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.

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