February 27, 2012 § 170 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore responds to the John D’Agata brouhaha:
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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”?
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.
February 15, 2012 § 10 Comments
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.
February 12, 2012 § 29 Comments
One reader, posting in the comments to our earlier John D’Agata discussion, warns, rightly, that D’Agata hasn’t had a chance to defend his position much in the recent critiques of his fuzzy fact-checking and odd Harper’s excerpt. “Disagree with him, fine,” MKE writes. “But don’t underestimate the thought he has put into this. It’s not about him being lazy or cavalier as a writer, as some people who simply don’t get it posit here and elsewhere in this online debate.”
In the interest of fairness, we found the PRI radio interview MKE cites as a good explanation of D’Agata’s approach and transcribed a fair bit of it. Here it is:
I don’t consider myself a journalist. I never received training as a journalist … I know that I do an overwhelming amount of research and I’m often interviewing people but what I then do with the information is dramatically different.
I like playing with the idea of journalism and our expectation of journalism. So I like making something feel journalistic and then slowly reveal that that approach isn’t really going to give us as readers what we want from the text, that we need to try a different sort of essaying, and then the essays become a lot more associative and the perhaps become a bit more imaginative and start taking the problematic liberties.
I think it is art’s job to trick us. I think it is art’s job to lure us into terrain that is going to confuse us perhaps make us feel uncomfortable and perhaps open up to us possibilities in the world that we hadn’t earlier considered.
I think that we have to be fooled before we are really able to wonder. So philosophically my issue is that we’re not allowing an entire genre – nonfiction – to have that kind of a relationship with the reader. And that’s for me, as an artist, that’s problematic.
The entire interview can be listened to (and downloaded) here.
February 11, 2012 § 12 Comments
D’Agata’s responses are, rather than thoughtful and collaborative, hostile and delusional. He sees himself as an artist, not a reporter—even though he’s written a reported story about something that very publicly happened in real life—and therefore completely exempt from the responsibility of fact-checking. “Hi, Jim,” he writes, in the book’s first e-mail excerpt. “I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the ‘article,’ as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker…. I have taken some liberties … here and there, but none of them are harmful.”
There is, of course, comedy to be found in this set-up, at least for journalism geeks; Harper’s excerpted some of the choicest bits in their “Readings” section. D’Agata acknowledges that there are thirty-one, and not thirty-four, strip clubs in Las Vegas, but, he says, “the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ so I changed it.” When Fingal points out that Levi Presley, the subject of D’Agata’s essay, was not the only person in Las Vegas to commit suicide by jumping from a building on the day he did, D’Agata replies, “I think I remember changing this because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”
What D’Agata fails to realize is that not only are these liberties indeed harmful—even if only to the reader, who is trusting the writer to be accurate in his or her description of what exists or took place in reality—they are also completely unnecessary to creating a piece of great nonfiction. The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of “Truth” or a true “idea”—is preposterous. A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack. If I’ve learned one thing at this job, it’s that facts can be quite astonishing.
.. This question, no matter how it’s interpreted—as a nihilistic sigh, or as an argument that all that matters are the broad strokes—is a royal cop-out. Altering and cherry-picking details is an easy, hollow game for a writer. The challenge, and the art, lies in confronting the facts—all of them, whether you like them or not—and shaping them into something beautiful.
February 9, 2012 § 64 Comments
In the Harper’s piece, excerpted from a book-length discussion, D’Agata again and again suggests that changing facts is just fine for flow or rhythm or convenience. For instance, when D’Agata lists 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas whereas the fact checker sees only 31 listed, D’Agata responds:
D’AGATA: Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of “thirty-four” works better in that sentence than the rhythm of “thirty-one,” so I changed it.
Ridiculous, wrong, confusing for readers, and bad for the genre, but D’Agata has his admirers. They do not include Salon’s Laura Miller, who writes:
D’Agata … offers the “rhythm” defense more than once, and when Fingal raises legitimate questions about his attempt to present suicide as a universal taboo across cultures and historical periods, he stoops to the retort, “Wow Jim, your penis must be so much bigger than mine.” (Although it must be said that this is a pretty fair characterization of the tenor of their arguments.) It’s not until late in the game that D’Agata engages Fingal in a substantive discussion of what he’s trying to do, best stated as “taking liberties” to make “a better work of art — and thus a better experience for the reader — than I could if I just stuck to the facts.”
D’Agata’s stance is that the lyric essay is so different an animal than other nonfiction that it does not require an adherence to facts or honest memory, that it can be altered at will because language rules over logic or veracity. That’s a sexy stance, and it is gaining some traction, but unfortunately it also plays right into the wheelhouse of those who want to endlessly criticize creative nonfiction. For many lazy writers, it is also an easy way out.
