The D’Errata Controversy: Why Truth Matters

March 20, 2012 § 4 Comments


Creative Nonfiction magazine editor and longtime proponent of the form Lee Gutkind weighs in on John D’Agata over at the LA Review of Books, offering another example of why truth matters and the damage that can result from fact-shifting.

Here is an excerpt, but if you want a comprehensive account of  both contested books and the resultant discussion, click through for the entire essay:

But there is a big difference between not trying strenuously to get facts right — that’s just shirking responsibility and hoping no one notices — and actively changing them, as D’Agata does, to suit his own needs. You don’t achieve a larger truth by changing statistics or the names of places or people. Doing so makes you dishonest and unethical. It might be easier and more poetic to write this review, for example, if I changed the name of the writer to Don’tgotta or D’Errata. But, alas, that’s just not the guy’s name. 

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When people read nonfiction they expect it to be as accurate and as true as possible. That’s the promise that nonfiction always makes: that the writing and reporting are as faithful as possible to fact, that truth and accuracy make a difference.

The writer, through history, has tried to make a difference, to touch readers, to make them aware of what’s going on around them. We have learned that information, enhanced by story, can be ammunition, our weapon for change. In 2009, President Obama made his entire staff read a New Yorker essay by Atul Gawande about ways to control the rising costs of health care. Gawande spotlighted the health-care system in McAllen, Texas, where patients suffer through twice as many cardiac surgeries than the national average, four times the ambulance spending, and eight times the end-of-life home health-care costs; Gawande compares health-care costs in similarly sized towns in order to spotlight unnecessary waste and mismanagement. Some of the ideas from Gawande’s piece ended up in the Obama health-care package, and so the consequences of misreporting — or inaccuracy for any reason — could have been profound.

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§ 4 Responses to The D’Errata Controversy: Why Truth Matters

  • I’m reminded of how Michael Crichton’s “A State of Fear” was basically used by US Senators to convince themselves and each other that we ought not take action about climate change. Crichton was even called to testify. Before Congress. As an expert on climate change.

    I read almost all of his books as a teenager. They’re fun novels. Liberally dusted with truthiness. But not science.

    I think our culture has a queer and mostly unsavory relationship to facts. Even people with lots and lots of power only “believe” the ones they feel like. As if believing is what one does with facts…

    It’s only the more unsettling when an artist blows it in our faces the way Lifespan of a Fact/About a Mountain does. Maybe that’s the point — the unsettling — I don’t know.

    I started reading about this controversy thinking, “huh?” And I’m still there. Except that, for my own writing, I feel ever more urgently the need to chase whatever truth I can capture. With as much care as possible.

    Maybe it won’t be much, but it’ll be better than the arrogance of substituting my opinion, or “art”. For damn sure.

  • […] truth, in this context, is necessarily flexible. (Here’s a great blog/article from Brevity: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/the-derrata-controversy-why-truth-matters/ ) Perhaps not surprisingly, I fall in the stone camp: truth is, for me, way too fluid to be messed […]

  • u says:

    Is recalled dialogue “truth”? Are emotions “accurate”? What exactly is the “damage” that can result from “fact-shifting”? Why do people care so much about this in writing but not so much in politics, where there isn’t the agreed-upon qualification “creative,” and actual, material harm can be produced as a result? Why should books on botany, say, and creative literary essays be held to the same standard? What exactly are you reading for? What exactly is the outrage – that one has been “lied to”? What else is writing but artifice?

  • […] Editor at Creative Nonfiction magazine, is a big advocate for truth in nonfiction. By contrast, at the Melbourne Writers Festival ‘In Conversation’ session last weekend, Hemley […]

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