suspect that half [etc.].)” [emph. essayed by me]

        Check the process: artistic explanation, ethical rationalization, sarcasm, dismissal.

        Lookit: a desperate (?) kid kills himself. D’Agata is somehow touched by this after-all,-common thing, and tells the story. –but in his telling, he lies about the details – many of them – , you know, to punch the tale up, and, hell, there’s no “harm” anymore, right?

        Caleb, not that you’re an Inquisitor, but you just wouldn’t accept this slipperiness from a friend who stole $5 from your kitchen table, eh?

  • Kerry Howley says:

    Were I to say to the world “I am not writing iambic pentameter,” and have 8,000 people respond with trump cards like “this isn’t iambic!” or “there aren’t five feet!” or “but iambic pentameter can be beautiful!” or I might get a little irritated.

  • shockedmonkey says:

    It’s odd to compare fiction vs. nonfiction to painting, since the latter — less binary, less “literal” — has realism vs. many categories of non-realism or partial realism. Writing has two categories, and because writing is only ink stains on paper, or pixels on a screen, it should.

    Unless this blurring and variety is what we want writing to become, too, and D’Agata obviously does so that he can operate more freely. You can point to writers whose “fiction” is derived from actual life, and on the other side, whose journalism includes fictive slippage. But we know these are line fouls, not the same as a clock dripping over a tree limb in painting.

    There are all sorts of reasons not to want this in literature, reasons not connected with being old-guard, stodgy, un-artistic, blah blah. They have to do with helping appreciators of writing understand what writers are conveying to them, without confusion, disappointment — the two elements most present in the discussion here.

    • shockedmonkey says:

      And by “two categories,” I mean fiction and nonfiction, under which are subsumed all of these other sets. We start with asking. “Is this true (to the best of the author’s knowledge and ability) or not?” Not with saying, “Nobody knows what’s true or isn’t, because we’re all confused and our views are relative, so to hell with it.”

  • […] John D’Agata. Well, the debate rages on. I particularly appreciate Dinty Moore’s lucid comments about D’Agata’s rather manipulative approach to what is, in the end, a really valuable […]

  • Thanks, Dinty, for articulating some of my own frustration regarding this “controversy.” Haven’t we rehearsed and rehearsed this? DFW, Gornick, Frey… Your book takes a big credibility hit when we learn you made stuff up.

    And I’m glad you called out anonymous apologists. I dare say John D’Agata wouldn’t need so many of them if he didn’t insist on responding to legitimate questions with such arrogance.

  • I just want to say that the “Bill” in the comments queue is not me. That’s some other Bill. (An acquaintance emailed to say she’d seen my responses here.) My take, for what it’s worth, is that Mr. D’Agata is a performance artist who likes confusing us. I don’t think his poems will have much affect on how the world perceives nonfiction. We should be talking about more effective and dangerous liars, like Rick Santorum, et al.

  • Matthew Batt says:

    D’Agata says “being more precise would be less dramatic. I don’t think readers will care whether the events that I’m discussing happened on the same day, a few days apart, or a few months apart. What most readers will care about, I think, is the meaning that’s suggested in the confluence of these events—no matter how far apart they occurred. The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as “facts.”

    Then why not suggest, rather than fabricate, this confluence? If facts don’t need to be “facts,” then why not call it the conflation that it is? When you need to lie to tell the truth, do what Tim O’Brien did and call it fiction, even when “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth.”

    It would be a different critter altogether, as far as I’m concerned, if this was memoir and not an investigated essay. As Tobias Wolff suggests before This Boy’s Life, sometimes “memory has its own story to tell.” But in this event, the story doesn’t come from memory but rather research.

  • libraryscenes says:

    D’Agata’s argument brings to mind another Iowa prof, Stephen Bloom. Bloom’s writing came into question a couple months ago after the publication of his Atlantic piece, “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life”. Stephen Bloom, who teaches narrative journalism, had to go on the defense when the truthfulness of his piece was questioned.
    Both D’Agata and Bloom champion their writing approach as something that is asking the reader to stretch his or her own thinking. A wonderful endeavor, but to what degree does one tweak the “truth” to achieve this objective. Does it really stretch the reader; or is it more about the writer’s agenda?

    The street art photography analogy is a wonderful analogy, btw.

    (I’m a blogger; that is all. Possess neither talent, nor money, to attend prestigious program.)

    • megscottharris says:

      Dear Library,
      Please don’t talk about yourself, your talent (we know you have some) or your education (or lack thereof) in such a dismissive manner!
      Love,
      Mom

      PS Bloggers rule!

  • So Slick Karly and Tricky Trigger and Slick Colly and Slick Paulie and Parrokeezza weren’t lying about Iraq… They were creating an essay.

    How artistic!

    • An Essayistic Comment

      By the way, why are D’Agata’s claims of having been performing in his interactions with Fingal being taken seriously??

