Friday, February 24, 2012

John D'Agata Breaks Rules, Windows

Why aren’t we spending more time talking about how suave John D’Agata looks in his author photos, how buff, or what nice hair he has, or how he could totally be cast as Fox Mulder’s foxy kid brother? We could be speculating about his dresser full of simple, well-fitted t-shirts, or why he’s not sporting an earring, yet, but we’re not. We’re not talking about any of these things, because apparently these are not the facts that interest us (at least not, generally, in public). No, here, we are interested in John D’Agata, writer, provocateur.

We are interested in Facts, facts, FACTS, “facts”: The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and (fact-checked by) Jim Fingal.

I’m going to assume that most people (in the world) are familiar with the ensuing controversy, and not spend a lot of time laying down the facts, such as they are. So if you haven’t already, you should probably at least check out the excerpt published in February’s Harper’s, this (pretty scathing) review from Laura Miller, a senior writer at, this string of posts on Brevity’s blog, and if you are so inclined, I would even recommend the actual book itself. Boiled down, our essential question here is: What is sacrosanct in Nonfiction, if not the genre’s adherence to Fact? Sub-question: Is John D’Agata ruining Nonfiction as we know it, i.e. should we hate John D’Agata for fudging facts?

Answer: I don’t know. I’m still on the fence myself, am waiting to be pushed or pulled one way or the other. However, several of my Intro to Creative Nonfiction students have weighed in, and as their opinions are not yet clouded by visions of D’Agata’s (literary) musculature, they’ve managed to raise some good points that I’d like to put forth:

Discussing the review, Eric, a junior in Interdisciplinary Studies, suggested, “The whole thing is really a faked conversation aimed at proving a point about what the lyric essay is, its purpose, and usefulness. As readers, we should probably find this more entertaining than controversial. Laura Miller is taking things way too seriously.”

Admittedly, Miller advances some sound arguments against what D’Agata has done, and she aptly describes the artistic and moral merits of proper fact-checking. But she also harps, again and again, on the (yes, inane) grandstanding being done by both D’Agata and fact-checker Fingal, and in doing so, she kind of misses the point: It’s a farce.

To be fair, Harper’s got us off on the wrong foot. Miller herself recognizes that “several of D’Agata’s most dickish replies have been cherry-picked for inclusion” and that the excerpt the magazine published “is not a fair representation of the book.” But still, it snared us all. We got so caught up in Why is Fingal so anal? and Can D’Agata possibly be such an ass? that we’ve forgotten to dig deeper, to try to discover what is really going on here. Eric is right: The Lifespan of a Fact is a two-fold defense of the lyric essay, on the surface a defense of altering facts for the sake of poetry (which you can buy or not; this is being hotly debated elsewhere), but also, underneath, it is an implicit defense of the economy of the lyric essay, and the assertion that “similitude often seems more revealing than verisimilitude.

The boneheaded back and forth between the two is a ruse, is subterfuge, is masking the fact that the book is more than the mere document it posits itself to be. Rather it is, itself, an essay. Of course. And recognizing this, perhaps we should focus less on what the piece says, and more on how it performs.

Mid-way through the first section of the book we see that D’Agata, in paragraph 9 of the original Levi Presley article, refers to a man named Michael Gilmartin as “the public relations manager at the Stratosphere Hotel.” And Fingal, playing his role with verve, jumps on this: “Gilmartin’s official title at the Stratosphere is the ‘vice president of public relations,’ according to a press release I found, though his title could have changed since 2002. Also, this part of the essay seems to be told from the point of view of the present looking back, so maybe we should refer to him as the ‘public relations manager at the time’?” (emphasis mine). As if batting off a t-ball stand, D’Agata replies, “No, that’s ridiculously clunky. Leave it alone. And please don’t offer to do any more writing for me, thank you.”

No, that’s ridiculously clunky. That is clunky, I guess. Maybe ridiculously clunky. Maybe he/we should just tighten it up? Simplify. For clarity. Clarify. For simplicity. For better, easier ingestion and understanding. I get this, I think.

As writers of NF parsing the TOTAL NOISE of the world, we are inundated by information. And this book is a clever, clever way of giving us all of the information that research for this article dredged up—

The State of Nevada reports that there were a total of 2,762 deaths that year from cancer…887 upper respiratory cancer deaths, and 275 lower intestinal tract cancer deaths...and it should be noted that those two regions alone can include lung cancer, tracheal cancer, colon cancer, bronchial cancer, rectal cancer, and anal cancer, and that isn’t taking into account the distinct diagnoses of these cancers that are also possible…the National Cancer Institute divides “brain cancer” alone into at least nine different categories, a few of which are themselves further divided into sub-categories, like: Brain Tumor, Adult; Brain Tumor, Brain Stem Glioma, Childhood; Brain Tumor, Cerebellar Astrocytoma/Malignant Glioma, Childhood; Brain Tumor, Ependymoma, Childhood; Brain Tumor, Medulloblastoma, Childhood; Brain Tumor, Supratentorial Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumors, Childhood… … … … …

—only to emphasize just how ridiculous it would be to try to squeeze it all into an article, an essay, whatever. Honestly, I don’t think The Lifespan of a Fact is actually meant to be read. As a book, it is ridiculous. It is a farce. But it allows D’Agata to make this point: “I really don’t think that readers would be upset if they found out that I lumped Supratentorial Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumors and Childhood Medulloblatoma together under the category of ‘a few types of cancer’”—a good point, probably. And to solicit: “Please give me a break with this shit.”

This book is an argument by reductio ad absurdum, a defense of the eloquence and thrift of D’Agata’s creation, the lyric essay. And can’t we all agree that D’Agata’s way is much neater, tidier, and maybe, ultimately, more effective at conveying the meaning inherent in the situation?

The Lifespan of a Fact embodies this argument. It is itself a comment on how we parse information, how we might begin to distill and disseminate information that matters in an honest, but also an interesting and relatable, way. In a way that might help our readers get it.

Of course, really, maybe all of this is just an argument for the attack side: If there isn’t room for everything in an essay, maybe we should simply scale back and pick the facts we do include more judiciously. Maybe John D’Agata is evil. He wanted to fit a square peg into a round hole so he shaved off the peg’s unwieldy angles. And, as suggested by another of my students, a junior studying Neurology & Cognitive Science, “If you have to change 34 to 31 for the flow of a sentence, maybe it wasn’t the best sentence to begin with.” Which is to say, I think, that lacking a perfect match, rather than round the peg, maybe D’Agata should have put more into squaring the hole. Which is to say, rather than fudge the facts to fit the project, maybe he should have adapted the project to fit the facts. After all, isn’t that the trick (and the beauty) of nonfiction: finding a way to make something wonderful with what we’re given?

I don’t know. It all seems, somehow, very complicated.

Whatever the case, I am glad someone is out there in the world throwing rocks at our windows, raising these questions with bravado and forcing us to seek answers, if not for the genre, at least for ourselves.