DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. W.W. Norton, 128pp., $17.95.
John D’Agata has been campaigning for new approaches to fact-based writing since at least 2003, when he produced The Next American Essay, an offbeat anthology that juxtaposes work another editor might have included in a compilation of contemporary nonfiction—essays by McPhee, Didion, Dillard, and Lopez—with unclassifiable experimental texts and a number of pieces originally published as poetry or fiction. D’Agata’s follow-up anthology, 2009’s The Lost Origins of the Essay, extends his attempt to expand the form’s boundaries by providing a lineage dating to the birth of writing itself, and again it mixes choices that are obvious with choices that are by any standard idiosyncratic. There are Seneca and Montaigne and Browne and De Quincey. There is also Zisudra of Sumer’s 5,000-year-old list of dead elders’ advice (“Neither should you buy your prostitutes from the street, for they are the kind that will usually bite”), and there is an excerpt from a 15th-century Aztec ethnography, “Definitions of Earthly Things,” whose poetry feels unintentional (“Seashell: It is white. One is large, one is small. It is spiraled, marvelous. It is that which can be blown, which resounds. I blow the seashell. I improve, I polish the seashell”). And there are Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance,” Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and one of Beckett’s “Fizzles.”
Most well-informed readers would be unlikely to locate any unifying principle in these selections but for the mini-essays D’Agata writes in the gaps between pieces. They talk across the authors’ works to one another, advancing an argument about the essay’s definition. The details of the arguments vary relative to the two volumes’ differing time horizons, but for practical purposes they are the same argument: the essay, D’Agata maintains, is “a form that’s not propelled by information, but one compelled instead by individual expression—by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt.”
This idea is hardly objectionable on its face, so obviously applicable is it to the writing of Montaigne, Emerson, and others who have never been called anything but essayists. But D’Agata tilts the statement with an accompanying emphasis on the limits of fact. He wants to rescue the essay from its superficial family relationship to journalism, whose laws about verifiable detail are justifiably ironclad, in order that it might lay claim to the privileged status of its true sibling genres, fiction and poetry. This explains his proposition that the pieces of fiction and poetry he has included might as easily have been called essays. But the essay D’Agata envisions is no retreat into the foggy interior, where facts don’t matter. Rather, he argues for a liberation from facticity while also insisting on the essay’s “innate intoxication with the mathematics of language—the multiplication of data, evidence, argument.”
This definition of the essay as a simultaneous embrace and devaluation of facts approaches sophistry in the abstract, but accompanied by examples it seems both clear and sensible. Reading Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—with its mix of prose proverbs and parables and its smattering of lineated verse orbiting a tight cluster of visionary theological notions—as an essay really does change one’s sense of what the form might be. Blake believes that all scriptures have falsified the world by arbitrarily cordoning it off into the opposing dyads of body and soul, hell and heaven, and he offers not simply a straight theological argument against these notions but also a corrective blending of materials. Far from undermining his argument’s seriousness, the use of verse lineation and invented scenes broadens its harmonics. If D’Agata’s passion occasionally feels overdone—is the essay really more marginalized than poetry?—it makes for an exciting reading experience. The anthologies, like no others I am acquainted with, are best read in order, from cover to cover. And having finished them, it is hard to argue that a more prescriptive notion of nonfiction need apply to a prose writer with pretensions to art—or rather, with pretensions to the kind of art D’Agata proposes essayists should be making.
* * * *
In other contexts, D’Agata’s declarations about the essayist’s exemption from the standards of factual verifiability come across very differently, as should be apparent from the mainstream press’s hostile reaction to The Lifespan of a Fact, his recent collaboration with his one-time fact-checker at The Believer, Jim Fingal. That book, which consists of an essay D’Agata wrote about the suicide of a Las Vegas teen, “What Happens There,” as well as the ensuing email argument he supposedly had with Fingal over the piece’s factual inaccuracies, attempts to function as a case study in differing assumptions about work published as nonfiction.
The conceit does not work as planned. Fingal finds sufficient factual discrepancies to drive a 123-page book, and the sheer repetitiveness of his discoveries undermines D’Agata’s authority well before the email exchange’s designated moments of revelation, which break in the author’s favor. D’Agata spends much of the exchange insulting Fingal, dismissing his concerns as trivial, and pulling rank, arguing in each case that beauty and poetry preclude factual accuracy. The particulars of his explanations are often laughable, so that by the time he gets around to developing his views about artistic license with any coherence, he is no longer a trustworthy speaker. Fingal, meanwhile, has the advantage of being the reader’s stand-in. Though he comes across as an unappealing figure in his own right, he is defending the interests most of us bring to the book. Rather than giving us good reason to alter our opinions, D’Agata tells us, “I am an artist and cannot be bothered to consider your ideas. By the way, you are dumb.”
