As a Matter of Fact: A Roundtable Discussion about Anonymous’ “The Facts of the Matter” and Truth and Craft in Nonfiction

November 5, 2012 § 32 Comments

Recently, the journal TriQuarterly (re)published the anonymous essay The Facts of the Matter.  The piece troubles many of the conventions of creative nonfiction–including the obligation to be factual–in service of the argument for factualness in nonfiction. Brevity is pleased to host this roundtable conversation with the Anonymous author and three leading writers/scholars in creative nonfiction.  Thank you to everyone who participated.

This will be a two part discussion, with the next round of questions coming largely from reader response (posted in the comments section below).  –Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor

1. Would each participant in the discussion introduce themselves, please, with an emphasis on why you are a stakeholder in the conversation?

SH: I’m Sonya Huber, a writer of creative nonfiction and an assistant professor at Fairfield University. I’m the author of three books: Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. Before entering academia, I worked as a journalist and as an organizer for various social justice causes. I suppose I am particularly interested in this conversation because I believe personal narrative can reveal surprising and necessary truths that can give people the power to change the world or small pieces of it.

MF: This is Matthew Ferrence, essayist and assistant professor of creative writing at Allegheny College in Northwestern Pennsylvania. To this conversation, I bring a growing interest in the potential of fractured narratives, experimental structures, and other busting-ups of expected form. But, I’m still also a fan of the straight-ahead (such as it is, y’know, with all the meanders) Montaignian essay. My other stake here is my commitment to nonfiction as artful truth, with all of the messiness that brings to the table.

NS-F: I’m Ned Stuckey-French, an associate professor at Florida State University, where I teach classes in creative nonfiction, modern American literature, and our Editing, Writing, and Media Program, which focuses on writing and new media (or as we tag it, “Writing for the 21st Century). I’m the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and my wife Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). My articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, middlebrow, New South, TriQuarterly Online, Guernica, and American Literature, and have been listed four times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. I am the book review editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. I’m the father of two daughters — one of whom is a high school senior about to go off to college.

Anonymous: Perhaps it would be best if I introduced the essay, which was written in response to an invitation that I received to write a “meta-nonfiction” for an anthology that was published earlier this year; I was delighted by the prospect, as meta-narrative offers a chance to at once compose a piece and comment on its form (in this case, to write an essay and contemplate the troubling fashion for passing off fiction off as fact in contemporary creative nonfiction). As for myself, the usual applies: I’m a writer and professor whose work has received a Pushcart Prize and been published in Best American Essays, The New York Times, and the like.

2. As a reader, I left my first reading of this essay very angry. I felt that I had to constantly extend myself to the author in order to accept that the work was a work of nonfiction because I found the narrator difficult to believe. When it was eventually revealed that I should not have been so generous, I felt betrayed.  To quote from the essay, “A lie can be a violation, a forced entry, a kind of rape.” While it would be a gross exaggeration to say that I felt raped, I did most certainly feel that my trust had been violated.  Could you describe your own reaction, as readers, to the essay and it’s central conceit?

SH: My reading experience definitely affected my reaction to this piece. A colleague and writer friend–Ioanna Opidee–forwarded me the link via email in the middle of a rushed and busy day. I could see based on the content of her email that she was clearly upset by what she’d been able to read up to that point.

Out of concern, I opened the link on my phone. Like Ioanna, I didn’t have either time or mental space to read the entire piece–which I took to be an essay. The content was so difficult that it felt impossible to read this all at once, to force myself through the paragraphs when each sentence was astounding. TQ had inserted a hint in the intro about how to read the piece; I would argue the lack of such a nod toward an honest or even complex contract with the reader within the piece itself represents one of the essay’s failures. In my experience, the brief “how-to” from the editors of TQ were blasted away by the narrator’s sentences.

As I drove between appointments, my mind was thrown into turmoil. It was not the turmoil of a discussion about the nature of truth. It was a turmoil about the meaning of rape and rape narratives. I drove and sat in meetings, mulling over the presence of this real rapist. I am a busy woman and a mother with a full-time job and several extra obligations, and I did not have time to read the whole essay on my phone that afternoon.

You could say I read the essay “wrong.” Instead, I would argue that this is how we read now–especially online. I would argue that a piece of writing that asks me to sit down and finish it in entirety in order to understand any of it is asking for a privileged reader, one with as much time and silence as Montaigne in his tower, one that has the ability to shut out the world when he wants to. And this piece–like those containers with compressed spring-snakes inside–demands you read this all at once.

That day, I was not that reader.

I used all the tools I had to read “The Facts of the Matter,” and apparently I did it wrong. I read further, picking through the paragraphs in parking lots, in a doctor’s waiting room. I slowly digested each paragraph as it unfolded. This writing wanted to break my heart, and I would let it.

In some way, though, am I not the ideal reader, the thoughtful reader? Instead of devouring the piece as a math quiz with a solution, I slowed down to consider each sentence. In between reading those paragraphs, I drove and I mulled.

The worst experience was that I made a list. I made the horrible list it asked me to make: the list of male older tenured nonfiction writers in the Midwest. Dear god. My mentors. I knew him. I had to, you see. Because our creative nonfiction community–especially in the Midwest, where I am from, home ground–is that small, still that close.

I picked up my son from school and stood in the kitchen talking to my husband as we cooked dinner.

“There’s a rapist,” I said. “Someone in the nonfiction community. Someone in the Midwest. Someone who said they’re not even sorry about what they did.”

I ate dinner with the presence of that rapist in my mind. I mulled over very different truths than the story-problem the writer intended. I mulled over this story of the rapist. In a way, I knew right away that the ghost-essay (the one that would soon not exist) was horrible but necessary. I thought it was a kind of evil bravery to admit this: there are rapists in our midst. I thought about the reckoning that would happen, the backlash in creative writing programs, the necessary examination of continued sexism, the complication of close mentoring friendships, the relationships between men and women in the larger creative writing community and in academia.

I was ready to engage in that challenge, to see the world. To see the true world, which seems like always the point.

Then after that evening of mulling during dish-washing and laundry and putting my son to bed, I went back to the piece of writing and read the postscript, saw a slim justification–“Would it change things if I were a woman?”

I’ve met liars of both genders. So–no. There are women rapists. Now the only thing I know is that I believe nothing else the narrator said.

The writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through; this makes sense, as the piece of writing provides an example of the ends justifying the means. The writer seemed to assume that being a woman would be a situation I would never consider. The piece of writing seemed to tell me that its ideal audience was a man who needed to be shocked. I, a woman, felt condescended to as I read the final move of the piece, an argument not meant for me at all, but meant for someone who disagreed with the writer’s position regarding truth in nonfiction. The narrator seems never to have considered that it might affect a woman in this way.