      Maybe he was ‘amping the essayism argument up’ — but maybe, after the Fact book was already coming together, he realized how he’d – for years? – been responding to Fingal’s fact-pressure in a way he himself wouldn’t have accepted from a middle-schooler caught cheating on a Pretest, and . . . Why not use rhythm and imagery and whatnot to portray himself portraying himself?

      –and gentlemanly (or essay-intoxicated) Fingal says, Umm… sure. Yeah! yeah, we were both putting on a show.

      • Bill (not Roorbach, I checked) says:

        For what it is worth, I read the beginning of the Fact book never having delved into this controversy, or seen any claims/admissions by the authors that they were “performing.” But it was immediately obvious to me that it was so. Amy, above, had the same reaction. There are lots of clues in style and substance, and, frankly, maybe I read too much fiction, but anyone who wouldn’t pause to wonder about the authenticity of the apparent facts presented in a book in part arguing that facts need not be slavishly adhered to, needs to slow down when they read.

      • Good point. Why–right now, I’m pausing to wonder whether it shouldn’t always be “immediately obvious” when somebody is just pretending to explain away their scarlet mitts.

  • […] There have been many responses to the D’Agata book and the NY Times interview, and many suspect (rightfully so I believe) that D’Agata went looking for controversy as part of a self-promotional scheme—after all, success now is achieved by 1% work and 99% just getting your name out there—but either way I felt compelled to take a minute from the manuscript to join in on the debate. My friend and fellow memoirist, Dinty Moore, also wrote a succinct commentary if you’re looking for a more thorough discussion of the fact or fiction debate. . .in Brevity.  […]

  • Never tango with a man who thinks “thirty-four” has a different rhythm than “thirty-one.”

    • Brixton says:

      Even if you read only the Harpers extract you’ll see that D’Agata’s original source said 34. A more recent source he provided the factchecker years later, a “porn article”, said 31 which was why Fingal queried it. Both sources were arguably dubious but the numbers are close and D’Agata made a poetic choice (based on sound I imagine, not rhythm). It’s what we expect writers to do.

      • megscottharris says:

        Eh. That is so small. That was one of the silliest things in this whole discussion to me.

        Dude, I stayed true to my art and went with the more beautiful sounding number.

        Really?

      • Ha ha, megscottharris. As I read elsewhere: why did D’Agata stop at the euphony of “thirty-four”? Why not ask a bunch of people on the sidewalks of Las Vegas how many strip-joints they thought were in town? and go with the really you-phonious ‘Christ, there must be a thousand nudie bars in town, brother.’

  • bp says:

    I am so fascinated by all of this–if not simply for the fact that a bunch of us nonfictionies are getting more chances to chat and spread our gospels, even if paradoxical.

    I have not read the fact-checking book, so I can’t denigrate or laud it. I’ll read it–can’t wait, in fact. I’m a massive fan of D’Agata’s work. His own books (Halls of Fame and About a Mountain), actually make me want to explore the world even more deeply, as opposed to threatening my sense of vocation.

    However, if all this media blitzkrieg reduces the significance of the 2 anthologies that D’Agata edited/compiled (The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay), well, then we’ll be guilty of losing far more than just an author’s credibility.

  • I have the same problem with John D’Agata that I have with much of Werner Herzog: the spurious claim that a careful following of actual fact will somehow interfere with a “higher” Truth of a story. Here’s the problem: without reference to objective fact and available evidence, the artist is free to invent not just details of the story but the content of this so-called Truth. I’ve seen it for sure in Herzog’s work, and from what I’ve read, it seems to be the case for D’Agata’s book ABOUT A MOUNTAIN, as well.

    Herzog made a documentary film called LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY about a Vietnam POW who eventually escaped with the help and cooperation of fellow captives. The escape was, by all reliable accounts, a plainly inspiring story of human collaboration and reliance on others. Herzog then created a fictional film based on the same characters and events, but instead turned Dieter Dengler into a cartoon hero stuck among a bunch of sad-sack losers; in the fictional reshaping, Dengler’s superhuman drive and unique talents are the only thing that keeps him and the others alive. By relieving himself of the duty to tell the actual story accurately, Herzog puts forth a false (and dangerous) narrative about the nature of human achievement and survival–i.e. that only a superior being acting on his own unilateral decisions is able to do anything worthy. This isn’t higher truth, it is wish-fulfillment and myth-making.

  • Kristen Radtke says:

    Has anyone actually read About A Mountain? The back of the book is filled with precise details of when and why facts were changed. All of the information is there. With such meticulous records kept and revealed, how does this signify “lazy writing”? How can any reader feel “tricked”?

    When are we going to start acting like grown ups? Does one writer’s work threaten the integrity of another’s? No. To claim that it does, to say that it lowers the quality of the “nonfiction” of another’s work, can truly be proven inaccurate by the anger of the audiences here dismissing this brand of the essay. Additionally, just because many traditionally associate the essay with nonfiction does not mean that everyone has to – and in this instance, D’Agata is doing nothing to hide the “facts” that he has changed. He’s not trying to “pull one over” on readers. Don’t we want a diversity of voices and ideas and opinion? Isn’t it exciting to see a form change and evolve, or return to the roots from which it came?