So D’Agata makes it easy for reviewers to caricature him, and caricature him they have. Dan Kois of Slate calls him “a jerk” and “abrasive,” Laura Miller of Salon “dickish” and “vain.” Here is Hannah Goldfield, a fact-checker at The New Yorker:
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.
Goldfield develops none of these strong claims: about the preposterousness of D’Agata’s argument, about the definition of a good writer versus a hack. (Hacks, it should be noted, rarely attempt to deconstruct existing genres or found new ones.) Presumably D’Agata’s ideas are so antithetical to New Yorker policy that such judgments merely need stating.
And here is Jennifer B. McDonald, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, whose takedown of Lifespan was the lead review in the paper’s Sunday February 26 issue:
Perhaps by now you’re asking, Who does this D’Agata think he is? For one, he is a writing teacher at the University of Iowa. He is also a self-appointed ambassador of the essay, a literary form he feels has for too long been “terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public.” He is quick to tell you he’s not a journalist (and that’s a fact). He is also, he explains, not running for office (thank goodness, although I’m sure he’d be great at it).
In other words, the book under review is not simply bad or misguided. Its author is tainted by association with academia, by his amateurish advocacy of a cause no one asked him to represent. He is as unprincipled as the most odious kind of politician. Who does he think he is? McDonald tars D’Agata as a nobody—and then she decides, a few paragraphs on, that he is “playing God” and, come to think of it, might have the power to wreck our entire culture’s ability to communicate truthfully: “For as soon as any detail can be called arbitrary, what faith are we to put in words at all? Suddenly there is no difference between essaying the Truth and essaying Truthiness.”
D’Agata’s God-like reach must explain the appearance of a second Times takedown, in the magazine section, that same day. Here, Gideon Lewis-Kraus at least acknowledges D’Agata’s considerable skills as a writer. Lewis-Kraus calls “What Happens There” “excellent” and identifies himself as “naturally sympathetic to a soft version of [D’Agata’s] argument.” But he attributes the shortcomings in Lifespan’s actual argument to a distinction between what D’Agata might reasonably declaim “from his rostrum as an influential professor in the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa” and what it is acceptable to publish for a wide audience. Because D’Agata’s writing can be published without controversy in university-affiliated journals that no one reads, Lewis-Kraus argues, and because paying outlets expect factual accuracy regardless of whether the writing under discussion is intended as art, journalism, or something in between, D’Agata should either change his approach to writing or be content with his status as an irrelevant academic.
* * * *
Curiously, none of these reviewers pays more than passing attention to the “real” book in which “What Happens There” appears, 2010’s About a Mountain. In the most rigidly localized view, this is defensible, since “What Happens There” is the text at issue and Lifespan the meta-text. But D’Agata’s essay as published by The Believer is of only minor interest compared to the much more ambitious and accomplished About a Mountain. The violations of fact that Fingal finds in Lifespan will provide ample reason, in the view of many readers, for dismissing “What Happens There,” but critics who thus encourage a dismissal of D’Agata’s larger body of work are being at best willfully ignorant and at worst dishonest (even as they presumably get their facts right1).
Not only did the one book transparently seed the other, the one is the precondition for the other’s presence in the public sphere: About a Mountain certainly found readers who are neither students nor teachers of creative writing, and it was widely reviewed. Most importantly, it deserves discussion in the context of Lifespan because it, too ,is about factual inaccuracy. About a Mountain documents D’Agata’s attempt, while temporarily living in Las Vegas, to reckon with two forbidding bodies of fact: those surrounding the U.S. government plan to store nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, and those surrounding the suicide of sixteen-year-old Levi Presley. The latter, as I have mentioned, is the topic of the essay reproduced in Lifespan, and reviewers suggest that D’Agata’s approach to the facts in that piece is the result of laziness or immorality. Even a cursory inspection of About a Mountain gives the lie to this position.
