some thoughts on the essay, the lifespan of facts, and street photography

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the ongoing debate about truth, genre, and the writer’s responsibilities to the reader, at the center of which is self-declared essayist John D’Agata. Well, the debate rages on. I particularly appreciate Dinty Moore’s lucid comments about D’Agata’s rather manipulative approach to what is, in the end, a really valuable conversation about nonfiction writing.

If you haven’t been keeping up, what you need to know is this. John D’Agata (lyric essay writer) and Jim Fingal (fact checker) recently published a book which contains their lengthy and heated exchange about an essay by D’Agata which was published in The Believer. The book quickly reveals D’Agata’s willingness to change the facts on what appears to be an otherwise-journalistic essay about a boy’s suicide in Las Vegas. The two men debate the merits of the facts in the face of larger aesthetic choices, with Fingal representing a relentless (and at times extreme) commitment to factuality and D’Agata interested primarily in aesthetics (the rhythm of a sentence is better, for example, when it says there were 34 strip clubs in Vegas, despite the fact that there were actually only 31).

Now, it turns out that even the e-mail exchange was a kind of exaggerated performance piece, with the each man playing his respective role in an attempt to make the conversation less “nerdy,” more “dramatic,” and ultimately, more publishable.

Because I cannot resist, I decided to chime in on this debate in the comments section of Dinty’s blog post and ended up writing a relatively-long response. So I thought I’d post it here as well, for anyone who might be interested in the larger conversation about fiction and nonfiction, essay writing, facts, truth, and the writer’s obligations to his or her readers. If you are a true nonfiction nerd, and interested in more discussion, check out the many other comments in response to Dinty’s post.

Here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts on the matter:

Etymologically speaking, “essay” once meant “to try” and also “to weigh” or “to test.” And one of the things I love about the personal essay is that it incorporates those historical definitions into its contemporary form. But “essay” as we use it today is a noun that contains the verb. And this noun also contains specific ideas about truth, which can’t be arbitrarily dismissed.

Contemporary essays can take several different forms. When I teach my students in a class on Literary Nonfiction about the personal essay, I have to distinguish it from the use of the word they are most familiar with: the academic essay. Both forms contain the idea of trying, both are meditative, but the academic essay requires citation and demonstrated, highly-transparent factual reliability. When a student writes an academic essay, the implied contract with his or her reader (the professor as well as other scholars), contains this reliability. This is a non-negotiable quality of this kind of essay. The personal essay, while not requiring citation, does require a kind of rigorous and honest reflection. To ignore or change facts for convenience or for aesthetic value negates that rigor.

It is not incumbent on D’Agata to label this new thing he’s created but, as Ned Stuckey-French points out, he can’t rightfully appropriate a label that contains within its very nature an implied commitment to truth, as the word “essay” does today, both in academic and literary contexts. And, as Dinty points out, this implication of truth is perpetuated by D’Agata’s publisher and his public position as a teacher of nonfiction writing. That he’s doing something creative and innovative is good for both readers and writers, but that his approach simultaneously undermines the work of essayists is a legitimate concern of those who read and write in this particular genre.

Comparing D’Agata’s work to that of modern artists (as Dinty and many commenters do) doesn’t really work for me. Instead, I think of fine art street photographers like Gary Winogrand or Henri Cartier-Bresson (and also of my friend John Goldsmith, who is doing great work here in Vancouver). Because it is explicitly interested in timing, composition and the reality of daily life, street photography makes an implied contract with its viewers that every element within the frame actually existed, as represented, in that particular moment in time. Part of the challenge of the genre is capturing real life in a way that’s provocative and aesthetic and engaging. If a street photographer were to alter her image because the composition would be a little better if the woman on the right was a red-head not a blonde, or if he digitally removes one of the people from the frame, he or she is no longer doing street photography. The image may have greater aesthetic value with the change, and it may still be called art, but it cannot accurately be called street photography.

I’ve always admired writers who are willing to work within that gray area between fiction and nonfiction, and to raise provocative questions about the writer’s responsibility to facts, truth, and to his or her readers. But the writers I admire, people like Lauren Slater (in her “metaphorical memoir” Lying) and Dave Eggers (in his novel/autobiography What is the What), do this in a way that is playful rather than manipulative. They raise important questions about genre without undermining others who are working within those genres, and they are upfront in their challenges to readers’ expectations. In Lying, for example, Slater’s first sentence is “I exaggerate.” She goes on to include a letter to her publisher, arguing for marketing the book as a memoir despite its obvious refusal to stick to the facts. She’s jerking us around, but we know, from the very start. And our inability to pinpoint what did and did not happen is a part of the story itself.

I haven’t yet read D’Agata’s About a Mountain, but I suspect I’ll be joining the leagues of people who have thanks to the mess of publicity he’s managed to stir up.

And, in a totally unrelated footnote (as is becoming tradition here), a heartening report on re-reading books:–reading-offer-mental-health-benefits.html

4 thoughts on “some thoughts on the essay, the lifespan of facts, and street photography

  1. there is this website too thats called the love story project …. maybe u shud check it out. that 1 has over 7k hits!!!!!!!

  2. The insistence you have on having integrity in writing has always inspired me. I have never thought of integrity in writing (that sounds… wrong, now) until I heard it from you. Now I look back at the binder, I’m reminded about the idea of accountable reading – even the reader can be accountable! One thing I remember from another class is that I mentioned the idea of the writer betraying his/her readers when the writer puts out a piece of fiction and sell it as nonfiction; someone actually laughed out loud (well the quiet, kind of in the background kind). I still have no clue why he/she laughed, because I know this kind of integrity is nothing to laugh about.

    • Love this comment, Billy. I think we want what purports to be true to actually be true because we sometimes want to believe that we live in a world where the truth is stranger (and more potent) than fiction.

  3. Pingback: Memory, storytelling, and revisionist histories | the love story project

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