    We don’t all have to agree. No one is asking any writer or reader to change his/her mind or the kind of writing that he/she does, but dismissal of our colleagues, without respect for one another’s ideas or undeniable craft, does nothing but weaken the foundation of the community that we’re a part of- a place that has become so unintelligibly hostile I’m ready to excuse myself to hide in the bathroom until lunchtime is over.

  • wendy says:

    What a disappointment, to know how much of the original essay had been altered and that event the correspondence about the essay was altered. Too far. Way too far.

  • Lucas M says:

    Hi. I am a student in the nonfiction program at Iowa. Judge me as you will. Outside of that particular identity, I am also somebody who has followed and been interested in the arguments over veracity in creative nonfiction going back a long ways. I love Agee’s work and In Cold Blood, and Hunter S. Thompson’s addled reality and Didion’s Didionizing of the real world and David Foster Wallace’s Wallacizing of the real world. I’m not trying to say that D’Agata’s chosen fabrications are the same as these writers. At times, they’re greater, yes. But it’s entering into the same conversation, one that plagues thousands of writers whether they admit it or not. What seems to be lost in all this is back and forth is D’Agata’s HONESTY. Nobody is catching him in some lie. He is, in fact, the only writer publicizing the internal and external dialogue. He is being open, inviting people into the thought process, cataloguing his truths and untruths, the way he did in the anthologies and About a Mountain, too. Also, if you read Lifespan of a Fact, it isn’t a one-sided screed trying to convince the reader to hate fact-checkers. It’s two characters dramatizing an argument, that’s all. They are collaborators, inviting us to witness and think. Please stop trying to find a polemicist where there isn’t one. Also, please stop trying to devalue those that have studied under D’Agata.

    Sincerely,

    Lucas Mann

  • megscottharris says:

    Well said, Lucas.

    Did the disclosure come first? Or was it the lie? I’m wondering.

  • Julia Barton says:

    I’m coming at this late from very close and very far away. I haven’t yet read either of D’Agata’s books, but I was in graduate school with him at the UI program in the late 1990s. I remember one seminar with Susan Lohafer where we workshopped a tricky piece of D’Agata’s that was very hard to figure out until we cracked the code, that it was written in the form of an annotated index. At that point the discussion became about how much obligation a writer has to signal the rules of his game. It’s really fascinating to me that this discussion is now playing out with the same dude on a national level. I do think the publishing world’s need for marketing and pigeonholing can damage a writer’s ability to signal new rules to readers–and that this deficiency is infinitely multiplied when it comes to any attempt at creativity in journalism. But I can also tell you that D’Agata never seemed much inclined to bother with the whole signaling business in the first place, and now it seems he’s getting his revenge! Caveat emptor and what the hell, I’m looking forward to reading his stuff.

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    This is what happens in my memoir classes when the subject of truth comes up. I am so accustomed to the angst about truth that I look at my watch, make a few pithy observations and move on. However, Like everyone here, I keep scratching the itch, and trying to think of the final resolution to the unsolvable problem. So here goes. !Of course memoir writers try to tell the truth but do fiction writers always lie? Certainly not. Many fictional stories come from observations of real life, and the twists and turns they apply through imagination have been supplying us with reading material since the beginning of literature. There probably really was a Trojan War for example, but probably not a Cyclops. I met a fiction writer who said she walked into a memoir class and walked out with the idea for a successful novel. I read it and was horrified at how roughly the heroine’s husband treated her. I asked her if she had been betrayed with so much psychological cruelty. She said, well, actually she was the betrayer and the idea she had in the memoir class was to turn reality inside out. (Here’s a link to my interview with her: http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/hendricks-interview-1/)

    I hope someone is keeping notes about this thread. The fact that so many people have so much to say about the relationship of truth and fiction is surely a terrific topic for a meta-paper.

    Speaking of meta, if you are looking for a great send up of truth and literature I highly recommend Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book by Stephen Markley, (Here’s his website: http://www.stephenmarkley.com/)

    Jerry

  • Amy Butcher says:

    Hi. I, too, am a student of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. I, too, am a student of John’s. And I, too, find myself in precise and fierce disagreement with the vast majority of opinions expressed here, not because I have been brainwashed or assembled to form a sort of “army,” but because I have been taught by a number of established writers and essayists in this genre to think critically about what I’m reading and writing, to question the rules established for me, and to consider the greater effect of genre and such limitations we put on ourselves as essayists. And I can’t see that as anything but beneficial and crucial to the evolution of this genre. If that means revealing my identity, as Dinty professes–for what? the sake of future publications? for future editors to judge me by?–than so be it. But this issue, as far as I understand it, is one that affects us all, whether we admit that or not. It’s a discussion worth having.

