How Negotiable is a Fact in Nonfiction?

February 9, 2012 § 64 Comments

Writers and readers are buzzing about  John D’Agata’s back and forth with his fact-checker as excerpted in Harper’s, and  also about yesterday’s response from Salon writer Laura Miller.

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.

Or when D’Agata suggests a woman in his article is from Mississippi when she is actually a Las Vegas resident:
D’AGATA: I realize that, but I need her to be from a place other than Las Vegas in order to underscore the transient nature of the city—that nearly everyone in Vegas is from someplace else. And since she did in fact originally come from Mississippi, I think the claim is fine as it is.
Or when he suggests that a key event occurred on the day of a young man’s suicide, when in fact it did not:
D’AGATA: It was part of the atmosphere of that particular summer.
FINGAL: Then isn’t that how it should be framed?
D’AGATA: No, because being more precise would be less dramatic. I don’t think readers will care whether the events that I’m discussing happened on the same day, a few days apart, or a few months apart.

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:

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Laura Miller at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: