Here’s a fact: I haven’t read John D’Agata’s new book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Even so, audacious as I am (obstreperous, too), I’ve been arguing about it with everyone else.
But what are excerpts for (see Harper’s) —and reviews, too—if not to whet our appetites, not just for the work, but for the subject, itself; and moreover, to involve us in the larger conversation, which, in this case, if you believe our own David Ulin, comes out of D’Agata’s “vivid and reflective meditation on the nature of nonfiction as literary art.” Except—and this is where I get hung up—John D’Agata keeps insisting he isn’t writing nonfiction: In fact, as quoted in David’s generous and smart review, he says of About a Mountain (Norton, 2010) and the excerpted article in The Believer, on which the new book is based: “I’m not calling this ‘nonfiction… and neither do I intend to call anything that I write ‘nonfiction,’ because I don’t accept that term as a useful description of anything that I value in literature.”
But that was only the most recent development (as of this writing and as far as I know), in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Before David’s even-handed endorsement, came Laura Miller at Salon, David Kois at Slate, and Hannah Goldfield at The New Yorker. And all along Dinty Moore has been keeping track of the hoopla at the Brevity Blog, where dozens of readers and writers (me too) have chimed in from various angles to say what they think about this latest stunt: And a stunt it is—a staged conversation between D’Agata and Jim Fingal, his fact checker at The Believer—which is fine, perfectly okay; almost anything’s okay in nonfiction, as long as we tip the reader off.
Look, I’m not arguing now about Montaigne or Orwell or Hazlitt or White, or any of the late greats whom we can’t actually ask about the element of truth in their work. And yes, of course, absolutely: The essay—rant, rave, or meditation—is a try, an attempt; points to nothing so much as the truth of one writer’s imaginings and the way his or her mind wanders and works. Therein lies the joy, the suspense, the sense of discovery in creative nonfiction—in fiction and poetry, too, yes?—for reader and writer alike. So what’s the difference? In nonfiction, the writer’s on the block: if she makes a wrong turn—if she conflates, compresses, alters for her own purposes, serves her own agenda—she can’t shove it off on a character, as in: He did it, he’s the one, he’s not to be trusted. No—however we riff and extrapolate, the onus is on us: We’re creating a persona, yes—that artifice is assumed—and he or she is reliable or not. Said Lawrence Weschler (interviewed by David Ulin in the L.A. Times, in 2009: “… every narrative voice — and especially every nonfiction narrative voice — is a fiction. And the world of writing and reading is divided into those who know this and those who don’t. When I report, I aspire to accuracy, fairness, all those things, but after I’ve gathered the material and I have this pile of notes on the table, that’s when the fun starts.” I have as opposed to I change. What hubris to change them (the facts), unless we cop to it: unless we remind our readers, before or during (not after), this is the world according to me.
However, says D’Agata, in a recent interview: “I think it is art’s job to trick us. I think it is art’s job to lure us into terrain that is going to confuse us, perhaps make us feel uncomfortable and perhaps open up to us possibilities in the world that we hadn’t earlier considered.”
To make us uncomfortable? Yes. To open us up? You bet. But to trick us? Into what exactly? Into believing in a concocted version of the truth that serves an author who couldn’t make sense out of events as they happened? Who couldn’t resist the urge to come up with something better or worse or more interesting? Well, okay, but what’s the point if we’re not in on the trick? D’Agata is a fine writer and a splendid thinker; I want to know what he makes of the actual circumstances; and if he pretends he doesn’t owe them or me an authentic shake, I’ll feel duped. It’s as if I’m vegetarian and a celebrated chef decided to lie to me about the soup course; passed it off as vegetable when it’s chicken. Sure enough, it’s delicious—but this is clever? This is revelatory? Or is it a cop-out? The challenge isn’t to fool me into eating chicken, but rather to work with vegetables to make a soup that is just as astounding.
The short of it? I want my nonfiction author to evidence some respect for his subject and for me. If he intends to play with the facts, I want him to tell me so, as with Jo Ann Beard, in “The Fourth State of Matter,” who having evidently left the scene of the crime is compelled to imagine it; as with Lauren Slater, who’s straight as can be about her strategy in a memoir titled Lying; As with Samantha Dunn, who writes early on of one of her characters in Faith in Carlos Gomez: “Let’s call him Rafael, which is nowhere near his real name, and let’s say he’s from Argentina, which he’s not.”
We all understand that the truth is not just elusive but occasionally boring, confounding, or damning. But this is what we do! We essay to decode it. We are not, in pursuit of “meaning,” allowed to tweak; not unless A) we say we’re tweaking or B) we identify the work as fiction. And let’s say we go ahead and do the former, tweak for meaning: isn’t it possible we’ve therefore missed out on the real deal? Don’t we have to wonder about that? Does it not occur to John D’Agata to question himself?
Here’s D’Agata’s blurb on the back of Michael Martone’s Racing in Place (Georgia, 2008). “The thing that’s so frustrating about Michael Martone is that his wonderful mercurial tendencies don’t let those of us in nonfiction completely call him our own.” I know, I know, a blurb is only a blurb. Still it caught my eye.
But whether D’Agata has defected or not in the last four years, whether his work is nonfiction, or some fourth or fifth or sixth alternative, where’s his humility? Writing, like all performance, is a kind of seduction: as such it requires confidence, the courage of our convictions, and self-scrutiny, too. Even when we’re getting it right it behooves us to question ourselves; to wonder, to doubt, to consider the possibilities. You want to essay? By all means, it’s a fine tradition. Otherwise, call your story a story and no need to call names—for shame, John D’Agata!—you who were one of our own: When did you decide that nonfiction isn’t valuable? Isn’t art?
Where are the eyes that looked so mild,
Where are the eyes that looked so mild,
Where are the eyes that looked so mild
When my poor heart you first beguiled
Why did ya run from me and the child
Johnny I hardly knew ye…