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Are facts stupid?
February 16, 2012 7:42 AM   Subscribe

"Readers who demand verifiable truth in nonfiction—who were upset about James Frey, for example—are unsophisticated and ignorant, D’Agata said, and he wants to change that." Dan Kois reviews The Lifespan of a Fact, the transcript of the editorial battle between author and fact-checker on John D'agata's piece in the Believer (excerpt; full article requires payment) on the suicide of Levi Presley, who killed himself by jumping off the observation deck of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas in 2002.
posted by shivohum (107 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sure made-up facts can be "truer than" real facts. Just don't call them "non-fiction".

Also, if you can't make art within the confines of the real, then you are a crappy artist.
posted by DU at 7:50 AM on February 16, 2012 [18 favorites]


It really is pretty amazing that anyone believed Frey's stories, in retrospect.
posted by COBRA! at 7:53 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Questions of fact aside, Frey is more 'upsetting' for his lousy writing and silly posturing than anything else.
posted by jonmc at 7:54 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Readers demand truth in nonfiction because that is what nonfiction means. Words mean things. The extent to which words do not mean things is the extent to which communication becomes increasingly impossible or meaningless.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:55 AM on February 16, 2012 [56 favorites]


As long as the author's up front about a piece being semi-fictional, I'm okay with that. Some experiences, or aspects of them, can't be fully conveyed through a straightforward presentation of facts. Fact and truth don't always overlap.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 7:56 AM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Frey's problem was not in writing something that wasn't true, or even in writing something that wasn't true under the banner of nonfiction. His problem was that he was writing in that particular genre of memoir where the value is in how much you've suffered and how much you've overcome.
posted by Jeanne at 7:57 AM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


“Story-truth,” Tim O’Brien wrote, “is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

No, no, no, never, ever, no. Once you start living in the world of stories and not reality terrible things start happening, because reality does not work like stories. Stories work like stories.

You can argue that fiction is more beautiful or that you wish it were true or that it validates how you want to believe things are, but there are things that don't go away when you ignore them, and they do not care about your addiction to narrative.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:59 AM on February 16, 2012 [38 favorites]


What's funny is that James Frey's "lies" didn't feel any truer. In fact, I remember reading it when I first came out and thinking, "This can't be for real." All the genuine insights to be gained from such a story seemed to be obscured behind a bunch of ridiculous prejudices and plot contrivances, and even his descriptions of drug use rang false. I was willing to chalk it all up to bad writing, but when he was outed as a fraud it was the least surprising thing ever.
posted by hermitosis at 7:59 AM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]




Readers demand truth in nonfiction because that is what nonfiction means. Words mean things. The extent to which words do not mean things is the extent to which communication becomes increasingly impossible or meaningless

Well, I don't know if readers do demand that much truth. Creative non fiction and op-ed are hugely successful genres right now, and neither is terrible reliable. People seem to resent being outright lied to, but they also keep going back for more.

I tend to go for more academic works if I want truth. At least most academics don't take the Carlos Castendas of the world seriously, but pop culture is all over books like "Three Cups of Tea."

The occasional scandal and fight about that stuff is unsurprising, and when a genre has accepted such low standards of "fact" it will inevitably have some moments of confusion.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:02 AM on February 16, 2012


"Readers who demand verifiable truth in nonfiction ... are unsophisticated and ignorant, D’Agata said, and he wants to change that."

Fox News is always hiring, Mr. D'Agata. Be the change you wish to see.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:03 AM on February 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


We really do like in an era of truthiness, don't we? Non-fiction writers getting pissy because people expect them to write non-fiction? Beam me up, Scotty, this planet sucks.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:03 AM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Pope Guilty: "“Story-truth,” Tim O’Brien wrote, “is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

No, no, no, never, ever, no. Once you start living in the world of stories and not reality terrible things start happening, because reality does not work like stories. Stories work like stories.

You can argue that fiction is more beautiful or that you wish it were true or that it validates how you want to believe things are, but there are things that don't go away when you ignore them, and they do not care about your addiction to narrative."