What’s sad is that the writer and I had been on the same side: we agreed about the dangers of playing “fast and loose” with the truth. We had both apparently shared the trauma of assault—and that was a central reason, from life experience, for why I simply could not read this essay like a math problem. Its content is the opposite of a math problem. “The Facts of the Matter” presented a flesh-and-blood experience as an abstract falsehood. It’s not even fiction, because fiction is an attempt to tell a version of the world’s truth, packaged as a story. This was a made-up story packaged as true, which makes it a lie. The brief closing, its presence as an afterthought, apart from the narrator’s voice throughout the piece, seemed to leave me only with a question about the “truth” contained on that page, a doubt which echoes so much of what is uttered to degrade women’s experiences: rape is a lie. She’s making it up.

So I wish the essay had been about making cheese or stealing apples. The choice of a shocking image was unfortunate, as violent as the violence against truth it wants (rightly) to protest.

MF: Certainly, the subject matter of the essay struck hard. Shock is an accurate descriptor, since what I was reading was so abhorrent. My reading was also shaped by my purpose as reader: I hadn’t read the essay when I was asked to take part in this roundtable, so I first entered into the text with the knowledge that it was somehow “about” truth in nonfiction. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to engage a pseudo-confessional of sexual abuse, and certainly wasn’t expecting to find an essay that aligned a story of such abuse with a defense of the necessity of factuality in nonfiction.

And part of my initial reaction was to ask myself, What’s so crazy about this piece? Keep in mind, this is because I was thinking about reading this in the context of the larger question of truth in nonfiction, and in many ways I found this particular essay utterly unsurprising on that matter. Shocking, yes, because of subject matter, but not really engaging in any particularly deep way the sorts of truthy questions that interest me.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve considered the way that the deceit or misdirection or identity shift functions in a piece that is, at heart, a polemic. The author-we’ve-agreed-to-call-anonymous has written an argument, not so much an essay. It’s a bit more Bacon than Montaigne, and certainly far more pointed than the artistic round-a-bout that I think of (and prefer) when I think of an essay. It is, at heart, an article, something Cynthia Ozick warns is “guaranteed not to wear well,” and part of the reason that the rhetorical deception of the piece is jarring and, I think, hard to justify.

NS-F: Sarah’s question and Sonya’s and Matthew’s responses pushed me to think about about how and when I read this piece, what my first reading was like, and what colored that reading. I read this essay after a male ex-student of mine sent me the link via Facebook, suggesting that I might want to read it because I’d written a piece about John D’Agata, titled “Dear John, I’m afraid it’s over…,” which appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and in which I’d challenged John’s approach to “truth” in nonfiction. The fact that my student had referenced this piece was, of course, a tip off and affected my reading. The next day before I had had a chance to get to the piece, a current student of mine, a young woman who is pursuing an MFA and is an excellent essayist, asked me in class if I’d read it. I said I hadn’t but would. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but something in the way she inquired suggested that she found the piece disturbing and confusing, and again, I figured something was up.

 My truth antennae fully at attention, I read the piece and, like all of us, found it disturbing, troubling, confusing, and intriguing, but finally, mainly, ultimately manipulative. As a father, son and husband whose own family has been personally and forever affected by rape and as a social activist who came of age during the second wave of feminism, I was disgusted and outraged by the events depicted in the piece. But, (and with this piece it seems there is always a “but”), I felt cheated and expected to read the piece in a way that didn’t feel quite right. The overabundance of detail (beginning with the reference to Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as viewed that week in Vince Scully’s art history class), the doth-protest-too much assertions of truth (beginning with the title and the opening line), and the narrator’s flat affect and cerebral analysis left me wondering, though again, the seed of my skepticism had been planted by the way my students had recommended the piece as well as Sandi Wisenberg’s cautionary introduction.

Then came the punch-line postscript, which brings us in turn to question 3.

ANONYMOUS: I’m grateful to know that the piece was shocking–it’s meant to be. Not for the sake of mere frisson, which would be cheap, but to underscore a serious problem with contemporary American creative nonfiction and to remind us that we should be shocked whenever fictions are passed off as facts, whether in the political realm (fictional WMDs) or the poetical (David Shields and John D’Agata’s recent arguments to that effect).

Sonya Huber’s point that the writer’s contract is not an honest one is, I would say, mistaken, given that the piece has never appeared without an editorial frame to point up its meta-narrative nature (it was originally written, as I said, for an anthology of meta-narrative, and was reprinted by TriQuarterly with the editorial commentary Sonya notes). Moreover, it reveals by its second crot that it is assaying the question of fact and fiction, which is a pretty clear contract with the reader (experimental narratives often take a few pages to establish their terms, since a single crot often will not serve–as when Joan Didion shifts narrative points of view in Salvador–it’s not a false contract with reader, but a complex one).

I didn’t imagine that one would read the whole of it through, but I did hope that it would provoke thought and conversation among readers, whatever portions they read, and ideally inspire outrage about the blurring of fact and fiction in “creative nonfiction” when  the reader is not clearly signalled. That practice should piss us off; I’m grateful that this smart panel of readers takes art seriously enough to GET angry about this. We should. Not about my piece, I’d argue, but about the increasingly glib disregard for fact in CNF.

It’s worth noting that when TriQuarterly staff read this, some wanted to call the cops and report a crime: I could not have hoped for a better response. That is a sane and humane response to awful facts–to take action–and the real problem with blurring the line between fact and fiction in CNF is that it confuses us about how to respond, whether to respond, and encourages paralysis. We should be shocked by that.

As to the notion that “the writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through,” it is simply inaccurate–this isn’t a question of justification; my gender arises in the piece only as a means of triggering the vertiginous horror we experience when that trapdoor opens in nonfiction and we find out that we’ve been lied to.

As to my not having considered a reader’s possible response, Sonya’s right: I didn’t, and I’d say moreover that I shouldn’t: that’s not the artist’s business–calculating audience response is the work of advertising, not art. (Had it been about cheese or apples, I doubt we’d be having this conversation–it’s about a shocking subject precisely because playing fast and loose with the facts is a shocking subject. Form and content relate to each other, as they should.)

As this is an essay, my job was to consider the question from as many angles as I could, to weigh the matter of fact and fiction in CNF, to consider it in the light of history, personal experience, news reportage, the borrowed authority of quotation, as any good essayist will do.

The essay is not alas “an abstract falsehood”; I would that it were fiction: but save for the rapist’s persona (which is, as in all nonfiction, an invention), it’s all too true. All of it. The things nice male academics of a certain age say of their students. The post-party rape on a couch. The pregnancy. The stats. The DRC rapes. The legal case in Israel. The quotes. Save for a few intimate details, which are not lodged in any public ledger but are nonetheless true, you can look up the facts of the matter.

