Ander Monson on Truth and Suspension

March 21, 2012 § 4 Comments

Ander Monson, essayist, diagrammatic virtuoso, bearded-one, weighs in on the fact-shifting debate with his customary fresh take and refusal to settle on a binary (true/not true) approach.  Well worth the read both for Monson’s views on D’Agata”s choices and possible motives, but also for Monson’s overall discussion of the essay form. Here’s an excerpt, followed by the link:

In an interview, David Foster Wallace makes the argument that “[t]he reader’s pre-suspension of disbelief gives nonfiction a particular kind of power, but it also seems to encumber the nonfiction with a kind of moral obligation fiction doesn’t have.” To me that’s part of the trouble: it seems to me that as readers we do, contra DFW, still get/have to choose to suspend our disbelief in nonfiction — these days at least; or any days, really. Art requires that suspension. That’s the thrill of it. In fact, that’s what we desire most deeply as readers, offering ourselves up, our brains up, as willing vessels for the (simulated) mind (in the case of the essay — which is the closest we can currently get to a simulated brain) of the writer, because we want to be possessed. We need it. Not completely, of course, particularly in texts that aspire to art — we want to do some work as readers, too. We’re not dumb. We tell ourselves we’re not dumb.

But that’s what makes us angry when we hear about confabulation in works of apparent nonfiction, even as the deep satisfaction we may take in the artifice of the book (until it is exposed) moves us greatly. It’s as if we are angry in proportion to how deeply we allowed ourselves to be possessed by a book or an essay. We are angry at ourselves, and we project this onto the author.

Maybe instead of ceding to the anger, let’s try not to be so utterly credulous and admit that there’s some space between these two positions — true believer and total skeptic — that we’ve been offered.

Monson’s Full Essay Can Be Read Here

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. 

¤

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.

AWP 2012 — Dear John, I’m Afraid it is Over …

March 8, 2012 § 50 Comments

Dear John,

I’m afraid it’s over between us.

You know how important you’ve been to me. I’ve adopted The Next American Essay for classes. I reviewed The Lost Origins of the Essay and sang its praises. Carl Klaus and I have included your 2003 headnote about lyric essays, the one that introduced Jenny Boully to the world, in our new anthology, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. I admire you, John, but admiration isn’t enough, and now you’ve even undercut some of that admiration. It’s over, John.

But, nevertheless, we should talk. I owe it to you to tell you what I really think.

What I think, John, is that you’ve fallen between two stools.  You have, but the essay hasn’t. Let me explain. When Karen Rosica called you a “journalist poet,” indeed a “passionate journalist poet,” you should have just gone with it. You should have thank her and moved on. I know the word “journalist” bugs you. Don’t let it. That’s the way it is with our genre – by which I mean, the essay, not the lyric essay, but of that, more in a minute. The essay has always been about facts and literature, about memory and imagination, about journalism and literature, about plain old truth (aka accuracy) and Truth with a capital T. But when she said “journalist poet,” you apparently got your dander up. The adjective and the noun seem like they’re in contradiction. So what? Contradict yourself, be large, contain multitudes.

Instead, you’ve turned it into a false either/or, John – Fish Wrap journalism versus Pure Poetry. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I think you know it. That’s why you went looking for an adjective yourself. How about ‘lyric essay’?” you said. And you were right and I like that about you, John. I really do. You and Deborah were out ahead of us all, giving a name to those beautiful essays that weren’t afraid to be beautiful, essays we were already reading and teaching – “Living Like Weasels,” “The White Album,” “Delft” – but not yet calling lyric. And then you went further/ You went looking for new ones and found them – “The Body” and “Ticket to the Fair.” Thank you for that. You gave those essays a name, you collected them in one place, you re-imagined anthologies, making them almost essays themselves by writing your headnotes as one long narrative essay (yeah, a little self-satisfied sometimes and show-offy, but hey, that’s you, John, and that’s okay – the book worked, it really did).

You kept going and I was still with you when The Lost Origins of the Essay came out. Sometimes, it did feel like you were pushing too far, but hey, that’s what you do and we’ve all got to do. I understand. You’re shaking things up. And even then, some of it made perfect sense, right from the start. When you put it in this new context, “On Some Verses of Virgil” was immediately transformed into a lyric essay for me. Of course, I thought – it’s not about Virgil and hexameters, it never was – it’s about sex and lyrical digressions. I even liked, as a kind of thought experiment, the idea of reading “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as a lyric essays, though I finally decided that the one is a prose poem and the other is a short story.