I think you're misreading O'Brien here. He's not saying that non-factual stories are a replacement for the actual facts. He's saying that there's a different kind of truth that stories can tell that is beyond (or behind) the facts.
posted by that's candlepin at 8:03 AM on February 16, 2012 [13 favorites]


like live
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:04 AM on February 16, 2012


If someone is telling a story, a question like "Was the car that hit you dark blue or dark green?" isn't doing much other than clarifying an insignificant fact, but the question "Were you actually hit by a car?" does have profound consequences, depending on the answer.

Also, I might as well be out with this. I am James Frey.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:05 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


^citation needed^
posted by cyphill at 8:09 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]




I think you're misreading O'Brien here. He's not saying that non-factual stories are a replacement for the actual facts. He's saying that there's a different kind of truth that stories can tell that is beyond (or behind) the facts.
posted by that's candlepin at 8:03 AM on February 16


Yeah, well we definitely do construct narratives and shape stories in their telling. And depending on the analysis you use, and what you focus on, how you tell the story can be wildly different.

There's a lot of discussion to be had around those things, and we tend to gloss over them. "Media must tell the truth," is great, but you could theoretically tell the same story from fourteen different directions.

You could have very well articulated analysis of the same thing from multiple perspectives fit into wholly different narratives without having to actually lie. But if you start changing the facts to suit yours story then yeah, it isn't non-fiction any more.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:10 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think you're misreading O'Brien here. He's not saying that non-factual stories are a replacement for the actual facts. He's saying that there's a different kind of truth that stories can tell that is beyond (or behind) the facts.

And I'm saying that "feels good" is not "true", it's "makes me feel a way that I would like to believe is right." Stories can make any point you want; you can arrange a narrative to support any position. Facts are facts, now matter how unpleasant.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:10 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, I might as well be out with this. I am James Frey.

But if you're James Frey, then I don't believe you. That means you're not James Frey. Now I don't have any reason to disbelieve you, so, you're James Frey. But -

*head explodes*
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:11 AM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think this conversation would ultimately go a lot smoother if we could contrive to avoid using the word "truth". It's got about as many possible interpretations and definitions and shades of ambiguity as "art" or "God" or "evil". Everything you say about it might be correct or not, depending on what you're using the word to mean, and if you can't come out and say what you're using it to mean--for instance, by replacing it with a better description of what you mean--then perhaps you're just not good at that kind of writing, but then again, perhaps you don't know what you're talking about.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:11 AM on February 16, 2012


There's an interesting issue in this article about the difference between what Tim O'Brien wrote in his memoir, and what John D'Agata wrote in his essay, that for some reason only gets enough mention to muck up the discussion as a whole.

It seems like the main difference between the two is that O'Brien used fiction to bridge the gap between hard facts and the emotional dimension of the events that fiction conveys more strongly. Because he was telling a story, not engaging in reporting.

Whereas D'Agata's piece, which I remember reading in The Believer, was a piece of reporting that he gussied up into an overheated melodrama through a combination of laziness and bullshit.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:13 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


He's saying that there's a different kind of truth that stories can tell that is beyond (or behind) the facts.

Yes, that's what he's saying, but that's a dangerous thing to say. Stories can tell you "truths" beyond the simple facts on their face that they recount, but these are just as likely to be false as anything else. You read the stories that tell you what you want to hear and then you feel good because the "truth" that you've divined in them is in accord with your existing beliefs. It feels like you are learning something new and true about the world, but you're not.
posted by enn at 8:13 AM on February 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


Facts are facts, now matter how unpleasant.

I hear tautologies are tautological, too.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:14 AM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


that's candlepin: "I think you're misreading O'Brien here. "

Actually, I don't think he is. Sad to say, there are people who believe that they can make coherent generalizations without resort to metaphor, and therefore without any need to make up "stories" about what they consider to be the truth.
posted by anewnadir at 8:14 AM on February 16, 2012


enn is saying essentially what I am trying to say.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:17 AM on February 16, 2012


It's a shame about D'Agata. "About a Mountain" is half of a good book -- the best parts (about Yucca Mountain, and Las Vegas, and particularly the chapter on the attempt to build a permanent sign to warn people 10,000 years in the future) are well reported and well told, and unsurprisingly are the least controversial parts of the book. The semi-fictional story about Levi Presley and Munch and suicide feels utterly out of place in something that otherwise could have been a terrific essay in the tradition of John McPhee.

