T.A. Noonan, Author of “An Open Letter to Triquarterly” Speaks

July 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

Last week, Brevity observed a literary imbroglio and weighed in on both sides. But in literary nonfiction, there’s always one more point of view. T.A. Noonan, the author of the anonymous letter that touched off the debate, weighs in.


tanoonan-square.fullI’m T.A. Noonan, author of “An Open Letter to TriQuarterly.”

First of all, let me acknowledge that I wasn’t the first person to express dismay over “TriQuartergate.” By the time my letter appeared online, the conversation was well under way on Twitter and Facebook. I just wanted to add to it.

I chose anonymity because I’m a Sundress editor whose views were published on her press’s blog. I didn’t intend to speak for anyone but myself—certainly not my press. The post’s popularity, however, suggests that my letter echoed the betrayal felt by many writers.

Like Dinty W. Moore, I think I understand. And I’ll give the editors props for honesty, even if I wish they lied. In my perfect world, they would have admitted the mistake, closed general submissions, solicited work from those rejected unread, and worked their way through the backlog, reading every piece submitted. But that’s not what happened.

It’s reasonable to think that TriQuarterly will need to work hard to regain the literary community’s trust. Then again, they know all about that. Every time I read Edward Hirsch’s characterization of a web-based, student-run TriQuarterly as “vaporous,” I wince. There’s judgment there. Vaporous. Less-than. Not real. Not print. I can almost hear the commentary now: This never would have happened when it was print!

The question that haunts me isn’t “print vs. online” or “student-run vs. professional” but whether or not my imagined commentary—this never would have happened when it was print!—is true. If not, what are writers supposed to believe? We’re sustained by the notion that the selection process is fair and everyone gets a shot. Take that away, and what’s left for us?

Even more troubling, though, is if such a thing wouldn’t have happened at TriQuarterly back when it was print. What does that say about the ways that editors, authors, and readers evaluate literary journals? Do we really see online journals as vaporous?

Maybe I’m overthinking. It’s definitely unfair to ask TriQuarterly‘s editors to bear the responsibility of answering the questions I’ve posed above. (For the record, I do appreciate Adrienne Gunn’s thoughtful response.) Instead, all members of the literary community need to ask ourselves what we really value and how we demonstrate our valuation.

I keep coming back to one Facebook comment about my letter. The author critiqued my threat to not submit to TriQuarterly, wondering why I didn’t cancel my subscription and suggesting that I didn’t value TriQuarterly because I (probably) didn’t even subscribe. Let’s ignore the fact that they’ve been online and free since 2010 and explore the implications of that comment.

Is the act of financially supporting a journal more important than submitting or writing? What if one doesn’t have the means to financially support a journal? Are magazines published on shoestring budgets and/or supported exclusively by their editors less important than the ones that need subscriptions, fees, and donations to survive? What about journals whose institutions pour funds into them?

And, most importantly, what is the writer’s responsibility to the literary community vis-à-vis journals?

I can’t answer that for everyone, and neither can TriQuarterly. Instead, I’ll leave you with this observation: According to WordPress, my letter has been viewed over 4,000 times and shared almost 800 times. That’s more than anything I’ve ever published in print. That’s readership comparable to some of the biggest print journals out there.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

T.A. Noonan doesn’t hate TriQuarterly, its editors, or its authors but meant what she said in her letter. She is also not-so-secretly rooting for TriQuarterly to change her mind.


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Rejecting The Unread: Necessary Timesaver or Poor Literary Citizenship?

July 11, 2014 § 8 Comments

From Oct. 15 to July 15, TQ welcomes submissions of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, short drama, video essays and hybrid work from established as well as emerging writers. – from the TriQuarterly submission guidelines.

Managing a literary magazine is an exercise in self-denial. There are always—always—at least twice as many submissions that are perfect—perfect!—for the magazine as there are slots in which to publish them. At least five times as many are inappropriate, unqualified, unready, or just not a good fit. If an issue holds twenty pieces, there were twenty more equally good, and another two hundred to be swum through before reaching literary land.

Journals handle this onslaught in different ways. Brevity closes for the summer. The Sun takes only mailed submissions. Five Dials doesn’t take unsolicited manuscripts. The Believer asks for clips and a publication history.

Narrative charges $22 per submission, which probably weeds out some of the unprepared.

TriQuarterly—a journal known for intelligent content and high standards—did this.

The editors at TriQuarterly recently sent you a notice that your submission was not accepted for publication. I want to clarify that, due to very high volume and limited publication space, our staff was unable to review your submission. Our intent was to give you the opportunity to publish elsewhere, though I realize that our original email was not as clear as I had hoped. I apologize if this has caused any confusion.

An anonymous submitter received this “rejection” and wrote An Open Letter to Triquarterly at The Sundress Blog. She asks,

Should your letter be read as a poorly phrased euphemism for Just so you’re aware, we saw your name on your cover letter, didn’t recognize it, and decided to reject outright? If so, why even allow unsolicited submissions?

(read the whole letter)

We’ve contacted the excellent folks currently editing TriQuarterly to see if there’s a simple explanation: rogue intern, unfortunate error?

In some ways, though, it is not that surprising. In a 2012 interview with The Review Review,TQ Former Managing Editor Lydia Pudzianowski said, “In 2011 we received 4,307 submissions; in 2010 it was 3,599. We’ve already surpassed the latter number [in 2012].”

Regardless of the number of readers (TQ’s masthead lists 19 principal roles and 35 additional staff), there has to be a way to sort. If I applied for a programming job, I’d be pretty sure my resume would be fed into software that spits out anyone who doesn’t have C++ (hint: I don’t). If a literary journal announced, “We will discard any submissions with 10 or more spelling errors” I suspect many of us would cheer, either from schadenfreude, our own slush reading experiences, or the hope of a clearer field for our own proofread (of course!) work.

But transparency is key.

We only take submissions from 8PM-9PM on alternate Wednesdays.

We’ll be deleting unread anything from an author sharing my ex-boyfriend’s first name.

As long as it’s announced, fair game. Writer can spend their time and energy on more welcoming slush piles, or hit ‘send’ on a piece that feels right enough to jump some hurdles.

But claiming to have open submissions, claiming to welcome emerging writers and not actually doing that is at best disingenuous, and I would argue, bad literary citizenship.

Authors submit their best work—we hope—over which they have labored—we hope. Our compact is to read, at minimum, the first couple of sentences. Theatre directors say they know in the first 5 seconds of a mass audition if an actor gets a callback to the next round. As a slush reader, it’s easy—scary easy—to see right away if a piece goes into “form reject” or “read this again, more thoroughly.” (Whether your work should be judged on the opening is irrelevant. It will be. Work on the beginning).

Maybe it’s undergrads reading the slush pile. Maybe it’s the editor-in-chief on her Kindle on the subway. The reader’s biases or qualifications don’t actually matter. Writers can’t control who will be caught by our work, and a degree is no guarantee of taste. But not reading at all—and then phrasing it so terribly—breaks faith.

As a writer, we almost never find out who read our submission or how carefully. But we don’t have to write off publishing as an “in crowd.” Our literary citizenship is interacting with other writers, reading literary journals and the associated content (blogs, twitter, etc.) they produce, engaging with the community we want to be part of. We build our reputations by publication in smaller markets and working our way up. Eventually, our names won’t be unknown, and our work won’t be an unsolicited submission.

I have an essay in TriQuarterly’s slushpile. Perhaps it’s a good thing I haven’t heard back. But their misstep reminds me, being a writer is not just about sending out submissions. It’s about having faith in my work, knowing the market, and building relationships with my fellow literary citizens.



