On the Nonfictional Nature of Nonfiction: or Yet Another Blog Post Claiming D’Agata Gets it Wrong

May 18, 2016 § 15 Comments


By Sarah Einstein

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Sarah Einstein

The recent New Yorker article, “What Makes An Essay American” by Vinson Cunningham—in which he discusses, and generally dismisses, John D’Agata’s recent The Making of the American Essay, the final installment of D’Agata’s three part series A New History of the Essay from Greywolf—has my part of the Facebook world debating, again, the issue of veracity in genres which call themselves “nonfiction.” What follows is a statement about where I—as a writer of nonfiction who believes in the importance of work that is genuinely nonfictional—come down on the issue. I’m grateful to the others who participated in the Facebook conversation, perhaps most particularly those who vehemently disagree with me. Because that conversation wasn’t held in a public forum, I won’t cite those essayists here, but I do want to acknowledge my debt to them for their influence on the final shape of this consideration.

D’Agata’s project is, in no small part, to trouble the readers’ belief that if a work lays claim to the generic position of “nonfiction,” that means that they can assume that the author of that work is therefore only offering what she believes to be true.  In an interview at Essay Daily, he states, “I understand why a reader might get upset when a text that was sold to them as ‘nonfiction’ turns out to be partially not, because while there are lots of nonfiction writers who spend their energy insisting that a nonfiction text is defined by its verifiability, there are many other writers who disagree with that characterization. Unfortunately, those of us who disagree just don’t happen to Tweet or blog or want to wade into the fever swamps of the Internet. So I think the vast majority of readers just don’t know that the very idea of ‘nonfiction’ is itself contested within the nonfiction writing community.”

First, I’d like to quibble here and say that nobody has ever, in my vast reading on the subject, suggested that all work that claims the label of nonfiction needs to be verifiable There is quite a lot of good nonfiction that is, by the very nature of its subject matter, not verifiable. I think the bar is actually set far lower, and that for most readers and many writers of nonfictions, the understanding is that the author has told the truth to the best of her ability, and not written as true anything which she knows to be, or which is demonstrably, false. The pact that is made with the reader is not that the writer has always gotten things right, only that she has tried her best to get them right, and is offering up that best attempt.

51YZDu+W2SL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_But my real beef with D’Agata’s intellectual project isn’t that I think he overstates the level of veracity expected of nonfiction, but that he acknowledges the audience’s expectation of the genre and then make it his project to defeat it by fouling the waters with works that are not, by that definition, nonfictional. (Though less in these anthologies, where the provenance of the work itself allows the reader to judge whether or not the work is nonfictional, as in his own writing.) If he succeeds, we have lost the credulous reader, who is a necessary partner in the work of any writer who is making the sincere attempt to give as true an account as she can.  If the nonfictional nonfiction, and the nonfiction which is not nonfictional, can’t be differentiated, then there ceases to be any such thing as nonfiction as such. We’ve lost the value of artifact; everything must be treated as if it might be artifice.

There are also costs to writing which lays claim to the generic position of nonfiction but which in fact includes elements that the author knows to be wholly untrue, written for an audience that does not know to expect untruths and is offering the writer the gift of their credulity.

Of all the “false” memoirs ever written, Angel at the Fence–for me, and I’m only speaking here for myself–is perhaps the most understandable and forgivable. A man who (verifiably) survived a childhood in a concentration camp wrote about the experience to get himself out of serious financial trouble after he and his family were victims of an armed robbery that left his son disabled and his family in significant debt. He didn’t fabricate the awful bits, but he included a fictional love story in order to, yes, make the work more attractive to publishers, but also, according to him, to interject some joy into something that is otherwise unremittingly grim. I get it, Rosenblat. I, too, wish there had been an angel at your fence. But my research at the moment is taking me into the very dark places on the internet where the neo-Nazis dwell, and there, Angel at the Fence and the many other false holocaust memoirs are frequent fodder for Holocaust deniers. They aren’t discussing the tension between art and veracity. I’m pretty sure that most of them aren’t aware of the conversations happening at places like Essay Daily and The New Yorker. They’re just calling Rosenblat a lying word-I-will-not-type-here, and holding up the demonstrably false account–which he offered as a true on–as evidence that Shoah never happened. (And here I want to take a moment to apologize, because I realize I’m skating dangerously close to Godwin’s Law. My goal here is not to invoke Shoah in all its terrible majesty. It is just what I have on hand this morning to illustrate the point.)