Frey is just a total shithead and shouldn't be compared to D'Agata or O'Brien. But maybe if he was named B'Frey..
posted by theodolite at 8:20 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


jumping off the observation deck of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas

When I visited a friend in LV he took me up there and said when the time to go, he would jump from it. We looked out and discussed the mechanics of climbing out in a certain place etc it was truly the most frightening experience. How anyone could actually do it is beyond me, though I believe it's LV version of SF's Bay Bridge.
posted by stbalbach at 8:22 AM on February 16, 2012


"Readers who demand verifiable truth in nonfiction—who were upset about James Frey, for example—are unsophisticated and ignorant"

This is a really loaded sentence.

If I recount a dream I had last night, is that a "verifiable truth"? Well, a fact checker could ask if I did indeed recount that dream - THAT's verifiable. Whether or not I actually had the dream as I recounted it is not verifiable.

On one hand, I do expect non-fiction to limit itself to 'verifiable truth,' in that it should talk about Betty Hill who reported an encounter with aliens, not Mary Sue who is an entirely fictional character. In my opinion, Frey's memoir was more the latter than the former. If that makes me 'unsophisticated,' then that makes D'Agata a sophist, and I'm glad we'll never meet at a party.

On the other hand, in the review of D'Agata's book, Kois unfortunately conflates non-fiction with satire. Maybe D'Agata's right and Kois is unsophisiticated.
posted by muddgirl at 8:25 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


NPR had a book review the other day (can't find the link). The author wrote stories from her personal experiences, main character even shared the same name, but it was "fiction." It was an interesting take.

Everything I say is a lie.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:26 AM on February 16, 2012


Fiction is sometimes truer than "facts". For example, it is not a "fact" that I can cure disease and bring long life, prosperity, and happiness for a one time offering of $100,000 plus a small monthly tithe of $10,000. It is, however, "true" in the sense that this arrangement would allow one of us to become prosperous, to purchase the best health care available, and to procure many of the tools available to us in the modern search for happiness. So in this sense, it is "true" that for a one time offering of $100,000 plus a small monthly tithe of $10,000 I can cure disease and bring long life, prosperity, and happiness. And it can work for you, too, if you are pure of heart, and true believer. But purity must begin with charity and generosity of spirit. Won't you give today? Isn't it time you began your journey to true happiness?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:26 AM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


In short: (a) Not all essays are non-fiction. (b) Non-fiction is different from satirical fiction, even though they seem alike. (c) D'Agata sounds like a bit of a bore.
posted by muddgirl at 8:27 AM on February 16, 2012


It took me a long time to figure out that people who are good storytellers almost always make up huge parts of their stories. In grade school I always drew a blank on those "Write about a time when you were scared" or whatever writing prompts because although I could think of an event, the details were always hazy and I could never remember enough to describe it accurately in much detail. It's much, much easier to tell a story if you just fabricate plausible details that fit the kind of story you are trying to tell. In fact our brains pretty much do it automatically, if someone fact-checked my own memories of my past they would probably find it was heavily fictionalized.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:28 AM on February 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


Ugh, D!agata sounds like an insufferable twunt.

I feel very sorry for the writers who have to suffer under his tutelage.
posted by the sobsister at 8:28 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, that's what he's saying, but that's a dangerous thing to say. Stories can tell you "truths" beyond the simple facts on their face that they recount, but these are just as likely to be false as anything else. You read the stories that tell you what you want to hear and then you feel good because the "truth" that you've divined in them is in accord with your existing beliefs. It feels like you are learning something new and true about the world, but you're not.