    What irks me the most is the profound insecurity in so many of these comments. It seems the vast majority of opinions forged here are the result of such fear, insecurity, or inexperience. It’s a big statement, sure, but how of many of these comments begin, “I have not yet read the book…” or, “Then perhaps what John should do is classify this as something other than ‘non-fiction.'” He has never professed it as anything but. Even in “About A Mountain,” John includes dozens of pages of footnotes, each the result of careful consideration and “fact-checking.” And to read “Lifespan…” in its entirety (and not just the sensationalized Harper’s excerpt) is to see both sides. You cannot argue about this book without reading it in its entirety. And whether you agree with his aesthetic decisions of not, it seems to me undeniable that John is presenting a very real argument in terms of the limitations of our genre. And these are heightened, exaggerated personas. Has that not been made clear? Have we not been honest about that all along?

    Finally, for what it’s worth: Yes, I currently have an essay in Brevity. Yes, I’m quite proud to be published here, among so many other great essayists. But no, my essay was not fact-checked, and I find it hard to believe that this is the result of a poor budget, or laziness, but instead because the staff knows–on some very fundamental level–that the exact facts do not matter. It doesn’t matter if I was six or I was seven or I was nine when I received that microscope kit from my father. What matters is that this happened, and that it shaped a crucial part of me, and that it’s only natural to avoid, “I don’t quite remember how old I was that year I received that microscope kit…” because it is clunky and burdensome. It’s the story that matters. It’s every story that matters.

    Whether he wants to admit it or not, I believe Dinty himself realizes that. I just wish he, and everyone else, would be as forthcoming as John is about it. And, in fact, he’s argued we’re not to take his back, and we not agree with him out of principle, and that’s as much about that as I care to share.

    • “vast majority” Equally truthy: the vast majority of voices here (in numbers or centimeters) is in profoundly insecure support of D’Agata.

      “sensationalized” So the Harper’s excerpt is defective on the grounds of …oh. Well.

      “the exact facts do not matter” Yes, that’s the crux.

      The reason I, at least, am exercised enough to hang out on the internet arguing about this situation — how many books from this event will get read in the scrum of American culture over the next 20 years? high guess: 100,000? among 300 million+ citizens? — is the political-economic nature of intersubjective fact.

      There’s a lot of power behind problematizing “fact”: science denial (anthropogenic climate change, oncoepidemiology, product safety, fossils-put-in-the-dirt-to-test-our-faith) and arithmetic denial (Laffabler curve, the Infrastructure Fairy).

      These political-economic conflicts are fights worth winning, but they can’t be fought when one has been disarmed by problematization having metastasized into a smear of undifferentiable ‘expertise’.

      “clunky and burdensome” Not to me: ‘I don’t remember quite when …’ actually flavors that vital microscope acquisition. ‘You’ don’t remember the first stone, but the avalanche–oh, that’s clear enough. –that is at least the originary part of “the story”.

      Why muck up “the story” with a false clarity? –precisely to perform a meta problematization? I hope I’m not too insecure to call that a ‘fail’ not just on substance – easy – but on style as well.

  • Lyn Fenwick says:

    Thank you for such a simple, cut-to-the-chase explanation of why D ‘Agata’s “style” is so self-centered. After all, he is only unique so long as others adhere to valid and authentic nonfiction writing. His cleverness rests on the backs of those who have built a reputation for striving for true reportage, and if everyone took the easier path of making up what they can’t document or find a creative way to report, he would be just another writer–no matter how good he might be at that technique.

  • William Haas says:

    New Disclaimer: Facts have been changed to protect the narrative.

  • To write: “I don’t quite remember how old I was that year I received that microscope kit…”

    doesn’t sound clunky to me at all. It sounds like an honest assessment of a memory.

    • Amy Butcher says:

      It’s giving attention and focus to a detail that doesn’t matter. It’s turning the lens, so to say, in a direction it doesn’t need to go. That’s the point: that sometimes an absolute strive for truth or accuracy obscures a narrative. We omit things, we give attention to some details in lieu of others. Yes, there are always “facts” that could go into a piece, but at the end of the day, we’re crafting art. We’re choosing what details matter most to tell, because in telling them all, we’re hovering around a story without ever telling it.

    • mandylen says:

      I agree, Daniel. A great example of this is Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” which succeeds, at least in part, because it embraces the vagaries of memory, pinning down precise sensory images and simultaneously acknowledging that memoir is as much about the events of the past as it is about the slipperiness of memory (as is apparent in its etymology). That being said, memoirists must always make guesses about the exact details of the past. It’s unavoidable. And science is increasingly documenting the fallibility of memory.

      So no, it doesn’t matter precisely how old one was when receiving a microscope, just as it doesn’t matter if Joan Didion moved to New York when she was twenty or twenty-one or twenty-three, because we accept the inherent subjectivity and impressionistic nature of the genre of memoir. Yes, it is the story itself that matters.