I have to say, John, you’re an 8-hour day. You’re learned and heavy. You really are. It’s a lot of what drew me to you originally – all that learning, all that classical learning. I mean you translated your own Latin and Greek in The Lost Origins of the Essay. The trip back to Mesopotamia and Heraclitus, the willingness to range across Europe and Asia in search of lyric essays was …well…a trip. Mind-boggling really. Thank you. The book Carl Klaus and I edited is the better for it. You got us searching outside the Anglo-American tradition, and that improved our book, for we found new essays about the essay – lots of them – by Latin Americans, French Canadians, Germans, even an Australian. I don’t think we’d have done that if you hadn’t gone there first.

I understand why you went in search of an adjective to put in front of “essay.” People have looked for adjectives for centuries. Before we had lyric essays, we had periodical essays, formal essays, informal essays, review essays, romantic essays, and, of course, personal essays. And, with your classical background, I know that you know that what that word “lyric” can bring is its classical Greek connotations – a solitary song, not a chorus, sung by a single musing singer to the accompaniment of a lyre (pronounced liar).

Well, we’ve ditched the lyre, but I know what you’re going for with the term – the poetic, the densely figurative, the brief exploration of a mood or idea, and yes, a little looser connection to facts. It’s reaction maybe to that ugly, ugly term “creative nonfiction.” Or as Scott Sanders so nicely put it, creative nonfiction is “an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat.”

So yeah, I understand, John. “Nonfiction” as a term sucks and you’ve got to dress it up with an adjective, but “creative” isn’t much help. Creative as opposed to what? Destructive? And if “essay” as a term is pulled toward nonfiction and journalism, I can understand wanting to dress up “essay” with an adjective. But, you’ve got to be careful, John. In your hurry to get away from journalism and to get some of the cachet of poetry, you can go too far.

I like lyric essays but I don’t think there is such a thing as pure poetry, at least not on this earth. Which is not to say pure poetry is not a worthy goal. It’s a fine, but tricky, goal. Seeking after pure poetry can lead one to beautiful flights of language and high lyricism, indeed some of the best essays we have, but it can also lead to disengagement, solipsism and art-for-art’s-sake. I think investigative reporting, the slick paper of commercialism, the hurry-up of deadlines, and the political engagement of journalism can be good things for an essay, even a lyric essay.

Look at your own anthologies, John. Take John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” which is the first essay in The Next American Essay. I’m glad it’s there in your anthology, but as Lynn Bloom has pointed out, “All anthologies…deracinate their material—old or new—from its original context and replant it in the anthologist’s soil.”  McPhee’s essay appeared originally in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker (though you messed up, John, and said 1975 – probably could have used a good copy editor or fact-checker). I love McPhee’s essay – its braided narratives, its history of the Gilded Age, its ongoing Monopoly game, and its walking tour of Atlantic City in 1972 when racial strife, economic decay, and rampant drug use have made it a bombed out shell of its former self. But, the essay is also a comment on The New Yorker, the magazine that is its and McPhee’s home.  The essay’s irony, indeed its lyricism, rings with a new sound when you read it next to the ads for Sony, Estée Lauder, Lord & Taylor, and L. L. Bean that surrounded it when it was in The New Yorker.

Or look at another one of your selections, another one of your lyric essays: Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” her famous disjunctive and helter-skelter good-bye to Sixties. Three sections of this essay appeared originally as installments of her “Points West” column in The Saturday Evening Post.  The Saturday Evening Post, John! The Saturday Evening Fucking Post! Norman Rockwell’s magazine. Didion discussed the context of these pieces in Paris Review interview, in which she recalled how she and her husband John Gregory Dunne moved to California in June of 1964. “I started doing pieces for The Saturday Evening Post,” she said. “We needed the money because neither one of us was working.” The Post, she explained, was “on the verge of folding” and so “would let you do whatever you wanted.” What had once been the magazine of Norman Rockwell, now was trying unsuccessfully to rebrand itself as some weird combination of Esquire and Cosmopolitan. The section of “The White Album” on Huey Newton and the Black Panthers appeared in an issue the cover of which promised to explain “How Barney Rosset Publishes ‘Dirty Books’ for Fun & Profit.” The section about Jim Morrison and The Doors was illustrated with a photograph of Lizard King without a shirt and had a cover that featured a teaser in which Vanessa Redgrave announced, “I’ve Always Known I Was Sexy.”