Finally, as to Matthew’s claim that this is polemic not essay, I’d note that some of my very favorite essays are polemical, so the adjective hardly disqualifies the noun: think of Joy William’s delightful “The Case Against Babies” or Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasures of Hating,” both of which have worn quite well. Bacon’s essays seem to me narrowly didactic, not really my taste, but the comparison is not unflattering: still, my piece weighs a question, offers evidence, and ultimately aims to provide the reader with an experience of the horror of deceit, so as to show how forced entrance into imagination or body are each profound violations.

It’s my hope that the outrage inspired by the piece will be put to good use and spur us to be equally outraged by the glib disregard of facts in contemporary CNF.

3. On Anonymity: What does authorial anonymity allow in this work, and what is the cost of it? What can we learn from this experiment about the relationship between authorial voice and creative nonfiction?

SH: This is a huge question, and not one that I’m sure I have an answer to. The one thought I had is that the reader doesn’t actually become attached to a name. Sentence by sentence, the reader becomes attached to a narrator as he or she is built and presented on the page. I believe the reader has every right to assume that the narrator in nonfiction is the central guiding presence in the work. In fiction, we are on guard for “character,” so our trust level is theoretical, not freighted with reality-testing and trust. In nonfiction, we contemplate our real relationship with the narrator as he or she presents himself–very intimately–as a real person. While we all write in personas which are versions of ourselves, the signal of anonymity increases the reader’s assumption in nonfiction that the narrator’s truths are weighty and offered at great risk to reputation. I believe the “anonymous” byline on this piece made me even more drawn into this narrative than I would have been if the name given were simply false and seemingly gender-neutral.

MF: I don’t have much to say about the anonymity. In general, I’d argue that nonfiction should be signed: what we do relies on the tension of a real author opening the self up. Without a listed author, there is no self.

NS-F: My friend, mentor and collaborator, Carl Klaus, recently published The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, the best book we have on the problem of the narrator in the personal essay. Of the contradiction that creates this problem, Carl writes that the essay puts “one more directly in contact with the thought and feeling of its author than do other forms of literature” while cautioning us that at the same time “the ‘person’ in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.”  Shortly thereafter, in support of his claim about the constructedness of persona, Carl quotes Scott Russell Sanders’ great essay on the essay, “The Singular First Person”: “What we meet on the page is not the flesh and blood author, but a simulacrum, a character who wears the label I.”

The day I read “The Facts of the Matter” was Sanders’ birthday and on the birthdays of essayists I often post a picture of them and a quote by them on Facebook. I opted that day for a different passage from “The Singular First Person”: “You may speak without disguise of what moves and worries and excites you. In fact, you had better speak from a region pretty close to the heart, or the reader will detect the wind of phoniness whistling through your hollow phrases. In the essay you may be caught with your pants down, your ignorance and sentimentality showing, while you trot recklessly about on one of your hobbyhorses. You cannot stand back from the action, as Joyce instructed us to do, and pare your fingernails. You cannot palm off your cockamamie notions on some hapless character. If the words you put down are foolish, everyone knows precisely who the fool is.”

So, you see the problem — a slippery, constructed, postmodern subjectivity and my own foolish self. In “The Facts of the Matter,” the narrator is first a man, a man who is professor and an unapologetic rapist, and then a woman, a woman who is a feminist and a writer of “meta-nonfiction” attempting to skewer the fast-and-loose use of “facts” advocated by writers such as David Shields, John D’Agata, and, according to the author (incorrectly, I think, because she is misreading his rhetorical questions), Robert Atwan. In both cases, the narrator is cloaked in anonymity, but in the first instance, we come to see that “anonymous” means only that the character is unnamed, while in the second case it means that the author is protected. But protected from what? The outrage of readers? The responsibility of defending her position publicly and as herself? Or, more charitably, is she protecting the friends and the sisters of her friends who were actually raped? Or again, less charitably perhaps, is she protecting (inadvertently perhaps) the actual “male professors” whose “by and large verbatim” quotes she puts in the mouth of her rapist-narrator?

By raising these questions I don’t mean to suggest that the author is not speaking “from a region pretty close to the heart” or that I “detect the wind of phoniness.” I don’t. I believe that the author cares deeply about rape and that the piece is an honest attempt to confront the horror of rape and show how rape is about power rather than sex. An essay, however, can be honest, but not successful, or not as successful as it might potentially be. The anonymity is also part and parcel of the attempt to write what the author calls “meta-nonfiction.” I think that the attempt to write “meta nonfiction” is misguided because personal essays are always, in a sense, “meta nonfiction” because they are always (or almost always) include reflection and so are the story of a mind thinking, a writer writing. By pushing this further (e.g., by dividing the piece in two, by employing anonymity, by withholding information, by pushing irony to the point that it becomes an inside joke, etc.) the author becomes distant and controlling. At first I was reading a fictional short story, but I didn’t know it was a short story, for I thought (was supposed to think) it was a personal essay. This short story only became a personal essay when I got to the postscript and was now required to reconsider my reading of the essay that was all along a short story, but only a short story for the author, and not for me. (Got that?) For me at least, all this layering and rethinking and distance makes the personal essay less personal, something more akin to a thought experiment being orchestrated by a wizard (a very bright wizard) behind a screen. So, finally, I felt manipulated and perhaps because I felt manipulated, all that much more put out that “the flesh and blood author” got to claim anonymity.

And now, gentle reader, I feel I should tell you that the anonymous author authorized Sarah to tell us who she is (and she’s someone I already knew). It’s not my role to out her and as I tried to suggest above, I think I understand some of why she adopted anonymity, but now I wish she’d come out from behind the curtain.

ANONYMOUS: As I stated above, the only “invention” in this piece is the conventional one in memoir and essay, that of a “persona,” which here is a stew of several parts Evelyn Waugh and a dash of Nabokov.

The rationale for Anonymity is simple: the piece requires uncertainty about the author’s identity to have its effect. There’s no effort to protect myself in this: my identity is clearly stated at the end of the lengthy interview that appears in the anthology for which the piece was written (Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot), should anyone care to know. But my identity is irrelevant. (The wonderful writing teacher Bill Roorbach used to say that you knew when you had stopped reading a piece and it had begun to “read you”–by which he meant that it had triggered some personal emotional reflex–when you stopped talking about the words on the page and started to talk about the writer. I wonder if perhaps that applies here.)

The essayist is often effaced in the essay–where subject takes precedence over personal biography: we know an essayist’s thoughts, not his or her dining habits (unless they are the subject of the essay). Fretting about my identity is a distraction. The essay is not about me; it’s about a shocking contemporary practice: not sexual assault, but our all too convenient disregard of facts.