      But memoir works precisely because readers trust that the memoirist is recalling the story to the best of his or her ability. If we don’t trust the writer on this particular point, the genre becomes rather meaningless, and could easily be lumped in with the novel or short story. Brevity, I’m willing to bet, doesn’t fact check memoir because it trusts that its writers and readers understand that implicit contract.

      But D’Agata’s piece for the Believer wasn’t a piece of memoir and its subject was not the distant past or the haziness of memory. It was concerned with many readily-verifiable facts. In calling it an essay–as opposed to journalism–we expect that some impressionism and subjectivity are inherent, but we also want to trust our writer to represent the truth (both facts and Truth) to the best of his ability. And since his facts are more readily verifiable than any memoirist’s, they matter more.

      As Jennifer B. McDonald says in her NYT review: “Isn’t blowing off facts as if they were so much dandelion fluff antithetical to his stated purpose of essaying the Truth?”

      • Amy Butcher says:

        These are some great points. But “Lifespan” establishes its own contract with the reader, one that is equally (if not more) forthcoming. Why is this so terrible or threatening? It’s not claiming to be journalism. There is absolutely no “trickery,” as far as I can see it, involved. It’s not claiming to purport absolute truths. This is laid out in “About A Mountain,” and it’s laid out again in “Lifespan.”

      • alex c says:

        Amy, I’m with you, I don’t understand why so many people here are having difficulty understanding this. The initial post was a flaming strawman and they keep popping up in this thread. (I’m starting to get an idea of what John was probably going through in his dealings with Jim.)

      • mandylen says:

        I’m not arguing that there is a problem in the contract “Lifespan” establishes with its reader, nor am I arguing that the book is threatening in any way. I think it’s great that we’re having this conversation. And I think D’Agata is posing important, complicated questions in a way that’s more sophisticated than others (like James Frey for example) have in the past.

        But–because “About a Mountain” began as an essay for the Believer, and because D’Agata argues that the essay is free from certain obligations to fact, and because nonfiction writers are so often dismissed as “actually writing fiction”–I am arguing that genre matters, and that what we label a text matters. I am saying that the word “essay”–lyrical or otherwise–comes with some reader expectation. And that expectation can’t quite be dismissed as old-fashioned, uptight, or inconvenient.

        I agree that “John is presenting a very real argument in terms of the limitations of our genre.” I come up against those limitations in my own writing every day. Anyone who writes essays will agree that “facts sometimes obscure a larger Truth.” And I like how this dialogue is challenging me to be a bit more rigorous in navigating them without dismissing them outright. (I love how Cheryl Strayed does it in “the Love of my Life”, for example.)

        Other than the example you provide about your age, Amy, I’m not sure how you deal with those limitations in your Brevity piece. But I do love how it turned out.

    • Looking at the time stamps — snap, Daniel.

      It is more “honest” — or rather, as you suggest, “honest” period.– , but, as I say, it’s also not, categorically, stylistically a blemish to present a memory as vague.

      Amy argues that “sometimes an absolute striv[ing] for truth or accuracy obscures a narrative” [emph mine], but that need not be the case here, with a sentence fragment like ‘I don’t quite remember which of the years between six and nine that my father gave me that microscope kit, but …’.

      The year is vague, of course — as it is to “I” — , but what’s present, briefly, is the very inconsequentiality of that gift’s exact moment of reception in comparison to what the gift grew into meaning. Whichever birthday or Christmas I got the microscope, it, and my Dad, and exploring the natural world in a methodical way, and whatever — those are what the magnitude of the gift grew into.

      We do this all the time, namely, use vagueness to push a clear gist to the fore.

      If the specific # (or whatever) isn’t important, then don’t make it ‘important’ by making it up. That’s how one raises children, right?

      • Jerry Waxler says:

        If the conversation is shifting towards stylistic choices I have a couple of questions. The comment is that in the writing world that I know about, there is a passion for “show don’t tell” which says “put everything in scene.” And critiques often call you out for lack of specificity. So by being vague, you risk drifting out of scene and into the dread “telling.” If that was the rule against which dAgata is being measured, then that’s “bad”stylistically, right?

        So in order to understand the answer to that question I have to understand the use of the word “essay” as its been used here. In my vocabulary “essays” are idea-oriented. Because I am a memoir junkie, I don’t many of these, (although I write them all the time for my blog). The best example I know of a memoir that crosses the line into essay is Ann Lamott’s Traveling Mercies in which she explains her ideas about life as learned through scenes and anecdotes. In contrast most memoirs are what I thought everyone calls Story, based on scenes, mainly chronological, with a beginning that introduces the character’s purpose and an ending that satisfies it. So could someone help me understand if there is a different way of making the distinction between essay and story? Maybe a link to an article?

        Thanks
        Jerry

      • Well, with respect to ‘show don’t tell’, I think there are (at least) two uses of “vague” here.