TriQuarterly’s Managing Editor, Adrienne Gunn responded via Twitter:

The email that was sent was a sincere attempt on the magazine’s part to rectify a bad decision. I understand why people are upset. I’m a writer and have spent years submitting to magazines and it’s a tough process. With recent staff changes we realized how far we had fallen behind in submissions, and didn’t want to prevent authors from publishing their work elsewhere. I would also say that I think the email indicates TQ’s commitment to treating their contributors ethically and respectfully, and we are committed to improving our review process and communication moving forward.

When asked about speculation that the editorial board’s hand had been tipped by a staff member acting alone, Ms. Gunn replied:

All I can say is that when the issue was identified, the decision was made to be transparent about it. And that we are sorry it happened and we are committed to improving processes and handling submissions with care.

TriQuarterly has also issued an apology on Twitter.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

Reality is Sly, People are Complicated: The Facts of the Matter (Part Two)

November 20, 2012 § 9 Comments

This is the second, and last, installment of our roundtable on the essay “The Facts of the Matter” by Anonymous and published in both TriQuarterly and  Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. The Anonymous author is joined by author/scholars Sonya Huber, Matt Ferrence, and Ned Stuckey-French.  (If you missed the first installment, or the essay in question, you can catch up here.)

Last Roundtable Question:

Moderator:  In “The Facts of the Matter,”Anonymous writes, “It is interesting that writers of creative nonfiction have become so at ease with lying, so uninterested in truth, at a time when our government is obsessed with obtaining the truth through increased surveillance, interrogation of suspects, data mining.” I’d like to close by asking you all to engage with this larger question of the argument about fact in nonfiction.  Do the choices we make as artists (and consumers of art) influence or intersect with larger societal issues such as those cited by anonymous? Does the comic notion of “truthiness” attach to both John D’Agata’s About a Mountain and to the Bush administration’s misleading information on WMDs in Iraq, or is that just a hyper-hysteric exaggeration? Is there more at stake here than a genre of writing privileged in the academy but not so much on the radar of the average American or international citizen, or are we jousting at windmills that don’t really matter in the larger scale of humanity?  Finally, where are we as a genre? Are we really comfortable with lying, or have most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction?

SH: Well, I guess I’ll start this off… I’m going to take on the quote at the beginning in conjunction with the last question; I have more to say about “truthiness,” which I think is an important and dangerous gray area. I want to start with an honest question for my esteemed table mates. The quote at the beginning of the question posits “many” nonfiction liars. In the piece Anonymous implicates three by name: John D’Agata, David Shields, and Robert Atwan. Shields first: I’m actually not 100% sure that Shields’ position is represented clearly in the piece; the quote included seems to be observation misinterpreted in the piece as edict. Second: as far as John D’Agata goes, Ned already broke up with him. A major move! Tears were shed! Many of us talked and talked, were sick to our stomachs about someone treading all over a genre we care about, and we mulled it over and gnashed our teeth in continuous conversations and panels.Yes, this stuff will sell books, but that’s beyond our control. Just about anything flashy sells a book. Third: as for Robert Atwan, if he made a troubling comment, someone should ask him to clarify and respond directly. Are there many more? The numbers might be more obvious to someone like Ned who screens submissions at a major nonfiction journal. There’s much lumping of like and unlike here (rape vs. lying, D’Agata and Shields and Atwan vs. “many”), and I need to first understand what is actually being asserted. I did not understand why all these wrenching machinations were necessary to get to a point that seems so obvious; for me, the ends did not justify the means. Lying is wrong in our genre. Either I am missing a raft of semi-fake meta-essays (thankfully), or this piece is saying something that many people in the nonfiction community already know and believe. Or are we also to revisit the well-trod ground of faked memoirs? Let’s not. Liars will continue to get tons of attention, then will get praise for being “bold” and “controversial,” and the rest of us will just have to continue doing our work and calling them out on it. Or?… Enlighten me.

ANONYMOUS: Despite its dismissal as mere entertainment, it seems to me that art is still the compass of culture, so David Shields’ glib claim that “facts are irrelevant” in creative nonfiction seems to me gravely consequential (not surprisingly his assertion arises roughly coincident with a shift in our political discourse from disagreeing over interpretations of facts to a disagreement about what the facts are…not to mention fictional WMDs, Jayson Blair scandal, etc.). I think the fashionable disregard for “the facts” in nonfiction reflects a broader willingness within our culture to disregard inconvenient facts–whether for political advantage or for the so-called sake of art or to meet a newspaper deadline.

I wish this were limited to a few flamboyant rhetorical works by Shields or D’Agata or a single speech by Mr. Atwan, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Viz Pam Houston’s introductory remarks to Jill Talbot’s anthology, in which Houston argues–as many recent graduate and undergraduate students of mine have done–that, given the subjective nature of perception, it’s meaningless to talk about facts in nonfiction, since it’s all interpreted anyway (such illogic has, alas, become a commonplace): http://www.hungermtn.org/corn-maze/ . One might hope that my essay’s point were as obvious as Sonya suggests, but sadly we seem to have lost our collective conviction regarding facts, and whether they matter. Hence, this piece.

But for me, the heart of “The Facts of the Matter” is not its account of a sexual assault or its invented persona but its summary of the 18th-century Stamp Act–which distinguished fact from fiction about forty years before democratic revolutions flourished. That historical fact is not one that we talk enough about, as far as I’m concerned, or think enough about. I believe that what we do narratively does inform what we do actually (neuroscience increasingly suggests this is so): which is why I’m grateful to the thoughtful commentators whose effort to meaningfully parse this question gives me hope.

MF: I’m going to address the elephant in the room, instant replay in sports. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the larger cultural impulse that best intersects with our own artistic considerations of truth, fact, creative nonfiction, memoir, essays, composite characters, artful bending, and all of that. As anyone with even casual experience in televised sports viewing knows, instant replay offers a constant interruption to the flow of games, with the presumed benefit of objective truth.

In football: the head referee goes under the black hood to parse an apparently infinite number of variables (did the ground cause the fumble or was the hand moving forward and does the plane of the endzone extend infinitely skyward even as it is contained within the framework of blaze orange pylons?).

In baseball: line calls can be reviewed, to know whether the triple just inside the bag is actually a foul ball just outside the bag.

In basketball: exciting “buzzer beater” shots are automatically reviewed, holding the frenzied masses in a state of suspended animation — did we win, did we lose? — until the swish can be corroborated with the hundredth-of-the-second.

In tennis: the technological Hawk-Eye camera/computer wizardry (fascinating article here) extrapolates ball trajectory to create a definitive call of in or out and, apparently, make it clear which player tirades are justified and which aren’t.

In cricket (shit, cricket, has instant replay): various incomprehensible things are made clear through the intervention of technology. If you clicked the link above you know that Hawk-eye, in fact, was designed for a fairly specific problem in cricket that I will not pretend to understand.

I hate instant replay or, rather, the impulse that makes instant replay a desirable (even if detested) aspect of contemporary sports. We demand instant replay because we favor the concrete over the ambiguous, wish to pretend that subjectivity is non-existent, remain steadfast in a commitment to a delusion of the absolute. Instant replay exploits our discomfort with judgment, valuation, and nuance. Instant replay makes us feel like truth has been served, because we have verifiable technological proof that something happened in a precise way.