As to Ned’s claim that I am “misreading” Atwan’s public speech, for which I was present, as he was not, I must admit that I find suspect any literary criticism that would claim to have the corner on truth in such matters–interpretation is not monotheism after all; there is no single truth here; to claim one is in possession of that would seem a lie.

Finally, as to whether the piece succeeds, the fact that David Ulin in the LA Times considered it worthy of his smart and admiring exegesis, and that many other publications (from Manhattan to Spokane to Kentucky to South Carolina to Kansas City) have picked it up; the fact that we’re discussing this here and that I’ve heard from several readers of the anthology that they consider the essay “one of the ten pieces every CNF student should read”; and the fact that it’s being taught and discussed in classrooms, would all seem to me to suggest that it has succeeded in provoking the conversation it sought to inspire.

4. On Falseness in Nonfiction: This essay purports to argue against lying in creative nonfiction, and yet it relies on a number of lies–from the conceit of its narrative voice to the fact that we, as a panel, are only pretending not to know the identity of its author–to function.   Ultimately, does the essay function better as an argument for the possibility of falsity in nonfiction rather than against it? Or does it succeed in spite of the fact that it seems to argue against its own validity?

SH: I think this piece of writing functions as an example of what happens when you cling too tightly to being right: you pull out every big gun possible to win against what you see as wrong or bad. In this case, the enemy is the position of purposely falsifying information for the sake of art. “The Facts of the Matter” purposely falsifies against art instead of falsifying for art. In a way, it sets itself on fire to protest artful falsification. As such, it is an essay on fire, an essay in flames, an essay that is not actually an essay at all. I think it is tragic, and it is performance, but I don’t think it’s possible to talk about it as creative nonfiction.

We know there are several kinds of “true” and several kinds of lying. One test of truth in nonfiction, for me, is the question of whether I would give this piece of writing to my mom, my non-writer and non-professor friends to read, whether I would give it to my sister. The question of truth in that case circles around the goal of offering something to add to someone’s life—even if it is a difficult and hard-won truth. There isn’t that nugget of accessible truth that I could share with people outside that limited world of people who discuss John D’Agata or even know who he is.

MF: Anonymous her/his-self writes in the Postscript that the “piece is meant to be shocking, in hopes that it will shock us into thinking harder about what we’re accepting when we say that facts no longer matter in CNF, or to us” and that it is “intended to point up the absurdity and real horror of playing with facts in nonfictional where there are stakes…, as there always should be in art, we cannot afford to be glib about claiming fictions are facts…”

It is in this shock that the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay commits a foul against not essaying nor creative nonfiction but, in fact, rhetoric. It relies on a combo Slippery Slope and Strawman strategy, where the stakes are raised by the direct content of the piece (the sexual assault) and not by the supposed intent of the argument (engaging the necessity of truth in nonfiction). In that sense, the piece fails to persuade me of the dangers of D’Agata, Shields et al, very much because the sensationalized conceit of the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay takes to the point of absurdity the fluidity and flexibility other writers call for.

So, thinking about Sonya’s response to her initial reading, a response driven in part by the temporally fractured way she read the piece in our digital world, I agree that as an article it fails to play by the rules of our reading. The shocking subject matter incites fury, sadness, and pain because the lede of the article conceals itself within the extended metaphorical non non-fiction.

Yet at the same time, if I consider the piece an essay, then I disagree that an author should need to consider the manner of reading. An essay is a full thing, must be read in total to be understood. Thinking of the piece fully (and by “fully” I include the way I first read the piece, Postcript, author notes, header and all), I find myself defending the authorial choices this way: it doesn’t lie or deceive at all, in full. The deception is revealed, and the effect on the reader is to confront them with the shock and anger that comes about from that deception. Thus it pinches the technique of the lie as a means to argue against the lie.

But it’s still a polemic, and that part of it I find harder to defend, since nuance is necessarily left out, and with it the artistic potential of artful misdirection and textual prestidigitation 

NS-F: I very much like the ways Sonya and Matthew have approached this question. I too think this piece is a “polemic” that shows “what happens when you cling too tightly to being right.” As Matthew suggests, this polemic has two targets — rape and a particular kind of nonfiction. The problem, I think, is that the targets get confused and the issue of rape gets subsumed by the issue of truth in nonfiction. We are, I believe, supposed to see the narrator above the postscript is someone whose sexism has led him to lie, become dissociated from himself, objectify women, and rationalize his cruel and violent attack. And I do. But don’t we know that already about rapists? Or, as Matthew put it, isn’t that fictional rapist a strawman? Or as Sonya suggests, the rape has, in a sense, become “a big gun” pointed at John D’Agata and David Shields, or at least at John and David’s understanding of the role of truth in creative nonfiction.

 The same day I was reading “The Facts of the Matter” I finished a review of Randi Saloman’s excellent book, Virginia Woolf’s Essayism, and it suggested to me another approach. Saloman distinguishes between the essay and fiction (mainly Woolf’s novels) by looking at our experience reading the two genres. A longheld trope for the essay is that it is a conversation. For Saloman, this means that the reader is on more even terms with the author, engaged and responding to the author within a digressive, recirculating, meandering form. With a work of fiction, she argues, we are more passive and give ourselves up to the author’s imagined world following a plot determined by probability and some kind of logic. When Woolf mixes the two — in A Room of One’s Own, for instance — she creates what Saloman calls a “counter-factual” or “speculative” essay. To create this essay she uses fictional elements, most notably the character of Judith Shakespeare, but we know the character is fictional and participate with Woolf in speculating on the what that Judith’s life might have been like. Judith is fictional but we know she’s fictional. She allows us to imagine an alternative history and an alternative future. She’s a fictional character within an essay that we know from the start is an essay. She is not a trick and if A Room of One’s Own is a polemic against sexism, it is a kind of non-polemical polemic.

ANONYMOUS: I love this question, Sarah: it’s very smart (and one raised by David Ulin in the LA Times, as Sonya helpfully pointed out in a separate exchange). In writing this essay, I aimed to do precisely two things: 1) ponder whether facts do matter in creative nonfiction by weighing the evidence at hand, and 2) more significantly, I wanted to give the reader a visceral experience of fiction passed off as fact–I wanted us to register the real horror of that. We talk a lot about this question as writers, readers, students, and professors, but it seems to me that the conversation has been largely theoretical. I wanted us to have a visceral experience, a bodily sense of the awfulness of a narrative (and a society) where the line between fact and fiction have become blurred, uncertain. So I’d strongly disagree with those who would say that this essay affirms lying in CNF, the blurring of those lines; judging by the panelists’ reactions, I’d say it enacts a pretty strong argument against that practice, which was my aim. I hope the piece tests the proposition that “facts are irrelevant” in nonfiction, as Shields has claimed, and finds to the contrary.