        To say ‘I got something years ago that was vital to my path in life.’ without being any more detailed (about “got” or “something” or in showing how it was “vital”) would cause readers to feel underinformed, unable to know why they’re being ‘shown’ or ‘told’ this or, perhaps, to make much sense of it at all. (That fogginess (or frustration of expectation) could be an effect desired and achieved by the writer!)

        — but that’s not the case with Amy’s hypothesis. “I don’t quite remember how old I was that year I received that microscope kit.” is not “vague” – or not in the same way – about when the gift was received: it specifically sets the terms of the “scene” of the gift’s importance as a shrouded origin of what came to be a concrete emotional complex — which shrouding might reasonably mirror the memoirist’s mindfulness of that origin.

        Here’s the question for Amy (or for a “critique”): is the story really being better ‘shown’ or ‘told’ if that origin is narrated as ‘when I was seven’?? It’d cause a different effect, but would it be a better effect?

        In my small reading, my favorite memoirs are The Book of Embraces and Running in the Family. I guess they’re each considered hybrids – reportage and biography, respectfully, mingled or crossed with ‘memory’ (?) – and “story” and “essay” are braided thoroughly in each.

        Kundera is justly celebrated for creating a brilliant line in, what, extrusively folding “essay” into “story”. ?

  • Amy Holman says:

    Lots of books require the reader to enter into their contexts, whether magic realism or a hybrid genre, and the experience of reading is not marred by this. I’ve read more of D’Agata’ earlier work, such as Halls of Fame, and I have his great anthology that chooses distinctive essays along the timeline of his life from conception to the year he finished that book. Years ago, I hired him to write an essay to be included in an online publishing class for creative nonfiction writers offered through Poets & Writers, and he pointed out that the traditional literary journals thought his work was experimental, while the experimental journals thought it was mainstream. Perspective is always the key. I like that he’s playing around with the ways you can tell a story. Rick Moody does that, too, in his fiction. The difficulty is in calling it nonfiction, which his publishers are. The essay is often a kind of collage, so perhaps the essay will be the term that will change. Certain literary journals will determine the kinds of essays they prefer, placing them on a spectrum of light from clear to misty, and more magazines will come on the scene and say they want them all.

  • Finally dug out my copy of AaM to check a few things.
    1) Nowhere on this entire book does it say it’s a work of non-fiction.
    2) On p.203 (hardcover), the first page of NOTES, it says:
    “Although the narrative of this essay suggests that it takes place over a single summer, the span between my arrival in Las Vegas and my final departure was, in fact, much longer. I have conflated time in this way for dramatic effect only, but I have tried to indicate each instance of this below. At time, I have also changed subjects’ names or combined a number of subjects into a single composite “character.” Each example of this is noted.”

    So, it appears D’Agata was, in fact, very clear that he had “mixed things up a bit” in this work. Sky isn’t falling, everyone can chill out now.

  • […] I see Dinty Moore’s point on Brevity’s Blog that “we have a labeling problem” and that stepping away from acknowledging the persistence of […]

  • Bill (not Roorbach, I checked) says:

    Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That is all you need to know.

  • Thank you for addressing this!

    Artistic merit aside, D’Agata didn’t adhere to the label he was writing under, which is a betrayal to readers and to whatever subject an author is covering. As you wrote, “A simple disclaimer, hard to miss, at the front of the book, would have solved everything.” I’m am all for pushing the envelope of art, but the “willing suspension of disbelief” applies to readers/audiences who knowingly choose to go along for the ride in a fictional story, not in what’s labeled as journalism. It’s dangerous to let the integrity of nonfiction erode in the name of art. Art and nonfiction don’t have to be mutually exclusive, of course (that’s the whole point of so-called literary nonfiction, right?) but the artistry should be more in the creative telling of a story — like Rebecca Skloot accomplishes in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” for example — not in the unacknowledged invention of facts.

    • Bill (not Roorbach, I checked) says:

      Hi Vanessa:

      It is funny, the more I read, the more D’Agata’s position seems to have merit. Did you read the book (“About a Mountain”)? D’Agata did not call it journalism or even nonfiction. He clearly spelled out the “facts” and how he departed from them. I am hard pressed to find any problem with that.

  • […] nonfiction,” she said, lay in the implications of “creative,” as in creative-with-the-facts (the John D’Agata controversy was never far from the surface in many panels).  If we think about the term only as applying to […]

  • MississippiJ says:

    That many of D’Agata’s changes were meant to increase the “poetry” or beauty of the piece, or even worse, to foster the idea that things were coincidental and therefore leading the narrator/author on to look for meaning or to try to know the unknowable when they didn’t in real life (the “reason” the kid killed himself), bothers me as it smells like cheap melodrama. But what bothers me more is the section of About a Mountain where he imagines the suicide itself. Cold case anyone, or, wait… a… minute…… CSI: Las Vegas? Cue the Sarah McLaughlin music ( let’s make it easy here, it’s “I will remember you” b/c it’s always that song)–now walk us through the halls, John, then close the case file, whatever character was most touched by the case/featured in the show/John. Or, is that the point, in a world where we hide nuclear waste in a mountain, a world that some scientists say will fall off axis in 10,000 years making humans extinct–as per AaM– can we only follow the unknowable via the melodrama we are trained to, not understand, but feel? If so, then my biggest complaint is the cynicism of it all.