But, let us then ignore for a moment that the very act of measuring something affects its outcome (so sayeth Heisenberg, who might not actually have been talking about the infamous NFL “tuck rule” but might as well have done so). And let us also ignore the prevailing wisdom of beloved post-structuralist French theorists like Derrida and Foucault and Althusser and, my personal favorite, Baudrillard, who all rise up to more or less say, truth is not true. Or knowable. Or is always in negotiation. Or something like that.

Thus I find it completely unsurprising that the growing use of instant replay coincides with a growing clamor for the “absolute” knowledge that a college football playoff will bring coincides with the use of remote-controlled drone strikes in Afghanistan that appear simultaneously true and video gamey coincides with the strategic disinformation of WMDs and the invasion of privacies under various un-truthfully named artifacts like the Patriot Act coincides with the rabid de-truthification of presidential campaigns coincides with the growth industry of on-line fact-checking sites coincides with our own conversation about how sacrosanct the Truth is when writing creative nonfiction.

Goodness, even rodeo uses instant replay.

“It’s a category mistake to think of memoir as belonging to journalism; it belongs to literature,” David Shields writes in “What We’re All Looking For: Notes On Our Reality Hunger”. “I think the reason we don’t interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find emotional truth within experience, so we aren’t all worked up about the literal. We don’t yet have that history or tradition with the memoir.”

I wonder if part of the reason that the contemporary creative nonfiction of right now keeps circling around the limits and validity of truth-fidelity correlates precisely to the growing lack of clarity we experience in our world. Ours is a regrettable time of fundamentalism, when the discomfort of an ambiguous world blows so many toward the rigidity of dogma and the drawing of lines in the sand. Indeed, creative nonfiction is a genre that relies very much on the usage of truth, but I think we’re disingenuous at best when we pretend that truth is something we ever quite fully understand. In fact, since I think most people really do understand how untenable truth is (has always been, will always be), many turn to nonfiction as a quiet refuge away from the storms of postmodern confusion.

They shouldn’t.

To me, fundamentalism marks one of the chief problems of the current state of creative nonfiction, which frequently seems to be almost indistinguishable from the notion of the memoir, even though the latter is a certain subset of the former. Instead, because popular nonfiction has been dominated for a decade or so with the kinds of memoirs that Shields identifies as “a summing up of life,” we have come too quick to think of that mode as a preferred aesthetic of the genre. But I consider the memoir (as most know it) to be the least interesting of the nonfiction out there, or at least the most limited. The memoir seeks to recount or reconstruct some aspect of life that was lived, and in practice that often results in a preference for memoirs of interesting lives that have been lived. So when we limit ourselves to a genre of memoir, we limit ourselves to a genre of gossip: consider how much memoir relies on the melodramatic, on essentially the same kind of subject matter that has long been fodder for supermarket paperback romances and mysteries and thrillers. I fear that a rigid desire for a certain kind of (falsely) absolute truth supports a vision of our genre as one predicated on hyper-dramatic subject matter. Melodrama is not known for nuance. A lack of nuance can too easily appear to be Truth, nuance too easily considered misleading.

Art, of course, is the desire to press against the thick skin of life. Art is the line call. Art enters when we can’t quite make heads nor tails of the situation (What? Now even competitive coin-flipping has instant replay!?). Art revels in ambiguity, and I think we do a disservice to the artistic potentials of creative nonfiction when we are too quick, as Shields argues, to epistemologize ourselves as journalists who write with a bit more flair, use the first person a lot, maybe get a little crazy from time to time and write in the second person.

One of the horrific consequences of our contemporary spin toward a world defined by technology and economy is the marginalization of art. I fear that when we become too absolute about truth and do not acknowledge the potential truth of truthiness, when we do not recognize the fluidity of our genre and how the motion between the real and the twisted is, often, hard to know (like, what did I have for lunch yesterday? And if I write that it was tuna fish when, in fact, it was lutefisk, have I committed a sin against truth that both disqualifies me from the genre of creative nonfiction and links me irrevocably with depraved and wanton liars?), we are committing a blow against literature. Creative nonfiction is not about the telling of facts. It is about the shaping of facts in a quest to probe the questions that lead us to truth. No, it’s not the same thing as fiction, even if it sometimes appears on the page as a similar animal. But neither does slippage in “factuality” immediately disqualify something as nonfiction. As with so much (everything) in the world, there are gradients and spectrums and matrices and complicated venn diagrams to nonfiction. Instant replay is only one sort of truth, and it’s not the truth I believe lies at the heart of creative nonfiction.

SH: Good points, Matt. I think the two questions of most consequence for our genres and for the question of truth in literary writing–as you point out–are not the absolute decision on “truth vs. lying” but the question of humility (having your limitations be blind spots or explicit and acknowledged) and the question of motive. We can tend toward truth; that’s the best we can do, if truth is something we care about. We are limited by our humanity and our subjectivity. I think John D’Agata in his D’Agata-way loves truth enough to rumple it, though I personally don’t think it should be rumpled. I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer. That might be a high standard to hold, but it is mine. At the same time, we have to be humbled by truth, by the unknowability of the universe. I can barely get a handle on where I left my car keys. Keeping multiple fake universes running is not one of my gifts.

At the same time, one key political point is that “truthiness” matters in different ways depending on the voice and the aims. Motive is key. In politics, for example: Propaganda is lying or exaggerating for the sake of trying to make change in the world through a somewhat despotic manipulation in order to coerce an audience to believe something you believe. It’s often done for fervently noble reasons. Propaganda can even be aesthetically brilliant in a Leni Riefenstahl way, but it is usually dangerous and it hurts people. What’s more, it robs them of their dignity through stirring up emotions and then using the power of those emotions as a stand-in for rational thought. Hence the WMD fervor, the blind spots, and the unknowable question of whether those people believed what they wanted to believe or whether it was calculated manipulate, or both. This is part of what riled me up about the Anonymous piece; in one sense, it’s literary propaganda, designed to make a noble point–but those are practices and an entire genre I ran from and I want no part of. The distinction between propaganda and polemic, I believe, is the distinction between engagement of the animal-guts and the mind.

The good news is that there is nothing new about propaganda. It’s something that has been long discussed and analyzed. Truthiness in politics is kin to propaganda. The only antidote is a fearless recording of our actual minds, our real lives, our less-than-magical daily details. In essays, I believe you can fearlessly imagine, and it’s easy to do so. All you have to do is to start with “I imagine” and then to share your brain. Then tell the reader why that was relevant to your real life. That’s my suspicion even with the aesthetic use of “improvement” of truth without the vulnerability of “showing your work” (I stole that from Bob Cowser, who I think was quoting someone else): it’s the loss of contact with our messy reality. But the opposite challenge is the inherently impossible nature of portraying messy reality through a single subjectivity. Those are two very different “truth” challenges. They should not both be simply put under the umbrella of lying.

I’m a current and former political activist. Anyone with strong political passions who also writes has to admit that they have contemplated using their writing skill to write the heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative tearjerkers or brain-bakers. As a journalist, I’ve done that. And I’ve been asked to do that and refused. Over time, my moral compass developed to the point that when I was treading anywhere close to that territory, I got a little queasy. I don’t do much journalism anymore because some of what I was asked to do (particularly as a freelancer) tread into those accepted categories of sensationalism: Generate Shock! Outrage! Sadness! Joy! It’s funny that we think of journalism as somehow immune from those propagandistic templates.

I’m essaying toward my point here, which is that genre doesn’t give us a corner on truth. We can’t protect ourselves from the lying that surrounds us except on a case-by-case basis. Whenever something outrages our senses of decency, we have to speak out. We also have to speak out in a grounded way that risks something: our real identities, our reputations and our jobs, our lives and our friendship networks, even our “likes” on the Internet. If we don’t have real people willing to stand up for even a limited and local form of truth, we have lost the main strand in our genre that matters to me, which is the confrontation with what is beyond and around us.