That’s also why I strongly disagree with Ned’s claim that my essay is somehow a “big gun” held to D’Agata’s head or Shields’. That metaphor misses my point by a mile: this essay is more like a trap-door that opens beneath us all (as, I believe, is the popular disregard for fact in nonfiction). Ned’s reading would try to make the essay a personal matter, when it’s not: it’s a formal one–a problem with form that we are all having now.

As for the essay’s form, Ned suggests that I might have done better by borrowing Woolf’s methods, but I’d note that her speech was written almost a hundred years ago and that each artist creates the form necessary to her or his time: Woolf needed to argue for women’s capacity for greatness, so invented Shakespeare’s sister; in the 21st century, we need to be reminded of the horrors of passing off fiction as fact, so I invented a narrator (at least in part.)

But I worry that the panel seems to be largely missing those points here–both formal and substantive. So rather than continue to respond to their claims point by point, as I’ve tried to do above, I would simply direct them and readers of the essay to the wonderful and insightful exegesis of “The Facts of the Matter” by David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times:,0,4763279.story

Despite the unanimity of this panel, happily a diverse array of responses to it can be found on line; a few of these are below:

I hope, for all our sakes, we will continue to speak ardently about why the facts matter.

Moderator’s Note: Responses from SH and Anonymous were stricken from the roundtable discussion because of confusion among the participants about whether or not there would be opportunities to reply to one another. The intention had been that there would be this opportunity, but Anonymous asked that we limit each respondent to one initial statement. Because I believe that I wasn’t adequately clear in my initial directions to the panel and to Anonymous, I have agreed to strike this response, but in the next round we will not redact anyone’s comments and cannot guarantee that any person will have the final say on a specific question.

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§ 32 Responses to As a Matter of Fact: A Roundtable Discussion about Anonymous’ “The Facts of the Matter” and Truth and Craft in Nonfiction

  • Anonymous claims that the manipulation of fact in her essay “The Facts of the Matter” is intended to “shock” the reader into agreeing with her argument that nonfiction writers should not manipulate facts. Basically, she proves that readers don’t like being lied to in nonfiction by lying to us and then opening up that trapdoor and saying, “Gotcha!” And then we hear from the TriQuarterly editors that she lied to them about the small fact the essay had already been published. How is she any different than the writers she criticizes, whether she labels this as meta or not? She wanted to shock and she has, but perhaps not in the way she intended. And yet the essay remains valuable, simply because it continues the debate.

    Moreover, I definitely agree with her assertion that the trend of facts turning fuzzy has much to do with current politics and culture. We are constantly lied to by leaders and by corporations and by writers passing themselves off as journalists while at the same time we are under near constant surveillance because we the people aren’t to be trusted. And all too often when we are able to uncover the truth, not much happens, which renders truth even more meaningless. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon truth altogether, or in part.

  • I was never angry, because the voice was inauthentic. All the insider nonfiction references were a giveaway (especially David Shields), as was the tone. I didn’t buy that an unapologetic rapist would process confession through an essay.

  • mopstan says:

    First, Kate Flaherty is wrong. The writer did *not* lie to Triquarterly, and Triquarterly should own up to the fact that they made a mistake because they overlooked or forgot the author’s full disclosure about the essay appearing in an anthology of meta-nonfiction, noted in correspondence to with the editors. Some of the responses to this essay that I read here (“manipulative” “disturbing” etc.) prove to me that the essay is successful because underneath its layers, it ultimately must force the reader to confront the deeply troubling argument of David Shields and John D’Agata — the stance that it does not matter if you lie, it’s all about Art and Story, and that because we cannot have a perfect truth, there is no truth at all. The piece by anonymous is brilliant in that it both argues against Shields/D’Agata and enacts their own argument as the main tool to prove them wrong. (So why would people be upset with Anonymous for showing so powerfully the very trouble wtih D’Agata and Shield’s simplistic and “manipulative,” (MF above), of course, because it’s an enactment of the sort of manipulation it argues against.

    As to SH comments that “the choice of a shocking image is unfortunate”– actually the piece had to rely on a shocking image to work–because that is what is at stake when people fudge the truth for purposes of expediency, for the self-serving idea that they are making ART and that trumps truth (just call it fiction), for money (like Frey), or other dubious reasons. Think of the truth commissions after genocides, think of when truth has the most gravitas, when someone (or many) is/are hurt. But also, rape cases are often one person’s word against another, so it’s they often represent the ultimate trust of individual truth, or trusting in a single storyteller, which is what we ask in nonfiction. I would invite anyone to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s smart essay in NY Times called “Stolen Suffering,”

    “The Facts of the Matter” is a courageous piece of writing that dares to say baldly that *this* is what is at stake when we fall on the side of the argument that “‘Fiction’/’nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction”–(David Shields, “Reality Hunger” p. 63). If the piece rested on the theft of a loaf of bread, would it have had the same effect?

    Mendelsohn writes in his response to the many memoirs proven false, “The cruelty of the fraudulent [stories] is that they will inevitably make us distrustful of the true ones.” Mendelsohn’s piece was published before D’Agata’s “Lifespan of a Fact,” but yet we see the sort of heralding of D’Agata and the attention he got for his book (after Harper’s rejected his falsified story told in “About a Mountain,” and The Believer argued *for* facts, not against them for 7 years with D’Agata)–and we still have many who believe it’s okay to lie and call something nonfiction anyway. We NEED an argument like this one made by Anonymous that shakes us to the foundation and *shows* how wrongheaded D’Agata and Shields’ perspectives are, not just politelysays tsk tsk.

    Smaller points– te piece also had to be by anonymous–because for it to do its job, people had to believe it; that is what happens in falsified nonfiction, right? A name or gender not have allowed the conceit to work. Also, a polemic is a form of the essay. See Joy Williams, Jamaica Kincaid, bell hooks, and Peter Singer. As far as SH’s comments about who you can show an essay to as a litmus test for whether the essay is successful? That is beside the point and not germaine to an evaluation of the essay as work of art, which “The Facts of the Matter” is both–an essay, and a work of art.
    Maureen Stanton

  • Anonymous says:

    Kate Flaherty is wrong in saying that I lied to the TriQuarterly editors–and should have checked her facts before making such an accusation and also owes me an apology. As the editor there knows, I referenced the anthology in our correspondence in September after the piece was accepted AND in the cover letter that I submitted to TriQuarterly, which regrettably, was not passed along to the editor with the manuscript (an omission by staff, not me). I had discussed months ago with the anthology’s editor submitting this piece to journals, so as to give it a broader audience. This is common practice, as is evidenced by Pam Houston’s reprinting of her contribution to the same anthology in the journal Hunger Mountain. If we’re going to discuss “The Facts of the Matter” let’s do try to stick to the facts.