The discussion will continue, certainly. Let us know your thoughts.
Here are the links:
March 3, 2010 § 4 Comments
Our guest blogger Steven Church is author of the excellent new (and genre-bending) memoir The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, and we are grateful for the permission to air his views on the D’Agata book and the recent criticism:
In his new book, About a Mountain, John D’Agata refers to the “confluence” of a Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and Levi’s suicide. NY times critic Charles Bock takes umbrage with D’Agata’s admission in the footnote that these events were separated by 3 days. Oddly enough in my readings and discussions with students, and with D’Agata himself, NOBODY mentioned this as important, much less what Bock calls the “heart of a crucial section.” That doesn’t mean that this isn’t an important question, but it may suggest that the power of the book does not in any way turn on this confluence as fact.
As a reader, I didn’t notice or care about this supposed violation, mainly because the book is clearly not one of factual convergences but one that uses juxtaposition to create (sometimes intentionally abrupt and harsh) convergences of thought on the page. Everything in the book happens simultaneously, reflecting (I believe) D’Agata’s consciousness on these subjects. The problem, perhaps with any endnote, footnote, author’s note or other form of contractual disclaimer is that it not only serves as a kind of apology for the art of the form, but it releases the reader from the responsibility of engaging with the text on its own terms. It removes the text from the realm of consciousness and puts it into the realm of verifiable fact. In his review of the book, LA Times critic David Ulin also mentions D’Agata’s endnotes, quoting them in his opening, and raises the specter of conflated time and composite characters before he essentially says that none of that stuff really matters in the end because the book is well-written, honest in it’s intentions, and not fundamentally a time-centered, character-driven text.
All that being said . . . D’Agata could have just written, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death, three days later, of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” . . . right? That doesn’t seem too syntactically clunky to me, AND it clears up any possible confusion.
I think, perhaps that D’Agata also sets himself up for some of this factual interrogation from reviewers and readers with his choice the form (chapters separated into Who, What, When, Where, How, Why) and the methodology (interview-based), even if it’s not necessarily what I would call a “journalistic” book (or a “memoir” for that, matter). Honestly, I think it’s a shame that the reading and appreciation of a good book, an important book, gets derailed by focus on an endnote or author’s note, a formal convention that often amounts to an apology for the art of a genre.
March 3, 2010 § 4 Comments
Our post yesterday about John D’Agata’s book, and the New York Times review, generated almost no discussion on this blog. Okay, we’re down with that.
But blog posts that appear here, through the elvin magic of the internet, show up automatically on Dinty W. Moore’s Facebook page — that’s the editor guy — and on Facebook, there are 36 comments and counting, from such nonfiction heavyweights as Judith Kitchen, Judith Barrington, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Patrick Madden, and … well, a host of fascinating writers and reader of the genre.
You are invited to lurk, or offer your opinions as well: http://www.facebook.com/dintywmoore
Meanwhile, we have asked Steven Church to post something to this blog, since his view is not the view we espoused yesterday, nor is it the view taken by the New York Times, and you know what?
We like discussion, and disagreement. It is a healthy thing.
So watch for Church’s comments in just a few moments, and if you’d like to be a guest blogger, on this issue or another issue, just let us know at email@example.com
March 1, 2010 § 1 Comment
This time around, the “how creative is creative nonfiction” question is being raised in reference to John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. To be honest, we haven’t had the chance to read the book yet, but if the NYT review quoted below is accurate, changing the date of the poor kid’s suicide is an odd move indeed. Surely this “composites and conflation” controversy will play out in the press, at AWP panels, and so forth, over the next year. We are very curious to hear D’Agata respond, if he chooses to do so.
From the New York Times Review:
At the heart of a crucial section, D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” But the accompanying endnote reads: “I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.”
Maybe there’s a claim that since the Obama administration is shutting down Yucca anyway, and since D’Agata is sensitive beyond a fault to the Presley family, and since the book is so aesthetically impressive, there’s no harm in doctoring the dates — especially since doing so gives the book a better hook, and thereby (perhaps) a better chance at finding readers and keeping Levi’s memory alive. And, absolutely, all kinds of licenses are taken in the name of creative nonfiction. As D’Agata himself writes, in his introduction to “The Lost Origins of the Essay”: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. So this is a book that will try to offer the reader a clear objective: I am here in search of art.”
With “About a Mountain,” D’Agata goes further, attempting to create art through the exploration of what happens when we “misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.” But he shimmies too close to the flame. In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.