ANONYMOUS: It’s false to oppose truth and fact, or journalism and literature, distinct as each is (Didion’s Salvador, for one, encompasses all of the above). The whole point of CNF is to acknowledge the writer as lens, to render the actual through a particular mind, and many of the best memoirs (as well as literary journalism and essays) make use of the gap between what happened and what is recalled (McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, for one). The problem arises when we pretend to render facts when we’re writing fiction–not recording memory’s delightful mishaps or employing invention for meaningful effect (and signaling reader of same as Hong Kingston and Slater and Ondaatje, among many others, do) but lying to the reader because it’s easier or more expedient or from laziness or a desire not to consider the facts too closely.

I, for one, love to invent and do: in fiction. When claiming the heft of fact, I stick as close as I can to same, while acknowledging slippage, memory’s gaps, signaling where certainty fails and guesswork or invention of necessity begin, as I work my way toward understanding. It’s silly to pretend that personal truth is at odds with facts: think of Hong Kingston’s brilliant rendering of whole scenes she had no part in to convey the “truth” of her childhood ! But she levels with the reader and let’s us know what is invented. Not to do so is to lie. And should disturb the reader as my bit of invention in “The Facts of the Matter” has done.

To suggest that we ought to let the reader know when we embark on invention in nonfiction is hardly fundamentalism; it’s common sense. That it’s necessary to have this conversation at such length suggests to me how uncommon such sense has become.

NED S-F: I like “truthiness” and don’t like “trickiness”; that is, I like truthiness as practiced by Stephen Colbert when he, as “Stephen Colbert,” uses the concept to undo the trickiness (aka the “truthiness”) of George Bush or James Frey or David Shields, all of whom he has exposed on his show.

Maybe I’m feeling too damn sunnyside-up because of the results of the recent election, but I don’t agree with Anonymous’s assertion that “writers of creative nonfiction have become…at ease with lying” and “uninterested in truth.” Why else would so many of us have been so up in arms about A Million Little Pieces? And in response to Sarah’s final question, I would say that no we are not “really comfortable with lying” and “most of us come down pretty squarely on the side of truth–not truthiness–in creative nonfiction.”

Which means that we understand what Stephen Colbert means when he talks about truthiness and that finally we don’t fall for the trickiness of Bush, Frey, Shields, and D’Agata. Or, if we do fall for it, we get as mad as Oprah when we find out that we were tricked. Or, as mad as I was at Anonymous when I found out that I had been tricked and that he was a she and not a rapist.

(Which is not all that mad. Indeed, I hope to give my old friend Anonymous a hug, buy her a beer, and have a chat when next I see her, which I suspect will be at AWP in Boston. I will not be mad at her, just as I was not really mad at John D’Agata when I “broke up with him” at the last AWP.)

I agree with Anonymous when she says that we can make shit up as long as we signal that we are making shit up. But I don’t think James Frey signaled that he was (as Colbert put it) “making up his past,” or that Bush signaled when he sent Colin Powell to the UN with all those charts, or that D’Agata signaled when he played the asshole to Fingal’s overly earnest fact-checker, but neither do I think Anonymous signaled when she pretended she was a rapist and I don’t think she’s signaling now when she insists that she must still be anonymous (though you can be in on the joke if you buy Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot (University Of Iowa Press) 242 pages, $39.95). I know, I know, she’ll say she signaled after the fact, but to me that just puts the piece in that particular subgenre of trickiness called gotcha.

And I think that Sonya is absolutely right when she suggests that distinction between “truthiness” and “trickiness” has to do with the humility. LIke Sonya, “I believe in having every sentence aim for a truth that is a communication between the reader and the writer,” and that motive and humility make such communication possible. Humility comes from recognizing that we often lie to ourselves in our writing, or to put it another way, we don’t always signal to ourselves when we are making shit up. Part of my quarrel with both The Lifespan of a Fact and “The Facts of the Matter” is that while I think they are both smart, I also think they are too clever by half. It is easy, indeed inevitable, to screw up, lie to ourselves, slip into denial, lose our humility, posture toward our readers, and as a consequence, not get it right. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is very hard to come by. Reality is sly, people are complicated, and truth is slippery, or as Matt nicely put it, instant replay isn’t enough. I think Montaigne had it right when he recognized that you get it right by recognizing that you can’t get it right, even if life consists of trying to get it right. You keep listening to yourself and your reader. You keep revising by only adding, never subtracting, and you doubt everything, even yourself, especially yourself, in that never-ending attempt to answer the question “Que sais-je?”

But hey, what do I know?

As a Matter of Fact: A Roundtable Discussion about Anonymous’ “The Facts of the Matter” and Truth and Craft in Nonfiction

November 5, 2012 § 32 Comments

Recently, the journal TriQuarterly (re)published the anonymous essay The Facts of the Matter.  The piece troubles many of the conventions of creative nonfiction–including the obligation to be factual–in service of the argument for factualness in nonfiction. Brevity is pleased to host this roundtable conversation with the Anonymous author and three leading writers/scholars in creative nonfiction.  Thank you to everyone who participated.

This will be a two part discussion, with the next round of questions coming largely from reader response (posted in the comments section below).  –Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor

1. Would each participant in the discussion introduce themselves, please, with an emphasis on why you are a stakeholder in the conversation?

SH: I’m Sonya Huber, a writer of creative nonfiction and an assistant professor at Fairfield University. I’m the author of three books: Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. Before entering academia, I worked as a journalist and as an organizer for various social justice causes. I suppose I am particularly interested in this conversation because I believe personal narrative can reveal surprising and necessary truths that can give people the power to change the world or small pieces of it.

MF: This is Matthew Ferrence, essayist and assistant professor of creative writing at Allegheny College in Northwestern Pennsylvania. To this conversation, I bring a growing interest in the potential of fractured narratives, experimental structures, and other busting-ups of expected form. But, I’m still also a fan of the straight-ahead (such as it is, y’know, with all the meanders) Montaignian essay. My other stake here is my commitment to nonfiction as artful truth, with all of the messiness that brings to the table.

NS-F: I’m Ned Stuckey-French, an associate professor at Florida State University, where I teach classes in creative nonfiction, modern American literature, and our Editing, Writing, and Media Program, which focuses on writing and new media (or as we tag it, “Writing for the 21st Century). I’m the author of The American Essay in the American Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and my wife Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). My articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Walking Magazine, culturefront, Pinch, middlebrow, New South, TriQuarterly Online, Guernica, and American Literature, and have been listed four times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays. I am the book review editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. I’m the father of two daughters — one of whom is a high school senior about to go off to college.

Anonymous: Perhaps it would be best if I introduced the essay, which was written in response to an invitation that I received to write a “meta-nonfiction” for an anthology that was published earlier this year; I was delighted by the prospect, as meta-narrative offers a chance to at once compose a piece and comment on its form (in this case, to write an essay and contemplate the troubling fashion for passing off fiction off as fact in contemporary creative nonfiction). As for myself, the usual applies: I’m a writer and professor whose work has received a Pushcart Prize and been published in Best American Essays, The New York Times, and the like.