  • […] I got caught up in yet another discussion of how important fact is in nonfiction writing over at Brevity’s nonfiction blog. Worrying over fact in nonfiction probably seems like an absurd topic to people who […]

  • nikwalk says:

    What is courageous in writing anything anonymously?

  • I hope I’m not wrong about everything! I haven’t read any editorial correspondence–is it published somewhere? I’d love to see it. What I did read was the editor’s note, which states: “The author did not inform TriQuarterly that the piece was published.” You’re correct that if that’s not the case, the editors should change their note.

  • Before the speech gets too heated here, let me weigh in on the “lied to TriQuarterly” issue. The editor’s notes at TriQuarterly are fairly vague in my opinion, so I see where Kate Flaherty came to the idea that the piece was submitted without full disclosure. It seemed that way to me, too. But ‘Anonymous’ lets us know that full disclosure _was_ given, in a cover letter that did not travel along with the essay itself, which makes good sense knowing the way that magazines work sometimes. Let’s drop that thread of the argument perhaps, take Anonymous at her word, and move on to discuss the essay itself and the choices made by the author.

  • Certainly I apologize for passing on incorrect information. Why hasn’t the editor changed their note?

  • Here’s what I wrote to Dinah Lenney in an email after she sent me the original piece. It’s from October 24th, and I might have other things to say today, but I’ll let my old self speak for my new self for the moment:

    Of course Anonymous doesn’t really carry out her experiment and complete her initial essay as an essay, but lets it get shunted over into her analysis of Shields, et. al. Which becomes a more interesting essay, in the end, but honestly she needed to get back to her original piece and, while dissecting the effect—and the ethics—of Shields et. al., really look hard at the difference in response to and moral implications of her “fake” experience.

    Anyway, what the whole thing does not ask–and why it isn’t really very groundbreaking–is that the writer ask him/herself exactly why he/she is writing in the first place. Those who make something up in fiction or poetry know what they’re doing–and why. But those who falsify their NONfiction don’t seem to know what they are about, or why. I’d venture to say that the motives (or impulses) are different, and that that alone is why genre matters. In nonfiction we write to find out–to understand the significance of what DID happen. In fiction we write to find a way to do one of two things: to say what we already know, or to watch a series of forces (or characters) play against each other in order to find out what WILL happen. And that distinction makes all the difference in the way the piece is received and understood by a reader.

    In this case, the writing itself reveals itself as “fiction” the minute the “speaker” does not begin to explore “his” retrospective sense of the event or to question his assumptions or to wrestle with his conscience—all of which would have turned the fictive side of this piece into more of an essay, and would have challenged us more as readers. Since that did not happen, we pretty much guess the deception long before the hoax is revealed. And, as in any mystery, that spoils the fun.

  • The essay is beautifully written and, yes, manipulative, but my first response to reading it was anger at the author’s broad-brush condemnation of men, all men, for all crimes against women. This seems to be the essay’s true agenda, the prosecution of men, not the prosecution of falsehoods in nonfiction. The problem of sexual assault is real, but nonetheless does not support Anonymous’s hateful and grotesque conclusions about men. I can’t believe other men—and women—are not commenting on this.

    In the roundtable, Anonymous says, “. . . save for the rapist’s persona (which is, as in all nonfiction, an invention), it’s all too true. All of it. The things nice male academics of a certain age say of their students. . . .”

    First of all, the rapist’s persona in this piece bears NO relationship to the use of persona in nonfiction: he is a fictional depiction, and as well a psychopath, a predator without empathy or remorse. He is a product of the author’s imagination, not an aspect of the author’s actual being, as in nonfiction. Moreover, he is apparently not based on the actual rapist, since he is unknown.

    Second, I challenge the accuracy, reality, and spirit of “The things nice male academics of a certain age say of their students.” This is at best a gross distortion based on something the author seems to have heard rumored about a couple of loathsome men. And as stated, it is a lie. It does not fit my behavior or my experience with other men (in academia and without, including on construction sites and farms) or my sense of human nature and reality. It makes the writer seem, herself, pathological in some concealed way. An honest essay would explore the author’s feelings about men more fully and openly; this is a beard for a veiled attack on men. There’s room for that, I guess—at least it would be honest.

  • Anonymous says:

    Perhaps I misunderstand your comment, Judith, but I believe that I have been quite clear about “why” I wrote this essay and in this fashion in the exchange above (see my answer to question #4): “In writing this essay, I aimed to do precisely two things: 1) ponder whether facts do matter in creative nonfiction by weighing the evidence at hand, and 2) more significantly, I wanted to give the reader a visceral experience of fiction passed off as fact–I wanted us to register the real horror of that. We talk a lot about this question as writers, readers, students, and professors, but it seems to me that the conversation has been largely theoretical. I wanted us to have a visceral experience, a bodily sense of the awfulness of a narrative (and a society) where the line between fact and fiction have become blurred, uncertain.”

    As to Richard’s comment about “loathsome men,” I don’t believe that these men are: the statements that I quote are striking precisely because they are not expressed by loathsome men but by generally pretty good guys. The stats referenced in the piece (on how many would rape if they could get away with it) are not mine, but the social scientist’s. The piece is not about rape though, as far as I’m concerned; that disturbing subject simply seems an apt metaphor for the trespass that occurs when a writer passes off fiction as fact. Both acts are, to my mind, shocking.

    • I heard of a study recently where something like half of respondents said they’d commit murder if they could get away with it. That may be an accurate reflection of the expressed sentiment of the respondents in one study, but I don’t believe they truly mean it any more than I believe the truth of the study you cite, apparently of eighteen-year-old boys raging with testosterone, that they’d rape if they could.

      Inasmuch as an actual (fictionalized) rapist is conflated in your essay with “pretty good guys” who say despicable things, it would be interesting to know the percentage of males who actually rape. Sexual assault is a huge problem, and even the most conservative figures indicate that far too many women are afflicted. But in my view that’s not because most men are predators or would-be predators but because each predator has many victims.

      The real news about men and women is how good we are. And how alike we are beneath huge societal and surface differences. Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet or, for that matter, Woolf’s powerful conclusion to A Room of One’s Own. I don’t think your essay is even half finished. But I also think we have a very different view of our species in general and of men in particular.

  • Bridgett JB says:

    It seems to me that there are two aspects of this piece that are perhaps at odds with one another. First, I’d have to say that the ends simply do not justify the means. If, in fact, the main premise of this piece is to “viscerally” affect the reader so that she realizes the gravity of fiction posing as fact, then I have to wonder if the essay works.

