Sunday, March 04, 2012

Facts Matter

If you are reading this blog* then you probably believe that facts matter. You know that determining facts is not as easy as it might seem but it is really important for any writer trying to deal with the real, trying to deal with whatever it is that we might call "truth," or at least a version of truth. We cannot know everything. We might get things wrong despite our best intentions. But we do our best. And if you are like me you look askance at best and call bullshit more probably when people prattle on about fiction being more true than nonfiction because that assertion is nonsense.

Perhaps this is why I got so angry in the last week or so when I read about a new book. Or I should say, when I read about the content and debate that makes up a new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, which is credited to John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. I say "credited to" because the book is an odd creature, from what I can discern (note that I am not reviewing the book, which I have not read, but the conflict related to it, which you can read enough about here and here to form a pretty solid opinion). It effectively consists of the correspondence and other elements that a historian might call "primary source evidence" of the interactions of an author, D'Agata, and the young man tasked to be his fact checker, Fingal.

D'Agata, who teaches writing at the Iowa Writer's Workshop (and you'll soon come to see why I am chagrined to say that he teaches "non-fiction") wrote a story about a suicide in Las Vegas that is, as the best stories are, about more than the thing at hand, which is to say that it is a reflection on suicide and Las Vegas and death and, ironically enough, truth and facts. Fingal went to work with his fact checking, and from early on it was clear that something was wrong -- D'Agata had changed the names of businesses and schools and had apparently changed scores of facts for no reason other than pretentious twaddle about his "art." Tellingly, D'Agata had submitted the piece to Harper's and the fact checkers had revealed the same issues and had the scruples to pass on the piece.

John D'Agata (and no, I had not heard of him either) was not, it turned out, big enough to bully Harper's.

So he moved on to The Believer, a literary magazine of which I have been a devotee for more than seven years. That is where Fingal got hold of what D'Agata insisted was an "essay," and thus a higher calling, as opposed to a simple work of non-fiction, a distinction that is decidedly without a difference in my mind, and I too am a fan of the essay as a form of expression. Sadly, though, while Fingal was able to get some of the intentional errors in D'Agata's piece rewritten, many remained.

Apparently John D'Agata, of whom you and I had never heard, is big enough to bully The Believer.

The piece that resulted is good. But it is not so good that basic rules of writing and evidence should not have applied to its author. D'Agata claims that he does not owe the victim of the suicide he uses as a springboard or the victim's parents or history or nonfiction or The Believer or his editors or his audience fealty to those facts, those realities, that can be pinned down. Worse still, he was a world class bully to Fingal who was, it should be pointed out, simply doing his job for a magazine for which D'Agata wanted to be published. And, perhaps ironically, in doing his job Fingal was attempting to do a sort justice to the victim of the suicide D'Agata uses as a springboard, to the victim's parents to history to nonfiction to The Believer to his editors and to his audience by maintaining fealty to those facts, those realities, that can be pinned down.

It is, to be blunt, utter bullshit to assert, as D'Agata repeatedly does that good nonfiction is in opposition to the art of good writing, and anyone reading this can make a list of dozens and were you to bother hundreds of writers of nonfiction -- say historians and journalists and, yes, essayists -- who wipe the floor with John D'Agata of whom you and I had never heard prior to the past few days.

*And if you are still reading I probably don't deserve you as a reader as I've been horrible at posting here for the last year or so.

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