2. As a reader, I left my first reading of this essay very angry. I felt that I had to constantly extend myself to the author in order to accept that the work was a work of nonfiction because I found the narrator difficult to believe. When it was eventually revealed that I should not have been so generous, I felt betrayed.  To quote from the essay, “A lie can be a violation, a forced entry, a kind of rape.” While it would be a gross exaggeration to say that I felt raped, I did most certainly feel that my trust had been violated.  Could you describe your own reaction, as readers, to the essay and it’s central conceit?

SH: My reading experience definitely affected my reaction to this piece. A colleague and writer friend–Ioanna Opidee–forwarded me the link via email in the middle of a rushed and busy day. I could see based on the content of her email that she was clearly upset by what she’d been able to read up to that point.

Out of concern, I opened the link on my phone. Like Ioanna, I didn’t have either time or mental space to read the entire piece–which I took to be an essay. The content was so difficult that it felt impossible to read this all at once, to force myself through the paragraphs when each sentence was astounding. TQ had inserted a hint in the intro about how to read the piece; I would argue the lack of such a nod toward an honest or even complex contract with the reader within the piece itself represents one of the essay’s failures. In my experience, the brief “how-to” from the editors of TQ were blasted away by the narrator’s sentences.

As I drove between appointments, my mind was thrown into turmoil. It was not the turmoil of a discussion about the nature of truth. It was a turmoil about the meaning of rape and rape narratives. I drove and sat in meetings, mulling over the presence of this real rapist. I am a busy woman and a mother with a full-time job and several extra obligations, and I did not have time to read the whole essay on my phone that afternoon.

You could say I read the essay “wrong.” Instead, I would argue that this is how we read now–especially online. I would argue that a piece of writing that asks me to sit down and finish it in entirety in order to understand any of it is asking for a privileged reader, one with as much time and silence as Montaigne in his tower, one that has the ability to shut out the world when he wants to. And this piece–like those containers with compressed spring-snakes inside–demands you read this all at once.

That day, I was not that reader.

I used all the tools I had to read “The Facts of the Matter,” and apparently I did it wrong. I read further, picking through the paragraphs in parking lots, in a doctor’s waiting room. I slowly digested each paragraph as it unfolded. This writing wanted to break my heart, and I would let it.

In some way, though, am I not the ideal reader, the thoughtful reader? Instead of devouring the piece as a math quiz with a solution, I slowed down to consider each sentence. In between reading those paragraphs, I drove and I mulled.

The worst experience was that I made a list. I made the horrible list it asked me to make: the list of male older tenured nonfiction writers in the Midwest. Dear god. My mentors. I knew him. I had to, you see. Because our creative nonfiction community–especially in the Midwest, where I am from, home ground–is that small, still that close.

I picked up my son from school and stood in the kitchen talking to my husband as we cooked dinner.

“There’s a rapist,” I said. “Someone in the nonfiction community. Someone in the Midwest. Someone who said they’re not even sorry about what they did.”

I ate dinner with the presence of that rapist in my mind. I mulled over very different truths than the story-problem the writer intended. I mulled over this story of the rapist. In a way, I knew right away that the ghost-essay (the one that would soon not exist) was horrible but necessary. I thought it was a kind of evil bravery to admit this: there are rapists in our midst. I thought about the reckoning that would happen, the backlash in creative writing programs, the necessary examination of continued sexism, the complication of close mentoring friendships, the relationships between men and women in the larger creative writing community and in academia.

I was ready to engage in that challenge, to see the world. To see the true world, which seems like always the point.

Then after that evening of mulling during dish-washing and laundry and putting my son to bed, I went back to the piece of writing and read the postscript, saw a slim justification–“Would it change things if I were a woman?”

I’ve met liars of both genders. So–no. There are women rapists. Now the only thing I know is that I believe nothing else the narrator said.

The writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through; this makes sense, as the piece of writing provides an example of the ends justifying the means. The writer seemed to assume that being a woman would be a situation I would never consider. The piece of writing seemed to tell me that its ideal audience was a man who needed to be shocked. I, a woman, felt condescended to as I read the final move of the piece, an argument not meant for me at all, but meant for someone who disagreed with the writer’s position regarding truth in nonfiction. The narrator seems never to have considered that it might affect a woman in this way.

What’s sad is that the writer and I had been on the same side: we agreed about the dangers of playing “fast and loose” with the truth. We had both apparently shared the trauma of assault—and that was a central reason, from life experience, for why I simply could not read this essay like a math problem. Its content is the opposite of a math problem. “The Facts of the Matter” presented a flesh-and-blood experience as an abstract falsehood. It’s not even fiction, because fiction is an attempt to tell a version of the world’s truth, packaged as a story. This was a made-up story packaged as true, which makes it a lie. The brief closing, its presence as an afterthought, apart from the narrator’s voice throughout the piece, seemed to leave me only with a question about the “truth” contained on that page, a doubt which echoes so much of what is uttered to degrade women’s experiences: rape is a lie. She’s making it up.

So I wish the essay had been about making cheese or stealing apples. The choice of a shocking image was unfortunate, as violent as the violence against truth it wants (rightly) to protest.

MF: Certainly, the subject matter of the essay struck hard. Shock is an accurate descriptor, since what I was reading was so abhorrent. My reading was also shaped by my purpose as reader: I hadn’t read the essay when I was asked to take part in this roundtable, so I first entered into the text with the knowledge that it was somehow “about” truth in nonfiction. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to engage a pseudo-confessional of sexual abuse, and certainly wasn’t expecting to find an essay that aligned a story of such abuse with a defense of the necessity of factuality in nonfiction.

And part of my initial reaction was to ask myself, What’s so crazy about this piece? Keep in mind, this is because I was thinking about reading this in the context of the larger question of truth in nonfiction, and in many ways I found this particular essay utterly unsurprising on that matter. Shocking, yes, because of subject matter, but not really engaging in any particularly deep way the sorts of truthy questions that interest me.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve considered the way that the deceit or misdirection or identity shift functions in a piece that is, at heart, a polemic. The author-we’ve-agreed-to-call-anonymous has written an argument, not so much an essay. It’s a bit more Bacon than Montaigne, and certainly far more pointed than the artistic round-a-bout that I think of (and prefer) when I think of an essay. It is, at heart, an article, something Cynthia Ozick warns is “guaranteed not to wear well,” and part of the reason that the rhetorical deception of the piece is jarring and, I think, hard to justify.

NS-F: Sarah’s question and Sonya’s and Matthew’s responses pushed me to think about about how and when I read this piece, what my first reading was like, and what colored that reading. I read this essay after a male ex-student of mine sent me the link via Facebook, suggesting that I might want to read it because I’d written a piece about John D’Agata, titled “Dear John, I’m afraid it’s over…,” which appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and in which I’d challenged John’s approach to “truth” in nonfiction. The fact that my student had referenced this piece was, of course, a tip off and affected my reading. The next day before I had had a chance to get to the piece, a current student of mine, a young woman who is pursuing an MFA and is an excellent essayist, asked me in class if I’d read it. I said I hadn’t but would. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but something in the way she inquired suggested that she found the piece disturbing and confusing, and again, I figured something was up.

 My truth antennae fully at attention, I read the piece and, like all of us, found it disturbing, troubling, confusing, and intriguing, but finally, mainly, ultimately manipulative. As a father, son and husband whose own family has been personally and forever affected by rape and as a social activist who came of age during the second wave of feminism, I was disgusted and outraged by the events depicted in the piece. But, (and with this piece it seems there is always a “but”), I felt cheated and expected to read the piece in a way that didn’t feel quite right. The overabundance of detail (beginning with the reference to Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as viewed that week in Vince Scully’s art history class), the doth-protest-too much assertions of truth (beginning with the title and the opening line), and the narrator’s flat affect and cerebral analysis left me wondering, though again, the seed of my skepticism had been planted by the way my students had recommended the piece as well as Sandi Wisenberg’s cautionary introduction.