Even lyric essays, even your lyric essays, were published first in general magazines, middlebrow magazines, political magazines, women’s magazines, and even, heaven forbid, commercial or mass-market magazines. Writing to make a point or a buck certainly has its dangers, but it does not necessarily preclude one from writing lyrically or creating something of lasting literary merit.

John, you’ve ignored where at least some of your lyric essays came from and you’ve begun to draw too sharp a distinction between journalism and the lyric essay. And, as a consequence, you’ve ended up arguing too strenuously against facts and prose and journalism and mass culture and commerce. On the first page of The Next American Essay, you announced, “I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not with facts for the sake of facts.” And in the opening of The Lost Origins of the Essay, you wrote, “I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.”

Well, all and good, John, but you’ve gotten carried away, and I’m starting to distrust your motives. Don’t write essays just so you can be a poet, John. Don’t write essays just so you can wear a beret. Maybe it’s time for you to come home to America, maybe it’s time for you to stop being quite so high faltutin’. I worry that you’ve gone so Continental, so post-modern, so highbrow, so, dare I say, lyrical because you’re running away from journalism.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not running to journalism and mass culture exactly, just not away from it. And neither am I arguing that Hollywood, television, slick magazines, and the lure of big book deals have not been treacherous in their own ways. Nor am I arguing that little magazines and alternative presses do not play a role, an important role, in the struggle against monopoly capitalism and for art. What I am arguing is that this is the way it is. We live in a world in which commerce touches everything and art is never pure. All of these things – slick magazines and little magazines, blogs and books, high culture and mass culture – make up the terrain in which art is made and read. I am arguing that we must proceed on all fronts and that there is also a role to be played by those who publish in mainstream magazines and get paid in cash rather than copies.

There’s an American essayist on the essay I think you should read – Berton Braley. He’s a funny guy who wrote a piece, called “On Being an Essayist” for The Bookman back in 1920. In it he said that the “elect” had become too protective of the essay, and literature more generally. The essay, he said, was possessed of a “Little Lord Fauntleroy complex.” It was too intent on being literary and had become “a precious, precious thing.” The essay needed, said Braley, to romp around again and get “all mussed up with the butcher’s boy and the rest of the crowd in Dugan’s back lot,” it needed “to play with the rough common boys of Popularity and Commercialism.”

I know you’d like to do that too, John, and that a respect for, or at least attraction to, journalism is some of why you wrote About a Mountain and let Norton bill it as “an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas,” a “[b]earing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story.” “Facts,” John? “Facts”? I’m for facts. You’re not for facts. I understand there’s a gray area. I understand memory must be supplemented by imagination. I understand we need, sometimes, to compress time and accelerate a narrative. I understand that the stage can get too crowded and we might need to delete a character or fold some others into a composite character. I’m not a dodo, and I love the idea at least of writing a book about the gamble that is Yucca Mountain and the pit of poison that is Las Vegas, about your mother’s life and Levi Presley’s death, but geesh, changing the timing of that poor dead boy’s death. Necessary? I don’t think so.

John, I don’t think I’ve changed. I think you’ve changed. I still love lyric essays. But I don’t love you anymore. I do hope we can still be friends.

Sincerely,

Ned

Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of the just-released Essayists on the Essay. The two previous sentences are true, but he does not always tell the truth.

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

February 27, 2012 § 169 Comments

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

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

So what John D’Agata has done in About a Mountain, and how he frames his approach in The Lifespan of a Fact, has unsettled me for some time.  To say “No, no, you can’t do that in nonfiction, even nonfiction that is art,” makes me feel wholly uneasy, too much like the fellow who encounters Marcel Duchamp at the Armory Show and complains that he has broken all of the rules.

That’s not a comfortable place for me.

But I still object to D’Agata’s stance, and so – without snark or outrage – I’m going to try here to nail down exactly why.

To begin, I wish there was another name, another genre, one that didn’t include the word nonfiction or essay in it, where John D’Agata could experiment all that he wishes.  But we have a labeling problem.