    As far as the fact checker (screw him too) and this book: this isn’t the Joel McGinnis case, nor is it as interesting as the Museum of Jurassic technology when thinking about modes of truth and the responsibilities of the writer/creator–but it will be the book of the decade for non-fiction workshops, and I think that sucks because John was right, it didn’t really matter what he changed being that his purpose was so unbelievably narcissistic–to help him make his “art” which didn’t suss out one real truth. I hate when writers refer to their work as art, and training the next gen of non-fiction writer’s to think of themselves as artists first and foremost is absolute elitist BS. Shouldn’t the subject matter itself be the most important part, instead of starting with the authorial ego’s drive to be considered artistic?
    And the footnotes were forced into the book by Norton–so the “fun part,” that at least one admirer spoke of, had jack to do with John. Having complained so much, I will say I dug the part that was actually about the mountain. But, he didn’t do the suicide justice. I don’t like D’Agata. He’s smarmy and smart and when he answers Q&A questions, he’s not much different than in the email exchanges. You do get the feeling he is annoyed by the presence on an inferior-minded audience. And if he’s the demi-god of Non-fiction, may the genre cease to exist.

  • […] D’Agata’s Trickery and Manipulations: Dinty W. Moore Speaks Out (brevity.wordpress.com) Tell the others:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → So we contradict ourselves ← Cool beans. No comments yet […]

  • […] a respect for, or at least attraction to, journalism is some of why you wrote About a Mountain and let Norton bill it as “an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas,” … “Facts,” John? “Facts”? I’m for facts. You’re not for facts. I understand there’s a […]

  • Joanna From Cyprus says:

    Many thanks to Dinty for these beautifully written clarifications, especially the words about respect–respect for readers, for other writers, for the names and labels that, yes, we need to challenge, to interrogate, but respectfully, honorably.

    Many important ideas have already been put forth in the replies. Something I’d like to hear more people talk about is this: the decision to publish something not-quite-factual as nonfiction rather than fiction is consistently chalked up to commercial interests. Do readers have any thoughts about what OTHER reasons, beyond the financial, might be driving writers (not just D’Agata) to try to squeeze their not-quite-non-fiction into the nonfiction box, rather than call it fiction, where no-one would criticize them for making stuff up (or would they–which leads to a second question, what happens if we ask whether __About A Mountain’s__ failures of verisimilitude/factuality would still be a problem if it WERE called a novel)? Thanks!

  • MississippiJ says:

    As someone who was beyond miffed, as you can tell by my comments above, I hate to say that while I’m not going to do a 180, I am gonna hit about 160 degrees and retract part of what I wrote. I missed the point of how he was using form as a vehicle. I reacted viscerally to what I felt was a degradation of the story due to that form. And he’s right that we are the ones trying to put what he’s doing in the wrong category–which goes back to Dinty’s point that he wishes there were some other name. Well, D’Agata has been naming it the whole time as “Essay”. He’s not the one calling it non-fic. Again, we are. And what he is doing is art (although I hate that he calls it that himself). His is a novelization based on pop-culture expectations taking cues from cinema/television (just look at the juxtaposed images in the first paragraph that could be the opening to any CSI Vegas–which is still the most popular drama on television–in the world people– 12 years running), and unless I’m way off the mark, is deeply meta. About a Mountain isn’t just a story about a boy’s suicide, but on the mediums that we can handle that story in. And being that it’s Vegas (which is a grotesque/combined world where the basic image of familiar landmarks is the same–see any of the miniaturized famous landmark of the world there where the basic shape (story) is identifiable, but have been adapted to make them manageable as we know they aren’t the real thing–the whole story– since they are for escapism–he has been more than consistent with his “giving the reader and experience” bit–and About a Mountain itself takes on the inconsistencies of story, especially with the suicide. So the whole “true” story can’t be known.