Then came the punch-line postscript, which brings us in turn to question 3.

ANONYMOUS: I’m grateful to know that the piece was shocking–it’s meant to be. Not for the sake of mere frisson, which would be cheap, but to underscore a serious problem with contemporary American creative nonfiction and to remind us that we should be shocked whenever fictions are passed off as facts, whether in the political realm (fictional WMDs) or the poetical (David Shields and John D’Agata’s recent arguments to that effect).

Sonya Huber’s point that the writer’s contract is not an honest one is, I would say, mistaken, given that the piece has never appeared without an editorial frame to point up its meta-narrative nature (it was originally written, as I said, for an anthology of meta-narrative, and was reprinted by TriQuarterly with the editorial commentary Sonya notes). Moreover, it reveals by its second crot that it is assaying the question of fact and fiction, which is a pretty clear contract with the reader (experimental narratives often take a few pages to establish their terms, since a single crot often will not serve–as when Joan Didion shifts narrative points of view in Salvador–it’s not a false contract with reader, but a complex one).

I didn’t imagine that one would read the whole of it through, but I did hope that it would provoke thought and conversation among readers, whatever portions they read, and ideally inspire outrage about the blurring of fact and fiction in “creative nonfiction” when  the reader is not clearly signalled. That practice should piss us off; I’m grateful that this smart panel of readers takes art seriously enough to GET angry about this. We should. Not about my piece, I’d argue, but about the increasingly glib disregard for fact in CNF.

It’s worth noting that when TriQuarterly staff read this, some wanted to call the cops and report a crime: I could not have hoped for a better response. That is a sane and humane response to awful facts–to take action–and the real problem with blurring the line between fact and fiction in CNF is that it confuses us about how to respond, whether to respond, and encourages paralysis. We should be shocked by that.

As to the notion that “the writer assumed that gender would provide justification for the experience s/he had put me through,” it is simply inaccurate–this isn’t a question of justification; my gender arises in the piece only as a means of triggering the vertiginous horror we experience when that trapdoor opens in nonfiction and we find out that we’ve been lied to.

As to my not having considered a reader’s possible response, Sonya’s right: I didn’t, and I’d say moreover that I shouldn’t: that’s not the artist’s business–calculating audience response is the work of advertising, not art. (Had it been about cheese or apples, I doubt we’d be having this conversation–it’s about a shocking subject precisely because playing fast and loose with the facts is a shocking subject. Form and content relate to each other, as they should.)

As this is an essay, my job was to consider the question from as many angles as I could, to weigh the matter of fact and fiction in CNF, to consider it in the light of history, personal experience, news reportage, the borrowed authority of quotation, as any good essayist will do.

The essay is not alas “an abstract falsehood”; I would that it were fiction: but save for the rapist’s persona (which is, as in all nonfiction, an invention), it’s all too true. All of it. The things nice male academics of a certain age say of their students. The post-party rape on a couch. The pregnancy. The stats. The DRC rapes. The legal case in Israel. The quotes. Save for a few intimate details, which are not lodged in any public ledger but are nonetheless true, you can look up the facts of the matter.

Finally, as to Matthew’s claim that this is polemic not essay, I’d note that some of my very favorite essays are polemical, so the adjective hardly disqualifies the noun: think of Joy William’s delightful “The Case Against Babies” or Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasures of Hating,” both of which have worn quite well. Bacon’s essays seem to me narrowly didactic, not really my taste, but the comparison is not unflattering: still, my piece weighs a question, offers evidence, and ultimately aims to provide the reader with an experience of the horror of deceit, so as to show how forced entrance into imagination or body are each profound violations.

It’s my hope that the outrage inspired by the piece will be put to good use and spur us to be equally outraged by the glib disregard of facts in contemporary CNF.

3. On Anonymity: What does authorial anonymity allow in this work, and what is the cost of it? What can we learn from this experiment about the relationship between authorial voice and creative nonfiction?

SH: This is a huge question, and not one that I’m sure I have an answer to. The one thought I had is that the reader doesn’t actually become attached to a name. Sentence by sentence, the reader becomes attached to a narrator as he or she is built and presented on the page. I believe the reader has every right to assume that the narrator in nonfiction is the central guiding presence in the work. In fiction, we are on guard for “character,” so our trust level is theoretical, not freighted with reality-testing and trust. In nonfiction, we contemplate our real relationship with the narrator as he or she presents himself–very intimately–as a real person. While we all write in personas which are versions of ourselves, the signal of anonymity increases the reader’s assumption in nonfiction that the narrator’s truths are weighty and offered at great risk to reputation. I believe the “anonymous” byline on this piece made me even more drawn into this narrative than I would have been if the name given were simply false and seemingly gender-neutral.

MF: I don’t have much to say about the anonymity. In general, I’d argue that nonfiction should be signed: what we do relies on the tension of a real author opening the self up. Without a listed author, there is no self.

NS-F: My friend, mentor and collaborator, Carl Klaus, recently published The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, the best book we have on the problem of the narrator in the personal essay. Of the contradiction that creates this problem, Carl writes that the essay puts “one more directly in contact with the thought and feeling of its author than do other forms of literature” while cautioning us that at the same time “the ‘person’ in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.”  Shortly thereafter, in support of his claim about the constructedness of persona, Carl quotes Scott Russell Sanders’ great essay on the essay, “The Singular First Person”: “What we meet on the page is not the flesh and blood author, but a simulacrum, a character who wears the label I.”

The day I read “The Facts of the Matter” was Sanders’ birthday and on the birthdays of essayists I often post a picture of them and a quote by them on Facebook. I opted that day for a different passage from “The Singular First Person”: “You may speak without disguise of what moves and worries and excites you. In fact, you had better speak from a region pretty close to the heart, or the reader will detect the wind of phoniness whistling through your hollow phrases. In the essay you may be caught with your pants down, your ignorance and sentimentality showing, while you trot recklessly about on one of your hobbyhorses. You cannot stand back from the action, as Joyce instructed us to do, and pare your fingernails. You cannot palm off your cockamamie notions on some hapless character. If the words you put down are foolish, everyone knows precisely who the fool is.”

So, you see the problem — a slippery, constructed, postmodern subjectivity and my own foolish self. In “The Facts of the Matter,” the narrator is first a man, a man who is professor and an unapologetic rapist, and then a woman, a woman who is a feminist and a writer of “meta-nonfiction” attempting to skewer the fast-and-loose use of “facts” advocated by writers such as David Shields, John D’Agata, and, according to the author (incorrectly, I think, because she is misreading his rhetorical questions), Robert Atwan. In both cases, the narrator is cloaked in anonymity, but in the first instance, we come to see that “anonymous” means only that the character is unnamed, while in the second case it means that the author is protected. But protected from what? The outrage of readers? The responsibility of defending her position publicly and as herself? Or, more charitably, is she protecting the friends and the sisters of her friends who were actually raped? Or again, less charitably perhaps, is she protecting (inadvertently perhaps) the actual “male professors” whose “by and large verbatim” quotes she puts in the mouth of her rapist-narrator?