It is all well and good for D’Agata to insist that he is not writing nonfiction as the rest of us see it, that the reader should know that and understand upfront that they have entered fact-shifting territory, but consider:

  1. D’Agata teaches in the Nonfiction Writing program at Iowa, a visible, important program.  That doesn’t mean he can’t write something other than nonfiction, of course, but clearly, absent any other signal, people are going to think, okay, this fellow writes nonfiction.
  2. His publisher, W. W. Norton, presents About a Mountain, with language such as this: “… an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas … Bearing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story, D’Agata keeps the six tenets of reporting in mind-Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How-arranging his own investigation around each vital question.” Where in that description are we cued into the fact-shifting experiment?
  3. The book, for the most part, reads like a work of literary memoir/journalism, situating us early on in D’Agata’s childhood and filling us right away with numbers and facts about location and population. It does not resemble the sort of lyric essay D’Agata championed at The Seneca Review, and does not – to my reading — signal genre hybridity.

Why is this a problem?  What concerns me is not that D’Agata has done this – he can write what he writes as he wishes – but that he has gone so public, so big, so “in your face” and aggressive about his lofty goals to create a new art space.  The rest of us are somehow stupid for not understanding his project, he seems to suggest, especially in his dialogue with the fact-checker.

D’Agata has to know that this plays conveniently into the hands of so many who would diminish our field:

—  those on the political right who criticize journalists for “just making everything up,” as if those women never did accuse Herman Cain, or as if the President’s birth certificate had not been verified over and over.

— Those who want to discount the entire memoir category as baloney because memory is not a perfect tool.  Many, many beautiful books have been denigrated in this skirmish.

— Those – and yes, this is an inside-academe concern, but it is real – who want to suggest that nonfiction is not art or literature, not a valid area of study.  Even at Iowa, nonfiction is segregated from the vaunted Writers’ Workshop and housed in a separate department. Creative nonfiction is still a new field, and it has not been wholly embraced or accepted.

Why gives these folks such an easy target, so much new ammunition?

This will all blow over eventually, I imagine, and the discussion itself is a good one to have every now and then, but my opinion – and this is just my opinion – is that John D’Agata is trying to have it both ways: he is a prominent educator in an important Nonfiction Program, he publishes books in the nonfiction category, he writes in a voice and style, in About a Mountain at least, that reads like literary journalism, and then when called on for his changing of facts, large and small, he throws up his hands and seems to say, ”What’s wrong with you, why can’t you see that I am not writing that kind of nonfiction?”

A simple disclaimer, hard to miss, at the front of the book, would have solved everything.

But John D’Agata knows that.

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

Do I want a world where genre distinctions, the place of the essay in the nonfiction spectrum, and the role of artistry in nonfiction writing can be debated?  Yes, I most certainly do.

But I am distressed by how John D’Agata is raising the question, by his seeming disrespect for the rest of us, his dismissal of legitimate concerns and questions, by the fact that even his discussion with the fact-checker turns out later to have been fabricated, and by his idea that art has to “trick” us.

Will the world of nonfiction writing and those of us who value it survive this brouhaha?  Of course.  But I reserve the right to complain, and to call something a self-promotional manipulation, when I see it that way.

The Fifth Genre

February 24, 2012 § 29 Comments

No one ever said John D’Agata wasn’t an interesting guy, just that his claim that he doesn’t write nonfiction but works in some fifth genre, the essay, confuses many of us — in the writing, editing, teaching world — who have always counted the essay as nonfiction.  Turns out even his latest book, Lifespan of a Fact, is only marginally true …

” … we both knowingly amped up the hostility of our comments.  I think of the form of the exchange between Jim and me as an exaggerated farce.  At its core is a real argument, a debate that we really had and that continued throughout our real-life fact-checking process.  But at some point during that process we also decided to do a book about the process … and turned the volume up on how we discussed these issues.  …. we knew that most readers would probably not be fascinated by two dudes having a sober discussion about the very nerdy issue of veracity in nonfiction.”

These nuggets come from a very interesting interview over at The Kenyon Review blog.  Here’s D’Agata on where he fits in the nonfiction spectrum (in which he contradicts himself, perhaps, on his previous claim that he does not consider himself a nonfiction writer):

“There is absolutely no difference between McPhee and me—other than that McPhee is about ten thousand times more talented than I!  The other difference of course is that McPhee has chosen one set of artistic restraints and I’ve chosen another. “

On teaching his views on fidelity to fact to Iowa MFA students:

“… by no means do all of my students agree with my rather lefty approach to the issue.  In any given year, we have students in our program who identify themselves as literary journalists, memoirists, lyric essayists, and everything else in between.  And none of them has a predictable opinion about facts in ‘nonfiction.’  However, no matter where these students fall on the “veracity” spectrum, I can guarantee that every single one of them identifies him or herself as an artist, first and foremost.  …  Actually, I take that back.  I do have one student currently who is genuinely struggling with the term “artist.” He doesn’t like it. And he’s also kind of unhappy in the program, unfortunately, because I think he feels out of place and misunderstood.  So I just lied.  I apologize.”