Even if we accept as legitimate D’Agata’s project to train readers not to expect nonfiction to be genuinely nonfictional, I think we have to think about what happens while the audience is learning along with the art-makers not to read nonfiction with an expectation of veracity, whether or not the audience has agreed to do the work of that learning, and what possibilities might be lost if the writer can never lay claim to speaking as truthfully as she is able. Sometimes, art is about itself. Certainly, the essay or memoir that plays with truth in order to explore how the essay or memoir functions is about itself as much as it is about its subject matter. But not all art is about the creation of art. Sometimes art is about exploring social concerns, recovering histories, elevating perspectives not well represented in majority conversations, etc. And sometimes, those explorations require the artist to ask of those who receive her art to accept that that art is made only out of artifact, not artifice.

3What change would be rendered, for instance, to the art project of “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” if it turned out that the suitcases were sculptures created by the artists out of what they imagined they would find instead of being what they actually found? All I’m asking is that we not tell the reader she can never expect that work which claims to be made of artifact is ever actually made of artifact; that we don’t tell her she must always assume sculpture and never see suitcases. Because I think it matters which the audience encounters, even as they know that the experience of the art made out of the suitcases is a mediated experience different from encountering the suitcases themselves in that attic.

__

Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity and the prose editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection. 

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§ 15 Responses to On the Nonfictional Nature of Nonfiction: or Yet Another Blog Post Claiming D’Agata Gets it Wrong

  • selgin says:

    Can’t agree more, Sarah. As D’Agata rightly asserts, a “nonfiction text” need not be “defined by its verifiability ” (the very ugliness of the word makes me hostile to its meanings). But he avoids, as ever he must, matters of intent and disclosure. I used to think that an “unreliable nonfiction narrator” was a contradiction in terms. I no longer think so. On the other hand, whether narrating fiction or nonfiction, an accidental, incidental, or capriciously unreliable narrator IS a contradiction in terms. In fiction, the only excuse I can think of for an unreliable narrator is an unreliable narrative: a narrative willfully constructed so as to be read between the lines. Otherwise, we have not an unreliable narrator, but a deceitful one. When that which is narrated purports to be nonfiction, the deceit is compounded by an order of magnitude. Some readers may find pleasure in such deception, just as some people enjoy having hot wax dripped on their nipples. But even those readers deserve to know what they’ve gotten themselves into. Otherwise the proper term for the result isn’t “unreliable nonfiction narrative,” it’s “reader abuse.”

    • Why isn’t anyone asking the question, Why does D’Agata feel so passionate about redefining nonfiction or at the least substantiating his position? Why is he so afraid to just call his work fiction? My answer is that if he called what he did fiction, which it is, he’d have no career.

  • Excellent essay! I have been engaged with other nonfiction writers in the discussion of the “non” in nonfiction for years. I believe that a nonfiction writer has a covenant with his or her reader: what I’m telling you is nonfiction. A subset of that is the writer of memoir, who is telling her readers something slightly different: what I’m telling you is nonfiction, to the best of my recollection.

    I’m writing a series of essays about growin up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts — home of Norman Rockwell, Tanglewood, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, etc., etc., etc. In one scene, I wanted to name the type of television we had in our family room. I called my older brother and asked if he remembered. He asked if I had called our sister, who didn’t remember, either. “There you have it,” he said. “Bonnie doesn’t remember; Mom and Dad are dead; and I don’t care. Make it whatever brand you want.”

    In my writing classes, I make the distinction between “fact” and “truth.” I use the classroom temperature as an example. The fact might be that the temperature in the room is 68 degrees. *My* truth, because I’m up moving around and talking, is that I’m hot. Someone else’s truth might be that she’s cold. Neither truth is wrong; neither one affects the fact of the ambient temperature.

    What I really object to is people who know they are taking facts and changing them. One example that comes to mind is the tom cat in Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” The piece contains beautiful writing, but under false pretenses. The story belonged to someone else, and she chose to write about it as if it were hers. I don’t read Dillard anymore because I don’t know if I can trust her.

    Years ago, I was at a poetry reading where the poet read a heart-rending story about driving off a snowy curve and crashing through the guardrail, killing his child. As the audience sobbed and sniffed, he continued his poem, saying that actually that had never happened. I felt as if my emotions had been hijacked for the sake of a poem.

    If you’re going to change the facts for the sake of a sale, call it fiction.

    • Paul Morris says:

      Not sure I hold poetry to the same standard of nonfiction. Poetry often uses created situations.

      • True, but he had presented it as an autobiographical poem. I couldn’t even “forgive” him under the idea of its being memoir, unless he thought he had killed his child and remembered it that way. He clearly did not.

    • I’m in complete agreement with you about the covenant. And also this notion of blatantly changing facts is unconscionable. And then to call it nonfiction. D’Agata has that book “Fact…” and it’s just preposterous the conversations he has with the fact checker. The editor tolerated it because D’Agata is related to the Kardashians. (That’s a lie but I’m twisting the facts a little.)

  • Paul Morris says:

    “(A) I understand why a reader might get upset when a text that was sold to them as ‘nonfiction’ turns out to be partially not, (B) because while there are lots of nonfiction writers who spend their energy insisting that a nonfiction text is defined by its verifiability, (C) there are many other writers who disagree with that characterization. (D) Unfortunately, those of us who disagree just don’t happen to Tweet or blog or want to wade into the fever swamps of the Internet. (E) So I think the vast majority of readers just don’t know that the very idea of ‘nonfiction’ is itself contested within the nonfiction writing community.”

    Seems like bad logic in this paragraph.

  • […] via On the Nonfictional Nature of Nonfiction: or Yet Another Blog Post Claiming D’Agata Gets it Wrong… […]

  • George says:

    The expression “nonfiction” may make up part of the problem, as if we were to try to use “non-American” as a category of geography. Do we mean memoir, history, social history, science, philosophy, or one or many of the other categories the library shelves as nonfiction? Memoir seems to be in question, though made-up science is in the news pretty regularly, and made-up history now and then.

    Of course one brings different expectations to memoirs than to novels, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous; if sophisticated then sophisticated in the bad old sense. The only novelty in the argument is that some authors defend the practice less apologetically. Half a century ago and more one heard these arguments about Ford Maddox Ford. Those who argued that the invented elements diminished or ruined his essays seem to me to have the right of it.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Lie: An untruth told with the intent to deceive. I can be mistaken without lying. I can create fiction without lying. Deliberately telling a plausible untruth as truth is a lie. Nonfiction does not lie. “The pact that is made with the reader is not that the writer has always gotten things right, only that she has tried her best to get them right, and is offering up that best attempt.”

  • debhagan says:

    Bravo! I was thinking along the same lines when I read this article in the New Yorker, but articulate the problems so well.

  • D’Agata’s reputation has turned to garbage and the only thing to save him would be to start calling himself a fiction writer. He is desperately trying to substantiate lying in nonfiction when that has a name, it’s called fiction. He seems to want to be a fiction writer but call himself a nonfiction writer.

    Look! This whole nonfiction memoir era is going down the tubes and has been for ten years now. Every writer like D’Agata and the Million Little Pieces scrub have destroyed it and years from now D’Agata will be remembered as a bad idea–a party that went too long.

    On top of all this, none of these bozos are even referencing the real nonfiction journalists–like Thompson, Mailer, Capote–who opened the door for these flouters. The New Journalists told verifiable truths but made into fictionlike novels. But it was verifiable. It was damn good journalism and that’s why they called it nonfiction. Even when Thompson was off his rocker he didn’t lie about facts. I can’t believe a guy like D’Agata is not even cognizant of what a fool he sounds like. Sure, he’s selling books and is popular, but so is cheese whiz, bubble-gum, Kardashians–well, you get the picture.

  • Practically speaking, if a writer claims that a written product is non-fiction, then I expect the events and experiences described to be corroberatable by other people or sequence of events.

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