About a Mountain is as fact-laden as any John McPhee book, but where McPhee works to clarify domains of fact generally understood only by experts, D’Agata focuses on the insufficiency of facts as vehicles for understanding contemporary reality. He draws our attention to the conflicts and gaps in expert opinion and to the terminal slipperiness of the facts relating to some of civilization’s most pressing issues. In the case of Yucca Mountain, there are actual facts that might inform government plans for the storage site: namely, scientists agree that the toxicity of nuclear waste will take one million or more years to recede. But because there could be no credible plan for the site utilizing such a time frame, the applicable federal agencies recommended that a figure of 10,000 years be used. There is no scientific justification for this figure.
So the technical data authorized at the highest levels of government, on the basis of which laws affecting Nevada’s current residents and its countless millions of future residents are being made, are fictional. And even on this fictional time frame of 10,000 years, the idea that the site can be secured is laughable, since there is little chance of communicating with humans across such an expanse of time. “What we’re dealing with here,” an expert on nuclear waste told D’Agata, “is an exercise in planning for a nuclear catastrophe that is fundamentally rhetorical. It’s theatrical security, because the preparations that are being made by the Department of Energy have no real chance of succeeding. They satisfy the public, however, because they’re a symbol of control.”
Our willingness, as a culture, to be satisfied with symbols of control is not limited to matters so large we can barely conceive of them. It translates into an unwillingness to assess uncomfortable matters more generally, including some that we might actually control, such as the extraordinarily high rate of suicide in Las Vegas. As D’Agata attempts to understand why Levi Presley threw himself from a shabby high-rise casino hotel, he learns that municipal and other local authorities actively work to obscure the fact that approximately 300 people kill themselves in the city annually, and he finds that correlations between cultural factors and suicide are poorly understood even by those who claim to be experts on the subject. His own attempt to understand Presley’s suicide leads him to inconclusive but suggestive assessments of cultural factors, some of which wind up being false insights that he identifies as such. Though Lifespan’s reviewers, for example, claim to be thunderstruck that D’Agata might wrongly peg the time it took Presley to fall from the Stratosphere Hotel at nine seconds, the mistake is part of the book’s unfolding. D’Agata enlarges on that “fact,” relayed to him by credible sources, with a weave of historical, mythological, and sociological significance, only to find out, at the conclusion of his research, that Levi Presley actually fell for eight seconds. D’Agata’s book openly presents not accomplished factual knowledge but an attempt at understanding. By copping to his mistakes and factual liberties, both in the text of the book and in a lengthy appendix, he is quite clearly broadening the harmonics of his argument about the limits of fact.
D’Agata ends About a Mountain with a virtuosic re-creation, in a single unbroken paragraph, of Levi Presley’s last hours. Various authoritative sources—coroner’s report, the boy’s parents and Tae Kwon Do teacher—supply different facts about those last hours, and this only enhances the poignancy of the depiction. The closing pages of the book represent a leap into uncertainty, an attempt to bridge the gaps between facts with other forms of understanding. This is what art alone can do, D’Agata suggests.
No matter how many facts we collect, no matter how much due diligence we conduct, we will fail to understand much of what is most vital to us. Indeed, a reliance on fact may distort understanding as often as not, and we may be more complicit in the distortion than we want to admit. Government-approved facts about Yucca Mountain encourage folly on the grandest imaginable scale; facts about suicide compiled by experts madly contradict one another. Those we elect or appoint to act on our behalf decide that we, the general public, want comfort rather than truth. So they give us facts.
It would be naïve, as D’Agata knows, to suggest that in place of facts art gives us truth. But it at least makes the effort.
* * * *
In aesthetic terms, I see one serious potential objection to D’Agata’s method. Does his interest in factually slippery portions of human experience justify his evasions of fact? I can imagine arguing, by contrast, that if one is concerned to illustrate the limits of fact, it makes more aesthetic sense to be as reliable as humanly possible, right up to the point where those limits take hold. Dramatizing our desire for factual verifiability and then showing its precise limits would, perhaps, more effectively demonstrate the necessity of using art to fill the gaps in our knowledge.
But this possible objection feels thin next to what is actually on the page. D’Agata successfully connects, via poetic association, domains of fact as disparate as real estate, the Hoover Dam, nuclear-waste disposal, Las Vegas’ alarmingly high suicide rate, Edvard Munch, the metaphysics of screams, and the evolution and possible futures of languages. He arranges these materials so that they illuminate one another thematically but in an off-kilter way that never feels heavy-handed, and the end result is one of the most convincing metaphors for contemporary American reality that I have come across in any recent piece of writing. In short, I find him broadly and deeply trustworthy as an artist. My knowledge that he fabricated certain things doesn’t make me doubt everything. Rather, I trust him to fabricate the right things. And having examined the appendix to About a Mountain, in which he details the factual inaccuracies that Fingal isolates in “What Happens There” as well as those in the book’s other 180 pages, I am satisfied that this is the case.