By raising these questions I don’t mean to suggest that the author is not speaking “from a region pretty close to the heart” or that I “detect the wind of phoniness.” I don’t. I believe that the author cares deeply about rape and that the piece is an honest attempt to confront the horror of rape and show how rape is about power rather than sex. An essay, however, can be honest, but not successful, or not as successful as it might potentially be. The anonymity is also part and parcel of the attempt to write what the author calls “meta-nonfiction.” I think that the attempt to write “meta nonfiction” is misguided because personal essays are always, in a sense, “meta nonfiction” because they are always (or almost always) include reflection and so are the story of a mind thinking, a writer writing. By pushing this further (e.g., by dividing the piece in two, by employing anonymity, by withholding information, by pushing irony to the point that it becomes an inside joke, etc.) the author becomes distant and controlling. At first I was reading a fictional short story, but I didn’t know it was a short story, for I thought (was supposed to think) it was a personal essay. This short story only became a personal essay when I got to the postscript and was now required to reconsider my reading of the essay that was all along a short story, but only a short story for the author, and not for me. (Got that?) For me at least, all this layering and rethinking and distance makes the personal essay less personal, something more akin to a thought experiment being orchestrated by a wizard (a very bright wizard) behind a screen. So, finally, I felt manipulated and perhaps because I felt manipulated, all that much more put out that “the flesh and blood author” got to claim anonymity.

And now, gentle reader, I feel I should tell you that the anonymous author authorized Sarah to tell us who she is (and she’s someone I already knew). It’s not my role to out her and as I tried to suggest above, I think I understand some of why she adopted anonymity, but now I wish she’d come out from behind the curtain.

ANONYMOUS: As I stated above, the only “invention” in this piece is the conventional one in memoir and essay, that of a “persona,” which here is a stew of several parts Evelyn Waugh and a dash of Nabokov.

The rationale for Anonymity is simple: the piece requires uncertainty about the author’s identity to have its effect. There’s no effort to protect myself in this: my identity is clearly stated at the end of the lengthy interview that appears in the anthology for which the piece was written (Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot), should anyone care to know. But my identity is irrelevant. (The wonderful writing teacher Bill Roorbach used to say that you knew when you had stopped reading a piece and it had begun to “read you”–by which he meant that it had triggered some personal emotional reflex–when you stopped talking about the words on the page and started to talk about the writer. I wonder if perhaps that applies here.)

The essayist is often effaced in the essay–where subject takes precedence over personal biography: we know an essayist’s thoughts, not his or her dining habits (unless they are the subject of the essay). Fretting about my identity is a distraction. The essay is not about me; it’s about a shocking contemporary practice: not sexual assault, but our all too convenient disregard of facts.

As to Ned’s claim that I am “misreading” Atwan’s public speech, for which I was present, as he was not, I must admit that I find suspect any literary criticism that would claim to have the corner on truth in such matters–interpretation is not monotheism after all; there is no single truth here; to claim one is in possession of that would seem a lie.

Finally, as to whether the piece succeeds, the fact that David Ulin in the LA Times considered it worthy of his smart and admiring exegesis, and that many other publications (from Manhattan to Spokane to Kentucky to South Carolina to Kansas City) have picked it up; the fact that we’re discussing this here and that I’ve heard from several readers of the anthology that they consider the essay “one of the ten pieces every CNF student should read”; and the fact that it’s being taught and discussed in classrooms, would all seem to me to suggest that it has succeeded in provoking the conversation it sought to inspire.

4. On Falseness in Nonfiction: This essay purports to argue against lying in creative nonfiction, and yet it relies on a number of lies–from the conceit of its narrative voice to the fact that we, as a panel, are only pretending not to know the identity of its author–to function.   Ultimately, does the essay function better as an argument for the possibility of falsity in nonfiction rather than against it? Or does it succeed in spite of the fact that it seems to argue against its own validity?

SH: I think this piece of writing functions as an example of what happens when you cling too tightly to being right: you pull out every big gun possible to win against what you see as wrong or bad. In this case, the enemy is the position of purposely falsifying information for the sake of art. “The Facts of the Matter” purposely falsifies against art instead of falsifying for art. In a way, it sets itself on fire to protest artful falsification. As such, it is an essay on fire, an essay in flames, an essay that is not actually an essay at all. I think it is tragic, and it is performance, but I don’t think it’s possible to talk about it as creative nonfiction.

We know there are several kinds of “true” and several kinds of lying. One test of truth in nonfiction, for me, is the question of whether I would give this piece of writing to my mom, my non-writer and non-professor friends to read, whether I would give it to my sister. The question of truth in that case circles around the goal of offering something to add to someone’s life—even if it is a difficult and hard-won truth. There isn’t that nugget of accessible truth that I could share with people outside that limited world of people who discuss John D’Agata or even know who he is.

MF: Anonymous her/his-self writes in the Postscript that the “piece is meant to be shocking, in hopes that it will shock us into thinking harder about what we’re accepting when we say that facts no longer matter in CNF, or to us” and that it is “intended to point up the absurdity and real horror of playing with facts in nonfictional where there are stakes…, as there always should be in art, we cannot afford to be glib about claiming fictions are facts…”

It is in this shock that the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay commits a foul against not essaying nor creative nonfiction but, in fact, rhetoric. It relies on a combo Slippery Slope and Strawman strategy, where the stakes are raised by the direct content of the piece (the sexual assault) and not by the supposed intent of the argument (engaging the necessity of truth in nonfiction). In that sense, the piece fails to persuade me of the dangers of D’Agata, Shields et al, very much because the sensationalized conceit of the article/polemic/I’ll-call-it-an-essay takes to the point of absurdity the fluidity and flexibility other writers call for.

So, thinking about Sonya’s response to her initial reading, a response driven in part by the temporally fractured way she read the piece in our digital world, I agree that as an article it fails to play by the rules of our reading. The shocking subject matter incites fury, sadness, and pain because the lede of the article conceals itself within the extended metaphorical non non-fiction.

Yet at the same time, if I consider the piece an essay, then I disagree that an author should need to consider the manner of reading. An essay is a full thing, must be read in total to be understood. Thinking of the piece fully (and by “fully” I include the way I first read the piece, Postcript, author notes, header and all), I find myself defending the authorial choices this way: it doesn’t lie or deceive at all, in full. The deception is revealed, and the effect on the reader is to confront them with the shock and anger that comes about from that deception. Thus it pinches the technique of the lie as a means to argue against the lie.

But it’s still a polemic, and that part of it I find harder to defend, since nuance is necessarily left out, and with it the artistic potential of artful misdirection and textual prestidigitation 

NS-F: I very much like the ways Sonya and Matthew have approached this question. I too think this piece is a “polemic” that shows “what happens when you cling too tightly to being right.” As Matthew suggests, this polemic has two targets — rape and a particular kind of nonfiction. The problem, I think, is that the targets get confused and the issue of rape gets subsumed by the issue of truth in nonfiction. We are, I believe, supposed to see the narrator above the postscript is someone whose sexism has led him to lie, become dissociated from himself, objectify women, and rationalize his cruel and violent attack. And I do. But don’t we know that already about rapists? Or, as Matthew put it, isn’t that fictional rapist a strawman? Or as Sonya suggests, the rape has, in a sense, become “a big gun” pointed at John D’Agata and David Shields, or at least at John and David’s understanding of the role of truth in creative nonfiction.