I think there is an underlying assumption here that the only reason to fictionalize an event is to dress it up or twist facts that don't match your desired outcome (a la "Liberty Valance" and "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend").

But I think that further assumes that the ostensible goal is to present objective truth. That isn't the goal of all writing -- sometimes the goal is to present personal, subjective truth ("my truth"). In those instances I think fictionalization can be appropriate, since what is being said is not "this is what happened," but "this is what happened to me." Then it's up to the reader to decide whether or not it feels true to them. I wouldn't want this kind of writing in, say, an auto repair manual, but for someone trying to capture their experiences in Vietnam, sure.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:28 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Most people wouldn't consider, say, mathematical descriptions of physical laws to be "metaphor," although it's true that the numbers describing the laws and the bodies they act on aren't the same thing as the laws or the bodies.

It's always true that the things we think about things are not the things themselves, and likewise that the words we say about the things we think are not the thoughts themselves, and there's always some amount of ambiguity as a result. Nothing actually "means what it says," per se: the words I speak do not describe the waveforms I speak them with, they refer to ideas that I believe you associate with the same waveforms I do; those ideas are very unlikely to be exactly the same, they're associated with different experiences, even if those experiences do turn out to be about the exact same physical object.

So, yeah, there are layers of something like "metaphor" in every communication. There's always some interpretation involved. We only call it "metaphor" when the interpretation requires the interpreter to do something unusual, such as making a comparison between items that aren't normally considered comparable.

The fact that all communication involves metaphor does not imply that literal communication doesn't exist. To remove ambiguities you need to do a lot of error correction, such as the kind that fact checkers are paid for. At no point can you achieve perfect parity between literal statements and the objective reality they represent--but you might achieve a sufficiently good approximation. Measurements down to the centimeter. Quotations correct to the original word choice, if not the way it was delivered.

This is a really useful practice for many purposes. Science and law are the most obvious. Transit is another: you need to meet with the right people in the right vehicles at the right times, so you want your directions to be close enough to "genuine" geography to get you there, your idea of the way the vehicle looks to be good enough for you to recognize that vehicle, and your meeting time close enough to the state of your local atomic clock that you and your ride end up in the same place at the same time.

You need standards.

If the standards are, "Does this piece say something interesting about its subject?" then yeah, fact checkers ain't shit. But non-fiction publications normally have other standards in addition to that. It's what people expect from the label "non-fiction".
posted by LogicalDash at 8:29 AM on February 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


I don't know about stupid, but but according to David Byrne, they are lazy, tardy, and oppositional.
posted by hwestiii at 8:31 AM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


*head explodes*

All Cretans are James Frey.
posted by y2karl at 8:34 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, this is my favorite part, and it's not even in the OP.

Total burn, Kois. Total burn.
posted by muddgirl at 8:34 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Everyone knows 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is provide abortions.







This is (Non)Fiction?

it certainly is a story.
posted by edgeways at 8:36 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, this is my favorite part, and it's not even in the OP.

It's supposed to be a reward for people who actually RTMFA :-).
posted by shivohum at 8:39 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Frey's problem was not in writing something that wasn't true, or even in writing something that wasn't true under the banner of nonfiction. His problem was that he was writing in that particular genre of memoir where the value is in how much you've suffered and how much you've overcome.

This is absolutely the point. Truth and objectivity are hugely contestable concepts, and the people insisting that it's just obvious what is a fact and what isn't haven't thought about the issue hard enough, if you ask me. But if you market your book in order to benefit from one commonly understood notion of truth-in-writing, and you know that the people buying your book are doing so because of this commonly understood notion of truth-in-writing, when in fact you're subscribing to another, that's bad faith, and indefensible.
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:45 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


the people insisting that it's just obvious what is a fact and what isn't haven't thought about the issue hard enough

Irony.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:50 AM on February 16, 2012


The following tale of alien encounter is true and by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies, and in the end isn't that the real truth?

The answer is no.