About a Mountain indirectly and convincingly makes the case that Lifespan fails to make by a more direct route: if we hope to evaluate a work of fact-based writing as art, the question of factual accuracy must be an aesthetic one. D’Agata’s critics completely fail to acknowledge that facts might function differently in different pieces of nonfiction writing. This is the surest sign that their denunciations of his position are about something other than art. They almost uniformly insist that factual accuracy functions as a useful artistic constraint, and the work of many talented writers stands as a testimony to this truth. But who decided that this constraint need be universal? When? Why?
We might simply maintain, with the detractors, that we already have categories for work that privileges artistic license over facts—fiction and poetry—and note that D’Agata can publish all he wants in small magazines without being bothered by fact-checkers. But this is more than a matter of asking him to re-label his work. (For what it’s worth, my copy of About a Mountain is bizarrely labeled “Cultural Studies.”) It is to suggest that he cede the right to define his genre to publishing conventions and prevailing cultural assumptions—again a sign that he is being asked to consider himself something other than an artist—and to forsake the goal of building a real readership. Why should he do this? Perhaps more to the point, why are the rest of us so ready to defend a set of standards for fact-based writing whose provenance we know so little about?
D’Agata’s detractors do not argue for an explicit equivalence between nonfiction art and nonfiction journalism, but each invokes a so-called contract between the reader and writer that functions identically in both modes. That contract supposedly demands factual verifiability of any work published under the marketing designation “nonfiction,” which designation, as D’Agata tells Fingal, dates only to the 1960s or so. The reasons for maintaining that nonfiction art and nonfiction journalism must share this constraint are nowhere addressed in the reviews of Lifespan. We are meant, instead, to share an assumption that journalism exists on a moral continuum with all of the various forms of nonfiction not primarily intent on communicating authoritative and actionable information. As far as I can tell, this assumption is based on no logic except that of the tables of contents of our more substantive glossy magazines.
D’Agata appeals, by contrast, to the capacious and established tradition of the essay in his set-to with Fingal (as in his anthologies), and he argues that many of that form’s leading figures have shared his sense of artistic license:
And indeed, if we dig down into the history of essays we will find writers like Natalia Ginzburg and Mary McCarthy and George Orwell and Henry Thoreau and Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey and Daniel Defoe and Christine de Pisan and Sei Shōnagon and St. Augustine and Plutarch and Seneca and Cicero and Herodotus and dozens of other masters of this form who regularly altered facts in order to get a closer understanding of what they were experiencing.
Revealingly, just as they fail to address About a Mountain, few of the negative reviews of Lifespan seriously engage D’Agata’s sense of the essay’s history. To admit that he is not just an ambitious practitioner but a scholar of the form he advocates on behalf of would, indeed, make it more difficult to portray him as a lazy, entitled product of the MFA pyramid scheme. It might also point up the ahistorical nature of the claims being employed to discredit him.
De Quincey remained an opium addict while writing an account of freeing himself from the substance; Thoreau, in addition to creating composite characters and collapsing time, gives no indication that Walden Pond was part of his famous mentor Emerson’s woodlot or that he went into Concord on virtually a daily basis during the two years that he lived there; Orwell’s schoolmates argued that he invented much of his autobiographical writing. Is it possible to acknowledge these writers’ work as literature of the highest order while suggesting that contemporary nonfiction writers who refuse to honor a contract requiring absolute factual accuracy are beneath contempt? If so, how? Does the passage of time change the contract between writer and reader? If so, how? Might it be possible that the contract can accommodate a tacit recognition that, as D’Agata puts it, facts need not always “function baldly as ‘facts’”?
Even if we restrict our historical view of the essay to the fact-checking era, as D’Agata’s detractors do, we find that many of the most gifted nonfiction writers from the 1930s onward have been accused of, or have admitted to, fictionalizing their material (and we find that more than one of them is or was closely associated with The New Yorker, which has for most of its existence set the industry standard for fact-checking): A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Michael Herr, Hunter S. Thompson, Vivian Gornick, Janet Malcolm, David Foster Wallace. D’Agata’s position, then, seems unique only in that he wants to have a conversation about the liberties he takes with facts, rather than simply taking the liberties and letting us decide whether to notice and discuss them. Perhaps he is guilty of bad form in bringing the issue up. Lifespan is, I think, a misconceived book that frames his argument poorly. But its tactical failure should not be construed as a sign that his position is bankrupt. If there is a convincing argument equating factual inaccuracy with artistic failure, I have not yet seen it.