 The same day I was reading “The Facts of the Matter” I finished a review of Randi Saloman’s excellent book, Virginia Woolf’s Essayism, and it suggested to me another approach. Saloman distinguishes between the essay and fiction (mainly Woolf’s novels) by looking at our experience reading the two genres. A longheld trope for the essay is that it is a conversation. For Saloman, this means that the reader is on more even terms with the author, engaged and responding to the author within a digressive, recirculating, meandering form. With a work of fiction, she argues, we are more passive and give ourselves up to the author’s imagined world following a plot determined by probability and some kind of logic. When Woolf mixes the two — in A Room of One’s Own, for instance — she creates what Saloman calls a “counter-factual” or “speculative” essay. To create this essay she uses fictional elements, most notably the character of Judith Shakespeare, but we know the character is fictional and participate with Woolf in speculating on the what that Judith’s life might have been like. Judith is fictional but we know she’s fictional. She allows us to imagine an alternative history and an alternative future. She’s a fictional character within an essay that we know from the start is an essay. She is not a trick and if A Room of One’s Own is a polemic against sexism, it is a kind of non-polemical polemic.

ANONYMOUS: I love this question, Sarah: it’s very smart (and one raised by David Ulin in the LA Times, as Sonya helpfully pointed out in a separate exchange). In writing this essay, I aimed to do precisely two things: 1) ponder whether facts do matter in creative nonfiction by weighing the evidence at hand, and 2) more significantly, I wanted to give the reader a visceral experience of fiction passed off as fact–I wanted us to register the real horror of that. We talk a lot about this question as writers, readers, students, and professors, but it seems to me that the conversation has been largely theoretical. I wanted us to have a visceral experience, a bodily sense of the awfulness of a narrative (and a society) where the line between fact and fiction have become blurred, uncertain. So I’d strongly disagree with those who would say that this essay affirms lying in CNF, the blurring of those lines; judging by the panelists’ reactions, I’d say it enacts a pretty strong argument against that practice, which was my aim. I hope the piece tests the proposition that “facts are irrelevant” in nonfiction, as Shields has claimed, and finds to the contrary.

That’s also why I strongly disagree with Ned’s claim that my essay is somehow a “big gun” held to D’Agata’s head or Shields’. That metaphor misses my point by a mile: this essay is more like a trap-door that opens beneath us all (as, I believe, is the popular disregard for fact in nonfiction). Ned’s reading would try to make the essay a personal matter, when it’s not: it’s a formal one–a problem with form that we are all having now.

As for the essay’s form, Ned suggests that I might have done better by borrowing Woolf’s methods, but I’d note that her speech was written almost a hundred years ago and that each artist creates the form necessary to her or his time: Woolf needed to argue for women’s capacity for greatness, so invented Shakespeare’s sister; in the 21st century, we need to be reminded of the horrors of passing off fiction as fact, so I invented a narrator (at least in part.)

But I worry that the panel seems to be largely missing those points here–both formal and substantive. So rather than continue to respond to their claims point by point, as I’ve tried to do above, I would simply direct them and readers of the essay to the wonderful and insightful exegesis of “The Facts of the Matter” by David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times:


Despite the unanimity of this panel, happily a diverse array of responses to it can be found on line; a few of these are below:




I hope, for all our sakes, we will continue to speak ardently about why the facts matter.

Moderator’s Note: Responses from SH and Anonymous were stricken from the roundtable discussion because of confusion among the participants about whether or not there would be opportunities to reply to one another. The intention had been that there would be this opportunity, but Anonymous asked that we limit each respondent to one initial statement. Because I believe that I wasn’t adequately clear in my initial directions to the panel and to Anonymous, I have agreed to strike this response, but in the next round we will not redact anyone’s comments and cannot guarantee that any person will have the final say on a specific question.

Creative Nonfiction as Cultural Cosmetic Surgery

October 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

Triquarterly has reprinted a peculiar, disturbing, not-what-it-seems-at-first essay that uses the account of a sexual assault to interrogate recent discussions about the importance of fact in nonfiction. We at Brevity imagine there will be some shouting before this one is concluded, and we are fully intrigued.

S. L. Wisenberg’s editor’s note at the very end invites folks to weigh in, and we agree. Weigh in here, weigh in there, weigh in both places. Here’s a taste of the essay for you, and a link to the full work below.

It’s become fashionable lately to question the importance of facts in works of creative nonfiction. “In our hunger for all things true,” David Shields says in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, “we make facts irrelevant.” Given that any narrative involves a selection of details and thus a distortion of sorts, facts—so the argument goes—aren’t important. As long as an account tells the truth—psychologically, emotionally—facts aren’t required.

The thoughtful, erudite writer Robert Atwan, series editor of the Best American Essays, recently questioned the necessity of facts to creative nonfiction at a conference in Manhattan, where he spoke in praise of “the literary art of fabrication” … Atwan asked his audience, “Is it possible that a piece of personal writing can be grounded in fiction and still be considered an essay? If some determined graduate student conclusively discovered that [E .B.] White never owned a pig, should we consider [White’s essay] ‘Death of a Pig’ a short story?. . . Is all that separates an autobiographical essay from a story fidelity to fact?” …


I wonder if Shields and Atwan would be so cheerfully flexible about the facts if the nonfictions were of another kind, if it were their doctor’s unfactual diagnosis (appendicitis, say) that led to an unnecessary surgery. Would they be as easygoing were it an unfactual accusation that prompted their incarceration for an indefinite period in an undisclosed location by means of extreme rendition? … How about an insurance adjustment that insouciantly undervalued a home destroyed in an all too factual fire?

And if they would not find such nonfictions acceptable, I wonder why they (and we) tolerate the unfactual passed off as fact in our nonfiction art. Is it because we believe that art—that compass of the culture—doesn’t matter as much as medicine or insurance? Or is it because we—like the powerful in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who couldn’t bear to read a frank assessment of their failings, prompting social critics to couch critiques in fictive terms—cannot bear to face the facts, to look in the literary mirror and behold ourselves honestly, truthfully, portrayed? Has creative nonfiction become a form of cultural cosmetic surgery, helping us hide our flaws from ourselves, convincing us that the facts don’t count?


Does it matter, in an account such as mine, who was raped, under what circumstances? Does it matter if there was a girl, a couch, if there could have been? Would it change things to know that the girl on that couch got pregnant that night (a fact I would only learn years later from her close friend)? Would it matter if in fact the girl was conscious; if when she woke, he finished and left her there and never spoke of it? Would it matter if I were that girl?


Read the entire Essay: http://triquarterly.org/essay/facts-matter

My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict

May 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

TriQuarterly Online, which has done a quality job of moving to the online format, is printing a series adapted from the panel “Status Update: The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook,” presented at the 2011 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. Usually, we like to come up with funny titles for our blog posts, but Ned Stuckey-French’s title is too good to alter, so we’re going with it.  Here’s some of what he has to say, followed by a link to his full essay, and a link to the entire series:

Yet as the title for this panel suggests, we are in the age of Facebook and there is no going back. The toothpaste is out of the tube. We need to learn to live with it. So the last question to address here is, can personal essays and Facebook peacefully coexist—and perhaps even fruitfully coexist?

First of all, how are essays different from Facebook? Alfred Kazin wrote, “In an essay it’s not the thought that counts, but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.” William Gass said something similar: “The hero of the essay is its author in the act of thinking things out, feeling and finding a way. It is the mind and the marvels and miseries of its makings, in the work of imagination, the search for form.” And finally, in a similar vein, Edward Hoagland argued, “Through its tone and tumbling progression, the essay conveys the quality of an author’s mind.”

A personal essay offers us the tumble of the mind and is, at least potentially, a work of art. It may be brief by comparison to a memoir or a novel, and in its brevity more akin to a lyric poem, but it is longer, more sustained, more revised, more substantial, and more artistic than anything on Facebook. If an essay gives us the story of a mind thinking, Facebook gives us isolated thoughts. It gives us updates; it gives us fragments.

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