I find myself blogging from an unexpected mental place this week. Normally, I want creativity and art to be exactly that, without limits. I may not like what you create, but I’ll defend to the death your right to create it, and all that (within reason—anything that harms someone else, for instance, crosses my line).
This week, I learned of the long and fascinating story of a man named Jim Fingal, fact-checker for The Believer, and the twisting route he was led on by the work of author John D’Agata. The New York Times wrote about this story twice last month, once in the magazine and once in the Sunday Book Review, discussing The Lifespan of a Fact, which tells the story of Fingal and D’Agata in detail. A fellow Goddard alum mentioned it on Facebook this week. The short version is this: D’Agata wrote a piece about a teen’s suicide in Las Vegas in 2002, but despite calling it an “essay”—which at least to my mind strongly implies if not outright states this is a work of nonfiction—changed a large number of details, from the critical to the mundane, all in the name of “art.” Some of these details included names of clubs and the dates on which coinciding (or, as it turns out, not coinciding at all) events occurred.
It would never occur to me to do such a thing if I were writing a piece of nonfiction. It would definitely occur if I were writing a fictional story based on an actual event. But even so, these are two separate territories in my head, and, I suspect, in the heads of most readers and writers. They’re drilled into us from the time we start to read, and to play with these definitions now is a bit like casually dropping into conversation that, “By the way, turns out the moon really is made of green cheese, and gravity isn’t a constant.” Our concepts of fiction and nonfiction are fundamental to our understanding of the world around us. Messing with them is no small thing.
When I read about D’Agata’s approach to his “nonfiction” writing, I was shocked. How can you change so much and expect your reader to understand that what you’re really doing is blurring the distinction between reality and art in a way that is not immediately clear and therefore makes the whole piece unreliable? I think writers owe their readers more than that. As a reader, I don’t want to have to wonder the whole way through what I’m reading what’s real and what’s not, and I most definitely do not want to get to the end and then find out that the essay I thought was a piece of nonfiction, and therefore took at its word, was not actually true. I’d feel betrayed at best, and resent the author for wasting my time. I’d certainly never want to waste my time reading any of his or her work ever again (and several of the reviews of Lifespan on Amazon mention that they’ll never read D’Agata again now that they know how he works).
And that’s really the crux of the matter, I think. Writers need readers. Without readers, we can put words down on a page, but they lose something when they live only for us. We need readers to share in our visions. It’s just not a one-way street. D’Agata, however, has violated the convention that builds those reader-writer relationships in a way that may not only damage his own relationship with his readers, but that of every other nonfiction writer. I hope that’s an exaggeration, but when readers learn that they may not be able to trust one nonfiction author, I doubt it’s a stretch for them to question others, too. (Remember James Frey? If that’s not enough, look at the esteem many people have lost for the news media over the last decade or so.) As one of the commenters on the NYT’s magazine article said, “We will have to give up saying “truth is stranger than fiction” if we don’t know which is which.”
D’Agata’s argument for what he’s done is that “it’s art.” (“Jim: I mean, what exactly gives you the authority to introduce half-backed legend as fact and sidestep questions of facticity? John: It’s called art, d***head. Jim: That’s your excuse for everything.”) He claims he’s trying to make something more true by changing the facts, which certainly doesn’t make any sense to me. While perhaps the original essay as submitted by D’Agata reads more smoothly, pleasantly, or vibrantly than what The Believer finally ran, it just wasn’t true. When writing crosses the line into deception, it seems to me it should either be called fiction, or at least labeled “based on a true story,” or provided with footnotes clarifying which elements have been changed because of their sound or their number of syllables—and no one really wants to present all that, or read it.