Leonard Nimoy: far smarter than whoever this is.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:50 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


If politics is an "art" and "facts are stupid" then D'Agata probably has no problem whatsoever with our political discourse. With his reasoning there is nothing wrong with just making shit up to argue in favor of a particular policy or ideology. He should quit his teaching gig and become a campaign consultant. He would fit right in.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:57 AM on February 16, 2012


A lot of non-fiction writers take some liberties with the truth: composite characters, sped-up time lines, embellishments, etc. That's what the "creative" in creative non-fiction means. Of course, it's one thing if I'm reading a David Sedaris essay that is "true" and quite another if I'm reading a history of WWII. I expect I greater level of fact in the latter than in the former.

Maybe all non-fiction writers should just have end notes at the back of their books clearly explaining every point in the book where they twisted the facts, embellished a story, or created a composite character. Then we could get the "truth" and the "facts." There is at least one author who makes a point of doing this, but I can't for the life of me remember his name.
posted by asnider at 9:05 AM on February 16, 2012


"Creative non fiction and op-ed are hugely successful genres right now."

For most of the last decade and some change, an emotionally (if not factually) honest memoir of misspent youth (and the more grotesquely misspent the better) has been more marketable than the semi-autobiographical debut novel. There's an apocryphal ( I'm aware of the irony) tale that occasionally circles through my writer friends regarding a well-connected young novelist, who took her book to an agent. The agent liked it and asked her if any part of the book were non-fiction. The novelist said no. The agent then shook her head and then, after a moment, asked: "Well, could it be?"


I don't really have much of an opinion on objective truth in something referred to as "creative non-fiction." At this point, I assume most creative essays are marginally (but not necessarily)truer than short fiction, but a good long way from, say, straight reporting.
posted by thivaia at 9:08 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]



No, no, no, never, ever, no. Once you start living in the world of stories and not reality terrible things start happening, because reality does not work like stories. Stories work like stories.

You can argue that fiction is more beautiful or that you wish it were true or that it validates how you want to believe things are, but there are things that don't go away when you ignore them, and they do not care about your addiction to narrative.

Let me put on my lit-crit hat for a moment to explain just how wrong you are.

Narratives aren't just fictional. Histories, biographies and travel journals are also narratives. And narratives are always incredibly suspect. Herodotus is probably the first author of what we would could call "non-fiction", in that he did a lot of leg work to try to verify whether or not the stories he compiled were factually accurate, as opposed to myth. Back in those days, the difference between true stories and "made-up" stories was incredibly muddy.

It is, of course, dangerous to accept as true something that is factually unverifiable – just ask one of those mothers that refused to inoculate their children against whooping cough. It is equally dangerous to assume a strict divide between factual stories and made-up stories – what if everyone that read a history book in North Korea really believed that he was born on a holy mountain and that his birth was heralded by a shooting star and rainbows? (or do they..?) Skepticism of narrative is important.

The obsession with the divide between fiction and non-fiction is more indicative of the peculiarities of our culture than anything else. That divide is not clean and simple. It is still as muddy as it was in Herodotus' day. "Fact" is hard to ascertain outside of the realm of mathematical logic, because we have to take into account who is telling the narrative, where the narrative came from, what it's biases are, etc. There are facts, of course ("everything that is the case"), but my point is that it's not always simple to sieve them out of the muck.

Now, you have the literary types who enjoy playing with this divide. Postmodern literary theory's goal can be broadly stated as "mythos over logos", de-emphasizing the importance of "realistic" fiction in favor of telling a story that gets across the moral and aesthetic perspectives of the writer. Historians and writers of non-fiction do the same, but within much stricter confines of fact. Of course, fiction relies on some facts as well, historical events and characters that give it a "realistic" flavor. People read non-fiction as much for pure facts as for an enjoyable narrative, perhaps more for the narrative than for the facts. It is a boring reader who only reads a biography to have quotable factoids to insert into conversation.

People totally misunderstand James Frey, et al. These are not con artists, they are crass postmodernists trying to cash in on a little controversy. The fact that we declare them Judases is only proving how well they have succeeded.

