Art and Truth

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.

2 thoughts on “Art and Truth”

  1. Me, I agree with you about wanting a clear distinction between fact and fiction. I find it beyond repugnant that folks like Jayson Blair, Mike Daisey put forward stuff in a clearly non-fictional form and forum that turns out to be, well, counterfactual. (a euphemism for counterfeit or falsehood).

    There is precedent, and plenty of it, for messing with the forms, however; what is missing here is honesty about the messing-about that is being done.

    Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, for example, takes the form of a novel. But Capote baldly stated that it was a true story, deeply researched. His claim (which AFAIK has never been challenged, much less refuted) is that every event in the book is told as it actually occurred, in its actual sequence and with its actual actors. He acknowledged making up the dialog but asserted that this was done after hours of interviews with those speakers that remained alive after the crime.

    Today there is plenty in the genre of ‘true crime’ and even more in the genre of ‘faction’, but in 1966 when In Cold Blood came out it was a stunning innovation, using the excitement and suspense of a novel without making stuff up.

    And then there’s 19th-Century journalism, which at this remove we can sometimes laugh at for its sensationalism, racism, sexism, and political motivation. As if that never happened nowadays.

    I find it heartening that these guys are being caught and ‘outed’ in the press just now; makes me think we might get to the end of ‘he said/ she said’ journalism one of these days.

  2. I’m not sure we can categorize so broadly as to make Jayson Blair, Mike Daisey, and John D’Agata the same. Blair was an outright liar who was making stuff up rather than doing his job. Daisey is a concerned citizen who is also a dramatist—my understanding (which I freely admit may be lacking as I haven’t followed his case in great detail) is that the issue arose from the fact that he’s used to taking dramatic license to make a point in his one-man show and didn’t specify that that’s what he presented on the radio, which strikes me as a lack of forethought rather than an actual attempt to deceive.

    D’Agata, on the other hand, teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa, also known as the Iowa Writers Workshop, also known as the be-all and end-all of American writing for many folks. It’s a very prestigious gig, which provokes a wide range of responses in me, from relief that I didn’t go there (not that I ever actually wanted to) to shock that UI would have him on the faculty, to horror at what he’s teaching MFA students who might fall for his act.

    If his approach has any artistic or literary merit at all (which I doubt, especially from reading his quotes in the NYT), it’ll be forever tarnished now. The sad thing is that stipulating that his work is based in fact but that some details have been changed for literary purposes would have prevented this problem in the first place; we’re all used to seeing “based on a true story” on movie posters and aren’t surprised when we find out some elements were changed for the movie. It’s when that’s not stipulated that we end up incensed because we feel like we’ve been had. (Certainly there is such a thing as creative nonfiction, but I am fairly certain it does not involve changing facts to suit your every whim.)

    I think D’Agata needs to get over himself and respect convention in this particular case. I suspect that he thinks he’s too good for that (he teaches at Iowa!), or that labeling his work appropriately would be dumbing it down, and therefore won’t do it. And in that case, I can only hope that eventually his reader base will vote with its collective wallet.

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