    And Vegas is the City of Escapism–hence the tag line What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas–people go there for crazy experiences that they won’t talk about later. He gives us the suicide in a format we are trained to follow and we experience it in a way that we know how to handle–a format designed for sheer escapism. And here, look at the Edvard Munch section where the Expressionist painting the Scream is confronted with the Bright lights of the city and they are amping up the existential pain the subject is experiencing–then look at how the mountain section and the world ending anyway in 10,000 years adds to it. The boy who kills himself can’t escape in the city of escapism, and that makes it worse. And again, D’Agata’s giving us this story as an experience, so he is both removing obstacles–unnecessary dialog, boring characters–because that’s what an audience demands. Which sounds ridiculous coming from the writer who keeps saying that we should demand more from our readers–but part of that demand is us actually asking why he is making these often ridiculous changes, and why he is using the formats/tropes/vehicles he is. That is part of the conversation this story–how 73 million people a week tune in to watch the worst behavior in the world–murder, rape, suicide–on CSI alone, not to mention the 40 other similar shows, and do so willingly to have an experience–but we can’t discuss what is lost–how we don’t actually care about the subjects themselves as much as we do the experience. What he’s done is art. He’s pulled off a hat-trick. And, he’s not the one calling it non-fiction–that’s his publisher and everyone else.

    Also, Dinty–In a world where Rick Santorum openly stated that evangelical Christians are “outside of the realm of Christianity” and yet these people are his entire voter base (and yes, he has basically told them that they are going to hell) I don’t think your strange political retribution fear is warranted. They don’t care about this conversation.

  • […] knew nothing of D’Agata, or his controversial essay, until I read this** on Dinty Moore’s Brevity blog. I dare say, the comment field filled with unabashed, literary brilliance regarding truth, content, […]

  • […] For a reasonable (non-hysterical) take on the D’Agata controversy, check out Dinty Moore on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. […]

  • Susan Zakin says:

    Bravo, Dinty. Fair-minded and large-hearted.

  • […] don’t doubt that About a Mountain has all of the problems with it that have been identified by the good people I admire who’ve identified problems with it. But although it’s taken me a little while to come around to […]

  • Dallas says:

    The whole problem here arises from an attachment to truth and the misguided idea that truth (or even facts) are attainable and will be agreed to by everyone concerned. We have a huge body of scientific evidence that shows us that we each perceive, experience and remember events uniquely. We cannot directly touch reality (or truth) we can only experience it through the filter of our perception which is always distorted. Truth is not absolute it is just a convention. Having said that, we need to respect and value shared experience and be careful not to deny the “truth” that others claim. D’Agata’s writing seems largely factual but that isn’t the point. He’s working towards meaning not truth and many writers have acknowledged (David Sedaris, Maya Angelou and Oscar Wilde to name just a few) that meaning is often obscured by facts. Even facts can be interpreted in multiple ways, they don’t mean just one thing. But the naming of writing as ‘non-fiction’ does imply certain things which is why D’Agata refers to himself as an essayist. But that too is imprecise. We do need to invent another category.

    • Barry Silesky says:

      This whole discussion seems the best argument that some folks have too much time on their hands and need a job. The issues are all questions of definition, which questions are occasionally fuzzy (D’agata ?) and need clarification. When we hear/say “non fiction,” we presume the details of the case are generally agreed on and verifiable by any # of observers. That doesn’t mean that “fiction” isn’t “true,” only that the details may not be agreed on by the assembled. The only point is that the terms– “truth,” “non -fiction,” et al. must be clear

  • […] am I here to re-herd any of the cat’s let loose in that discussion. But what I am reminded of is one of the most calm, well-reasoned, and insightful things I read during of all that (of which the tone of this post has been a pale and well-meaning […]

  • […] sees as suitable, we can finally discuss specifics.  (Yes, the writer and the fact-checker in our latest scandal discuss specifics, but the hyperbole and play-acting creates little more than a cloud of […]

  • […] sees as suitable, we can finally discuss specifics.  (Yes, the writer and the fact-checker in our latest scandaldiscuss specifics, but the hyperbole and play-acting creates little more than a cloud of […]

  • Much as what occurred with Capote’s ICB, the biggest failure of the non-fiction writer is when they give in to the romance of the narrative in order to make the story “fit.” What happened and how and to whom and when are events in time and space and matter and cannot be changed for the non-fiction writer’s convenience. If non-fiction is to be taken seriously, it must be non-fiction, even if that doesn’t sell the story well enough for you to pay off that cabin by the lake.

  • […] Lee Martin’s Such a Life, and another historical novel from Hilary Mantel. We were also privy to the whole John D’Agata controversy and the hullabaloo surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey. I hope that the literary world stays this […]

  • […] The field of creative nonfiction, from the perspective of  writing programs and literary magazines, has erupted in a frenzy of dialogue following the publication of two books by John D’Agata, About a Mountain (2010) and The Lifespan of a Fact (2012). D’Agata wants to claim a space for the production of art between what we now call the novel, journalism, memoir, and essay. His resistance to fact checking and fact checkers is legendary. Want a ringside seat to an academic tempest? Check out this essay, and especially the comments, in the online magazine Brevity: D’Agata’s Trickery and Manipulations: Dinty W. Moore Speaks Out. […]

  • Barbara Prater says:

    I wonder if anyone might be able to summarise the previous comments in a short and succinct paragraph please?
    I have just dedicated a whole day out of my life trying to read and understand them at the behest of a very good Creative Writing Tutor – and I have to say its as clear as mud!

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