Anyway, your pejorative use of "addiction to narrative" is misguided, because everything about how human beings process facts is narrative. We are, indeed, addicted to it. It's how we work. Unless you are a Turing machine or severely autistic, your brain runs on narratives.
posted by deathpanels at 9:11 AM on February 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


But Sedaris is explicitely a humorist, not a memoirist. Maybe we just need to get rid of the genre called 'non-fiction' and be more specific.
posted by muddgirl at 9:11 AM on February 16, 2012


Unless you are a Turing machine or severely autistic, your brain runs on narratives.

I am not a Turing machine. I promise.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:15 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Readers who demand verifiable truth in nonfiction—who were upset about James Frey, for example—are unsophisticated and ignorant

Note that this is a rather childish ad-hominem attack that does nothing to refute the veracity of their underlying assumption.
posted by clockzero at 9:17 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


But Sedaris is explicitely a humorist, not a memoirist. Maybe we just need to get rid of the genre called 'non-fiction' and be more specific.

I agree. I also like my mom's suggestion on her blog. She wrote:
Aw, come on, you didn't believe all those things really happened to David Sedaris?

Can't we just accept the convention that "humor" gets classified as "non-fiction"? No one is tricked into thinking the author is asserting that these things really happened.
posted by John Cohen at 9:17 AM on February 16, 2012


El Sabor Asiatico: the point is that nobody cares about "your truth" and nobody should.

Masturbatory sophism and armchair epistemology aside, the words "truth" and "fiction" have perfectly well understood, widely agreed upon primary meaning. There are secondary meanings, but they are minor, uncommon, and not valid unless you make it really clear you're using them.

If you sell a book as "non fiction", and EVERY SINGLE FUCKING THING IN IT did not happen EXACTLY the way you say it did, then you are running a con. You are also doing damage to an intellectual tradition that MY truth says is about all that might save the human race.

And deathpanels: Precisely because your brain is highly susceptible to narratives (not "runs on" them; that's plain false psychology... a narrative exaggeration, if you will), their use in any serious discourse has to be heavily policed. Otherwise the player tend to use them to manipulate each other's minds, leading to bad outcomes. A starting point for that is the ground rule that you don't embed false facts in supposedly true narratives. Postmodernism can bite me.
posted by Hizonner at 9:19 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


In my view, the trouble isn't so much fiction that parades as non-fiction; the trouble is non-fiction that is taken to be fiction. As an intelligent thinker once pointed out:
The incomparable greatness of the Divine Comedy shows itself not least in the fact that, in spite of the exceptionally wide range and variety of its influence – it even shaped the language of a nation – it has been but seldom understood in the fulness of its meaning. Already in Dante's own lifetime those who ventured out upon the ocean of the spirit in the wake of his ship (Paradiso, II, Iff) were to remain a relatively small company. They more or less disappeared with the Renaissance; the individualistic mode of thought of this period, tossed to and fro between passion and calculating reason, was already far removed from Dante's inward-looking spirit. Even Michaelangelo, though he revered his fellow-Florentine to the highest degree, could no longer understand him. At the time of the Renaissance, however, people did at least still debate as to whether Dante had actually seen Heaven and hell or not.
– Titus Burckhardt, “BECAUSE DANTE IS RIGHT”

posted by koeselitz at 9:20 AM on February 16, 2012


Orwell seemed to draw a clear line between fiction & non— and his writings in both are still lauded. Also, he'd probably have punched this guy in the face.
posted by davel at 9:21 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Frey is just a total shithead and shouldn't be compared to D'Agata

The article makes a pretty compelling case that D'Agata is also a total shithead.

As for "truth" vs. "fiction": fictions can guide us to all sorts of truths. We learn things about what it means to be human from plays, novels and poems all the time. I'll even buy that there are 'truths' that we can learn from those sources that cannot ever be conveyed by 'non fiction' writing. But that doesn't excuse lying about whether or not what you're writing is or isn't fiction. If D'Agata wanted to write a fictional short-story based more or less loosely on real-world events then he was welcome to do so. He just should have been upfront about what he was doing and no pretended that he was writing non-fiction. You can't simultaneously claim that the distinction between "fiction" and "nonfiction" doesn't matter AND think it's crucially important to have your work labeled "nonfiction" in order to fool readers into thinking that the events you're writing about really happened.
posted by yoink at 9:28 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The obsession with the divide between fiction and non-fiction is more indicative of the peculiarities of our culture than anything else. That divide is not clean and simple.