John D’Agata makes some good points, of course, but still leaves us scratching our heads.  John, can we just settle this and just call what you do the “fessay” or the “essaction”?

The World Is Not Tidy: Liz Stephens on the D’Agata Dust-Up

February 16, 2012 § 12 Comments

Former Brevity Managing Editor Liz Stephens weighs in with her thoughts on fact and nonfiction:

I am a person who would not cheat at solitaire if it were the Apocalypse. Even as the light lowered, I would either see the win coming or just have to take the lesson in the loss at light speed. To cheat, even if I were the last person in the world, would be – who cares? Shuffling the cards after the tidy inevitable ending, I would feel as if I cheated myself. We all know anybody can win, by pretending the eight is a seven.

I’m not saying I’m holier than anybody. But I like a challenge.

Now, to play solitaire at the same time as I played canasta, with a side game of Mexican Train, and to make up a set of rules I’d laid for myself in joining the three of them together – this game I could play. Even if it was a new game, and I alone held the cards and dominoes and the key to the pattern of winning.

So which of these is John D’Agata doing?

In a recent dust-up over fact checking, John D’Agata’s response to being confronted with his own potential misuse of facts in About a Mountain, he released a whole text of the debate he and the fact checker had over the information as its own book, The Lifespan of a Fact. I love this in-your-face rebuttal, for the same reasons I love nonfiction itself. Transparency, full-on fact-grappling truth, is fascinating, and challenging by its very nature, untidy and discomfiting; social media, the malleability of screen saves of text, twitters from the front, all thrill me in their ubiquity of personal expression, their squirrelly irrepressible human warmth, and possibilities of the possibility of even more challenging conversations. As such, I adore the meta-ness of the very premise of The Lifespan of a Fact. I love, and am induced to consider from all angles, the title itself. I even think the cover is cool, very cool. But D’Agata, no matter how eloquent the rebuttal, could be perceived as on the defensive here.

I believe that D’Agata is articulate, and interesting. His comments on his work, if not his more journalistic work itself, have made me think about the facts in nonfiction in yet another new way. Listening to him riff on nonfiction is to hear or read the kinetic thinking of a well-educated zealot, the kind of energy newly religious people bring to the table; I think when he is in that mode, his out-of-the-box thinking serves him, and us, well. But his narrative nonfiction itself has lost my trust. In all the ways in which D’Agata’s theories of nonfiction are illuminated by being read in conjunction with examples by other writers, his own narrative nonfiction, in this category of truthiness, suffers at the comparison. By way of just two examples, I look here at David Shields’s Reality Hunger, and Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life.”

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, as many of you know, is a massive work of collage, a repurposing of the works of others into a new monstrous Frankenstein of meaning. In Reality Hunger, we saw truth strong-armed, manipulated top to bottom for the (new) author’s intention, and yet, even still, every word was true. We were forced to think about truth in its meta-narrative sense; we were pushed straight out of the narrative itself by it’s shape, and its opacity of intention. We are generally forced to read the work for its effect on us, and for its future purpose, to make us think. We are occasionally lulled by it into experiencing it as a present reading, but never do we forget it is constructed. And regardless of how any of the words were used in this massive work of collage, it was all true. Because if any word in it were found to be untrue, it’s postmodern shape has already given us the wink on that. We have already signed on for that possibility. This way, if the pieces have a narrative frisson, so be it; if they resist meaning next to each other, that’s true too. This work of making meaning from true things becomes, accrues, into Shields’ whole point.

