I Prefer to Remember in an Artistic Way

July 18, 2012 § 5 Comments

We promised that the debate over the book The Lifespan of a Fact  had ended, and we held true to that pledge all of these months, except we always intended to reopen the debate if Lady Gaga weighed in.  Well, nonfiction fans, she has  given us her thoughts on the matter (in the first 20 seconds of her video), and we happily share them here:

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

February 27, 2012 § 170 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.

In Fairness to John D’Agata

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.

The New Yorker on D’Agata: Simply a Hack

February 11, 2012 § 12 Comments

Hannah Goldfield weighs in at The New Yorker:

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.

Read more at The New Yorker

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