Truth or Art? “We Want Both!”

July 29, 2016 § 5 Comments


Ned Stuckey-French

We’ve struggled through the morning trying to come up with a concise summation of Ned Stuckey-French’s discussion of John D’Agata’s latest anthology, The Making of the American Essay, but the truth is that Stuckey-French’s analysis can’t be reduced to a few sentences. He challenges D’Agata’s ideas on the essay and on nonfiction generally, while at the same time giving D’Agata his due for being a provocative thinker and graceful writer. He focuses on the Graywolf anthology trilogy and D’Agata’s outlier theory, but at the same time provides a clear and succinct historical overview of the genre. And he does so with serious thought and consideration, and with wit.

Still and all, we have to give a taste, if only to convince you to click through and read this in its entirety. Here is Stuckey-French on D’Agata’s controversial assertion that facts can and should be be fudged in the literary essay:


The real bogeyman is facts (a.k.a. Truth, or Reality). Here D’Agata’s false either/or, in which facts are pitted against art, raises its ugly head again. “Facts for the sake of facts” is replaced by art for art’s sake. Why must we choose? Like Pooh, when Rabbit asked, “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” one wants to shout, “Both!”

The full review essay is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it is so worth the reading.

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§ 5 Responses to Truth or Art? “We Want Both!”

  • Best commentary on our genre I’ve read in quite a while. As you point out, even as he critiques, Ned Stuckey-French establishes a friendly, appreciative voice. Man, that guy is smart…

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you for the link. It is a fascinating essay on issues I have been following for some time.

  • Paul Morris says:

    Terrific essay and one that’s convinced me to remain skeptical of D’Agata’s ideas.

  • Robin says:

    Stuckey-French creates a straw man by claiming that D’Agata argues that art in the essay can’t exist without making stuff up. It’s just not what he says at all.

    To balance the coverage, here is Colin Dickey in the LA Times, which came out at the same time as Stuckey-French’s:

    I think Dickey, who compares D’Agata to Daniel Defoe and the invention of the novel, gets to the heart of John’s project by saying that in an age of informational overload, the essay is perhaps the ideal form for epistemological anxiety, that it can highlight, mimic, foreground the unstable relationships our culture can have with facts and truth, and this is why the essay is suddenly so relevant.

    There is room for a transcendent fact-checked essay in this world I think D’Agata would say, but also a book like ‘About a Mountain’, which is about false information (it is not a journalistic account of Yucca Mountain despite playing with and undercutting journalistic motifs) and turns on the revelation that something John thought was a fact was not a fact. Or what about John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay ‘Violence of the Lambs’ – which now this disclaimer on the GQ website:

    “Big parts of this piece I made up. I didn’t want to say that, but the editors are making me, because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories, and because they want to distance themselves from me. Fine.”

    There is room for more than the one kind of essay we’ve been writing for the last 60 or 70 years.

  • clpauwels says:

    Reblogged this on CL Pauwels at Large and commented:
    Because truth matters in both:

    “’Facts for the sake of facts’ is replaced by art for art’s sake. Why must we choose?”

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