    I come to this piece on the author’s side. I am appalled by the idea of facts being beside the point in nonfiction. I am shocked already by the arguments put forth by D’Agata and others who believe that “facts” can be altered in service to a greater truth. I don’t have to be manipulated or “raped” by an essay in order to understand the gravity of the discussion at hand. And I would argue that rape is perhaps is not the right vehicle to illustrate to me or any other reader living in the 21st century how “violated” one feels after being the dupe of a deception. I come to this essay in full possession of that knowledge. I’m sure that anonymous would argue that I am not her only reader, and I’m sure this is the case, but I would also venture to guess that her intended audience–anyone who doesn’t believe truth matters in nonfiction–is not going to be convinced with an argument that uses the convention of lying to get to a greater truth.

    Secondly, I can’t help but believe that the anonymity does, in fact, matter. If as the author (can I write it here? like everyone else, I looked it up and found it quite easily on a search inside the book on Amazon. XXXXXXXX) explains, quibbling about the authorship is irrelevant to the essay at hand, why is it important for the author to remain anonymous in the postscript? What the anonymity does for me is add another layer, perhaps imagined on my part, to the deception. I am left wondering if the author is truly a woman or if that is another part of the ruse. In the end, I have learned nothing from the essay except to see it as a mean sort of puzzle.

    Finally, the amount of discussion this essay creates does not in itself mean that the essay works on any level. Only that it was provocative. And I’d offer that it’s not so hard to be provocative.

    • The editors have removed the name of the author from Bridgett JB’s comments above for the reasons you will see explained in the comments that follow. We did agree to keep the Anonymous author’s name out of this discussion, so we’ll stand by that, but as Bridgett points out, that information is available elsewhere for those whose curiosity cannot be contained.

  • Anonymous says:

    I agreed to take part in this discussion with the explicit understanding that my name would not be used here for the simple reason that while that information is available to anyone who wants to find it (in the anthology where this essay first appeared), the piece we are here to discuss is only effective if one does not know my identity initially (if there is, as Bridgett notes above, some doubt as to whether this “is truly a woman”).

    I am disappointed that Bridgett found it impossible to consider this formal question, insisting instead on making this a personal matter (about me or D’Agata or someone else). “The Facts of the Matter” is not a personal matter (it is reductive–even petty–to approach it as such): it’s a formal one that creative nonfiction writers must wrestle with now, as we are wrestling with similar confusion in our democracy.

    Since the conversation would appear to be over now, I must admit that I’m surprised at the degree of evident hostility expressed toward the essay in the discussion above–the accusations in regard to my motives, the demands that my identity be revealed, the insistence that the essay doesn’t “work” (when clearly it has had the effect I sought–to inspire conversation); I cannot help but wonder what is behind that anger? What nerve exactly has been struck by the piece? Why is there such a strong desire to make this “personal”? Not to consider this in terms of form? What is so frightening about considering “The Facts of the Matter” formally in regard to creative nonfiction? It’s a question worth pondering.

  • Bridgett J says:

    I wasn’t aware that there was an explicit understanding that the author remain anonymous in this conversation, so I apologize for that. I am genuinely reluctant (not hostile) to engage this essay (or any essay about fact in cnf) as a question only about form. I wrote the name above because it seemed silly to pretend and false to discuss the importance of fact in creative nonfiction using a construct dependent on several fictions. In no way, did I intend to halt the conversation.

  • Anonymous wrote:
    “I didn’t imagine that one would read the whole of it through, but I did hope that it would provoke thought and conversation among readers, whatever portions they read, and ideally inspire outrage about the blurring of fact and fiction in “creative nonfiction” when the reader is not clearly signalled.”
    Yet isn’t it only by one reading the whole of it through that the “real” purpose of this piece understood?
    I did read the whole of it through—and I urged others to do so before coming to some kind of conclusion about the piece. Even so, I was outraged NOT because of the lack of clear signals (I “read” the signals, from the label of “meta-nonfiction” on) but because of the smugness of the enterprise, because it seems to me to be “provocative” in the way that adolescents will repeat misogynist/racist rap lyrics to provoke a response then hide behind claims that they are “just quoting,” and now because Anonymous seems to be satisfied with the idea that readers would be able to understand the intention behind the whole even if they only read the portions that are supposedly the narrator’s story. One can’t have it both ways so I have to ask: behind which essay does Anonymous stand—the parts that are made up or the whole?

  • Ashli Williams says:

    There is a lot to say about this piece. I do believe that some people are making outlandish accusations of the author. I have spent the last week following this article – the post on TriQuarterly, the LA Times piece, the above round table discussion, and all of the above comments in their entirety. I feel like I could say so much but the things that I choose are:
    1.) The point is made viciously clear (and very well in places) and has certainly achieved Anonymous’ apparent goal of getting people angry and talking, though perhaps too much about her piece and not about her issue.
    2.) The author cannot keep comparing the violation or forced entry of imagination that happens when fictions are passed as facts to rape. She just has to stop doing that. Although I’d be interested to hear her justification of that comparison.
    3.) It was very good writing, in terms of inspiring reactions. Had the narrative been true, it was very powerful (I was literally up pacing around the room when “he” said “Does it matter that I’ve never told anyone this?”

  • No, I understand that you clearly did what you set out to do. But I also think that it was easy to ferret that out long before your admission just because the “essay” didn’t act like a real essay–and thus my further comments about why we choose the genre we choose. It didn’t have the “feel” of someone writing in order to discover or make sense of. If you had given your fictional essayist that impulse and indulged it, then I believe the whole enterprise would have been more effective. If the “character” had been wrestling with his former self, or had been musing on why he still felt no guilt, then he would have added a dimension to the self as it is being depicted and would have made the reader struggle with the issues just a bit more. As it is, “he” was easy to dislike. Of course that thrusts the reader into what you wanted us to consider about how fiction in nonfiction can be dangerous, etc. But don’t you really want us to consider how easily we can be duped–and thus why the writer has a clear responsibility?

    As for the larger argument, I’m completely on your side and have been vocal about how we must be careful with our facts in nonfiction for years. There’s a lot of room between Annie Dillard’s cat and Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Holocaust, but I don’t know how you draw the line on that spectrum unless you draw it at only using the facts you know, and speculating about the ones you don’t.

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree completely with Ashli that narrative betrayal is not equivalent to physical rape (to suggest same would be to trivialize the latter, which I do not intend); the two seem to me metaphoric kin, however, which is why I chose that subject for this piece. The trespass of each violation should, I maintain, shock us, deeply.

    I also agree with Judith Kitchen’s smart comments about the narrator, who may well not ring “true” here for precisely the reasons she lays out. The fact that many astute and thoughtful readers *have* found the narrator credible, however, suggests to me how much readers weigh in the balance the genre label when reading a piece, and thus the responsibility that we bear as writers when we take on the mantle of non-fiction.