Conversely, Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life,” is a more linear, traditionally shaped narrative than Shields’. Here, every bit is true as well, and it certainly fulfilled D’Agata’s expressed mission statement of making a reader uncomfortable, and furthermore, in a more experimental way that’s relevant here, we were in some ways led to be confused by the story’s intention, just as D’Agata has implied serves as a higher purpose in art.  Its higher purpose is muddied by sleeping around, lying, and full-out bitterness, in all their sleazy detail (If you haven’t read it, know that Strayed is meaner to herself with the details than anyone else would have been to her.). I thought about that essay for weeks, because when I closed the page where I’d read it, all I was left with as a reader was an overwhelming sense of love and loss. It was like an optical illusion, where you stare at the picture and see vases and you look away from the picture and see men’s profiles…remember this one? I felt more open, as D’Agata mandates of ideal nonfiction, “to possibilities in the world we hadn’t earlier considered.” And yet it was all true, every word, and every word’s order, and every word’s use, and context. The trick is not in the information; it is in what the recounting of her past makes us feel, on both a conscious level and an unconscious one, and the baggage we bring to the room ourselves, our inherited sense of loss, of mother’s love, of partner’s faith. The piece uses us against ourselves, and in league with the author. It is in essence a very high level sleight of hand, one which brings us to the edge of sympathy, but blindfolded.

And as to D’Agata’s assertion that “it’s art’s job to trick us,” a broad assertion about which a whole other dissertation could be wrought, think please of Anne Carson’s “Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni.  This is a work in which one moves through the piece believing it is true, having been habituated to the form of essay now as an audience, and primed in fact by her actually calling it essay – outright lying, really – until the piece falls in on itself with little tremors of dissonance (really, you think as you read, the man did that?) until it utterly exploded into a circus of unreality. That’s a trick. That’s a trick that teaches me something about the way I read reality, not to mention the ways I physically read journals, books, and material objects by their labels and form and directed by my expectations.

D’Agata’s explanation of his own tricks, in comparison, one town for another, one night for another most crucial, most memorable night of another family’s history, reads rather like a smart boy caught out. Why? Because anyone can pretend the eight card is a seven card. That’s easy. And while I often love the charisma of cheaters, after a while I don’t play with them anymore. Their stakes are simply not high enough.

I tell my students, when they are tempted to do this sort of thing, that I am so much more interested in their desire for the information to line up differently, than I am in making those facts line up. I am so interested in their wish that the world be tidy, or even that information be purely informational. Beyond that, I want to know more about what bedtime story, what ingrained narrative, makes them believe that humans believe in “story” playing out a certain way.

In truth, memory’s great betrayal, that it will not lie intact in wait for us, is lament enough to revisit in every generation. This is what I go to nonfiction for, the way we pick at the scab, poke our finger in the wound of memory’s fickle and existential transience, and the inconvenience of our desire to make things whole and right. I am not so interested in the prettiness of the red/black/red/black of solitaire as I am at the process of trying to marshall the cards against the odds into shape, the rush of happening to hold the cards the one time the percentages, with my full attention, can be made to go my way. If there were no odds, I would not care, or try.

D’Agata Redux: New Ways of Understanding

February 15, 2012 § 10 Comments

Nuria Sheehan on Hamline University’s Grout blog weighs in on the D’Agata discussion, seeing some merit in both sides of the argument:

Reading the correspondence between D’Agata and Fingal I feel as if I should be disturbed over D’Agata’s flexible approach to facts. That his choices, while not as extreme as Fray or Mortenson, are still motivated by the same urge — to willfully change actuality in order to fit the writer’s idea of what the narrative could be.

And I find myself agreeing with many of the comments on Brevity criticizing D’Agata. As Judith Kitchen eloquently comments, “I prefer to think we are humbled by the real world, and what really happens.” And Laura Miller’s comment that “he’s actually taking reality and reducing it to something simpler and more in line with conventional views of the world” gets exactly to this point that I’m struggling with.

However, unlike Miller, in D’Agata’s writing, particularly in About a Mountain, I see a more unconventional view of the world than in nearly any other book I’ve read in the last few years. (And I should make a note here that I’ve moved from discussing the essay that was the germ ofAbout a Mountain, to just looking at the book. I should also note that in the book D’Agata includes a notes sections at the end that documents the facts that he changed.)

In the book, D’Agata reveals not only unexpected and unconventional narratives, but forges and entirely new way of looking at environmental, or any other kind, of catastrophe. With the lyric prose and tireless listing, he actually makes me feel, truly feel the impact of Yucca Mountain. This nearly physical understanding was far more meaningful than hundreds of news articles on the subject could ever come close to achieving. And right now, this seems to be the critical work of creative nonfiction. It is not information that we are short of, but ways of understanding and living with an overwhelming amount of information.


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