Meanwhile we might simply read the work of some of the above-named writers, much of which joins About a Mountain in arguing strongly against any such equivalence. Take the great Joseph Mitchell, for my money the best New Yorker nonfiction writer of them all. The knowledge that some of his work is fabricated would seem to damn him more readily than most writers, given that he self-identified as a reporter. His portrait of the community surrounding the now-defunct Fulton Fish Market in Lower Manhattan, Old Mr. Flood, is a series of journalistic pieces anchored by the character of Hugh G. Flood, a 93-year-old resident of the Hartford House hotel adjacent to the market, who plans to live to age 115 on the strength of a seafood-only diet. “He eats with relish every kind of seafood,” Mitchell writes, “including sea-urchin eggs, blowfish tails, winkles, ink squids, and barn-door skates. He especially likes an ancient Boston breakfast dish—fried cod tongues, cheeks, and sounds, sounds being the gelatinous air bladders along the cod’s backbone.” In one of the pieces, “Mr. Flood’s Party,” Flood pours a glass of Scotch and delivers perhaps my favorite monologue on the subject of alcohol in all of literature:
When I think of all the trouble it’s caused me, I feel like I ought to pick some distillery at random and sue it for sixty-five million dollars. Still and all, there’ve been times if it hadn’t been for whiskey, I don’t know what would’ve become of me. It was either get drunk or throw the rope over the rafter. I’ve thought a lot about this matter over the years and I’ve come to the conclusion there’s two ways of looking at whiskey—it gives and it takes away, it lifts you up and it knocks you down, it hurts and it heals, it kills and it resurrects—but whichever way you look at it, I’m glad I’m not the man that invented it. That’s one thing I wouldn’t want on my soul. . . . When you stop and think of the mess and the monkey business and the fractured skulls and the commotion and the calamity and the stomach distress and the wife beating and the poor little children without any shoes and the howling and the hell he’s been responsible for down through the centuries—why, good God A’mighty! Whoever he was, they’ve probably got him put away in a special brimstone pit, the deepest, red-hottest pit in hell, the one the preachers tell about, the one without any bottom. . . . And then again, just as likely, he might’ve gone to heaven.
Though the Flood pieces were published as nonfiction in the New Yorker, Flood is fictional, a composite of fish-market denizens and Mitchell himself. It was, furthermore, Harold Ross—The New Yorker’s founding editor, the person who built that most legendary of fact-checking departments—who apparently suggested this approach to the material.
Mitchell builds immense trust in ways literary artists always have, with his voice, his eye, his ear, and his understanding of humanity. I trust him to fabricate the right things. If the above monologue wasn’t actually delivered by a human Mitchell came to know, it should have been. When the pieces were published in book form as Old Mr. Flood, the author appended a preface in which he declared, “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts.” He continued writing brilliantly for The New Yorker for another seventeen years.
Joseph Mitchell’s artistic practices don’t, of course, necessarily authorize D’Agata’s position. Nor does Harold Ross’s enthusiasm for publishing a hybrid of journalism and literature negate his successors’ desire to publish only nonfiction whose factual accuracy is beyond dispute. Sixty years divide us from Ross’s suggestion that Mitchell combine journalism with fiction. The publishing world of today bears little resemblance to the one Ross and Mitchell took for granted, and D’Agata must convince us of the rightness of his methods in today’s terms. But those who have most visibly and forcefully dismissed his argument depend on an appeal to prejudice in which eternal factual integrity as epitomized by The New Yorker represents the unquestioned good.
It is obvious why otherwise astute people might embrace such an unsubtle position. The New Yorker, along with The New York Times and other custodians of Serious Journalism, represents the last redoubt of the reality-based community. We need these publications to put their factual bona fides beyond dispute. We undoubtedly need this more, right now, than we need them to support literature. But conflating literature with journalism or political speech, as D’Agata’s detractors have done with varying degrees of explicitness, is a distraction at best. We silence D’Agata because we can’t silence Murdoch or Rove. D’Agata himself might be proud of inventing such a clear example of purely symbolic control.
Mark Lane’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Denver Quarterly, The Oxford American, Avery: An Anthology of New Fiction, The New Orleans Review, and Harp & Altar, among others.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Mark Lane