    Most all of this essay is factual, I would note, but to invent portions without letting the reader know precisely which those are is, I think, disturbing–and dangerous–and downright sneaky. I admire deeply those artists of the facts who manage to richly employ invention and imagination without recourse to deception: Lee Martin says outright “I’m free to imagine the day any way I like…” before imagining a scene for which he wasn’t present; Michael Ondaatje gives us a relative’s drowning from her POV (a moment he could not possibly have experienced himself); JoAnn Beard and Maxine Hong Kingston use the omniscient POV, clearly signaling they’ve imagined their way into the moments they represent…

    We have many ways to artfully render fact without engaging in lies. To lie is simply easier–in art, as in politics–but ultimately lying undermines both democracy and literary non-fiction, so I strongly agree with all of you who are annoyed by such deception. And I’m grateful to Brevity and TriQuarterly and and all of you for taking time to so thoughtfully consider “The Facts of the Matter” and for so eloquently elaborating the trouble with this approach. Above all, thanks to Jill Talbot, whose anthology gave rise to this piece and raises many important questions about the marvelously vital form of CNF.

  • Ashli Williams says:

    So, I stepped away from this article/the community-wide dialogue around it for a few days, and my opinion has changed. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt – this article was so deeply offensive in certain ways, as so many have pointed out. There has been a lot of negative feedback, most of which is centered around the idea of the piece being offensive in some way. I began to kind of get on board with the people saying that the point was made well and creatively, but perhaps Anonymous could have worked with a different subject because using rape for “shock value” is hard for readers and offensive to most.

    However, after pulling away for a few days, I am re-aligning my thinking and coming around more to what I think Anonymous is saying when she defends her piece (relentlessly and tirelessly, which is admirable in an author). Maybe (and our author can step in here if she wishes and respond because I don’t want to put words in her mouth) the article was meant to be offensive. She has said in a few places which I have read that she wanted us to be deeply shocked. She wanted to inspire anger and dialogue. So, if you synthesize those things, maybe it is fair to say she wanted us to be offended by her article… to find it unfair and unnerving, to see it as a betrayal and to think that she has handled her subject (rape) in careless and inappropriate ways. Because although I doubt she would want us to believe her writing itself is careless (and I don’t think anyone would argue that, because I think we can all agree – no matter what our opinons – that the writer is careful and powerful, and the point it clearly made), maybe her point is to inspire in us the kind of outrage and offense that she thinks we should always feel when reading a narrative such as the one she has created – one that attempts to pass fictions as facts.

    Because it seems like we are all worked up because we disagree with what she did, but she WANTS us to disagree with what she did, so doesn’t that make it a successful piece?


  • Ashli Williams says:

    And to the author – should you still be willing to engage in response – if you would say that physical rape is not equivalent to narrative betrayal but that you used the two subjects because they should both shock us deeply, would you say that they should shock us on the same level, to the same extent, or is that not what you mean by being “metaphoric kin”?

    This may seem like an irrelevant or trivial thing to be stuck on, but as it is the foundation of the piece in a certain way, fully understanding the connection you made would help me be able to fully understand the piece.

  • Ofrah says:

    Almost from the beginning of the assay in debate, which I have read as a true confession at every turn of it to the arguments at the end against lying (!), I couldn`t forget how much I was offended as a young adolescent by the film masterpiece of Rashumon by Akira Kurosawa – not for the of frailty of truth that is supposedly the core-theme of the film – but for the obviousness of a truth, or the obvious fact of it: that there isn`t such a thing as rape. Just watch the rape scene in the film, when the woman is “compelled” to enjoy it! That film portrayed an old (Samurai) fiction all right, but also a horrifying (non-fictional) lie. I think the anonymous writer succeeded in portraying, illustrating the issue and I believe her, and I also think a fact is a fact, but somtimes it is something we have to agree about – and that is the problem.

    And, by the way: as an Israeli I recommend reading “Court cuts Arab-Israeli rape-by-deception sentence” at There are many-many ways to read those facts of the matter.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you, Ashli; I couldn’t have said it better myself: my aim was indeed to inspire outrage about deception in nonfiction, as it seems to me we ought to be (and clearly many are). And, no, I would not equate the horror of the rape with that of narrative betrayal, but I do think that both can have devastating consequences. If art is a culture’s compass, as I believe it is, losing our bearings in regard to the distinction between fact and fiction seems to me gravely consequential. Thank you for your insights.

  • […] week ago today, the often excellent online magazine Brevity commenced a “roundtable discussion” of “The Facts of the Matter.” Included […]

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks to brilliant Tarpaulin Sky Press for (her?) illuminating commentary–well worth following the link above. I would note that as far as I’m concerned, those who read the essay as being about men or sexual assault misread it (or misread my intention). My subject is the gravity of facts, and why they are far from irrelevant, despite the glib fashion for dismissing same–facts such as those quoted in the essay about on-going rapes in the Congo. Speaking of facts, for the record, the author of “The Facts of the Matter” has first-hand experience of rape. As do, alas, far too many. Just not the one narrated in the piece.

  • sonyahuber says:

    So the essay can be easily misread. It is interesting to note that an essay, once written, is usually “out there” in the world for readers to do with what they will. Not all readers will read you the way you want to be read. I have found reader response to be important–actually so important that it converges on blind spots I’m not yet willing to consider, blind spots that might not become clear until years later.

  • […] This is the second, and last, installment of our roundtable on the essay “The Facts of the Matter” by Anonymous and published in both TriQuarterly and  Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. The Anonymous author is joined by author/scholars Sonya Huber, Matt Ferrence, and Ned Stuckey-French.  (If you missed the first installment, or the essay in question, you can catch up here.) […]

  • […] the Brevity roundtable, Anonymous claims that “The essay is not alas ‘an abstract falsehood’; I would that it were […]

  • Jessica says:

    Interesting–I “knew” that Anonymous’ piece was a fiction “of sorts” by the tone and by the quality of the writing

    Think of Nabakov’s detached academic psychopaths who make beautiful the horrific

    Think of the way that Dostoevsky gets us to see Raskolnikov’s point of view: he “had” to kill all those people, we understand.

    Think of Poe’s protagonist in The Cask of Amontillado leading us deeper into the rational of a sadistic killer.

    The fact that Anonymous lets us know he is a she at the end is merely a convenience. Otherwise we’d need to have the real conversation of how much we were drawn into Anonymous’ argument.

  • […] week ago today, the often excellent online magazine Brevity commenced a “roundtable discussion” of “The Facts of the Matter.” Included […]

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You are currently reading As a Matter of Fact: A Roundtable Discussion about Anonymous’ “The Facts of the Matter” and Truth and Craft in Nonfiction at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


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