As a famous author once put it:

Truth is that monster in the closet that, when your parents turn on the light and open the door to reassure you, eats them.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:28 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sometimes when I read discussions like this, I think American readers are either very naive or very anal-retentive. In any case, a quick link to the idea of French "autofiction" is possibly appropriate.
posted by aught at 9:32 AM on February 16, 2012


Anyway, your pejorative use of "addiction to narrative" is misguided, because everything about how human beings process facts is narrative. We are, indeed, addicted to it. It's how we work. Unless you are a Turing machine or severely autistic, your brain runs on narratives.

While this may be true, I think that what constitutes a "narrative" may be a lot more flexible than what a lot of people think.
posted by aught at 9:34 AM on February 16, 2012


But Sedaris is explicitely a humorist, not a memoirist. Maybe we just need to get rid of the genre called 'non-fiction' and be more specific.

Fair enough. Sedaris was, perhaps, a poor example. I think my point still stands.

How about Augusten Burroughs? I don't honestly believe most of what he writes in his memoirs, but I'm willing to believe that there is truth even where the facts are questionable. Of course, he's also been accused of making shit up the same way that Frey has.
posted by asnider at 9:34 AM on February 16, 2012



While this may be true, I think that what constitutes a "narrative" may be a lot more flexible than what a lot of people think.


I'm curious what you think the definition should be, if not "information delivered in the form of a story".
posted by deathpanels at 9:37 AM on February 16, 2012


In The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany has a passage where he described an event from his young adulthood, then went on to say or that's how he had always told the story until a friend pointed out that the dates didn't watch up. Which sent Delany into a spiral of confusion, trying to figure out what part of the well-worn chestnut was wrong or misapplied or whatever. He ended up by glumly considering that maybe he wasn't the best person to write his autobiography. Which was, of course, followed by hundreds of pages of autobiography. But we, the readers, were warned!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:40 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyway, your pejorative use of "addiction to narrative" is misguided, because everything about how human beings process facts is narrative. We are, indeed, addicted to it. It's how we work. Unless you are a Turing machine or severely autistic, your brain runs on narratives.

Where, by the way, does this idea come from? I certainly hear it often enough, but I've never heard a good justification for it. As aught rightly suggests, for this to be true would require a really weak definition of what a "narrative" is. It always reminds me of people who claim that all thought occurs through language, which seems to maybe be true for some people, but obviously not for everyone, for all thought.
posted by Casuistry at 9:44 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


"There are many truths, but only one Truth." - Howie Mandel.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:44 AM on February 16, 2012


(The preceding statement is only partially true.)
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:45 AM on February 16, 2012


I had this argument at the end of my undergraduate degree with an sociology elective course professor. The result was a grade that meant I ended up ineligible for about $45,000 CAD graduate funding. (This dragged my final two average down just below the cutoff point - unfortunately for me the funding agency didn't care that I front loaded my degree so many of my most important courses occurred before that 2 year window)

The lesson I learned, aside from that one must step carefully around academic cranks and be aware of the inflexible pointless rules of bureaucracies, was that you should pick your battles carefully and don't expose yourself to possible injury over trivialities.

This is pretty much a triviality.

It is enough to simply have your opinion on this.

There is no real value in arguing about it. If you win, you get nothing.
posted by srboisvert at 9:46 AM on February 16, 2012


Readers who demand verifiable truth in nonfiction...are unsophisticated and ignorant


I was under the impression that learning verifiable truths made one less ignorant
posted by TedW at 9:48 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


“Story-truth,” Tim O’Brien wrote, “is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

Eh. Let's look at some "story truths that are truer than happening truths". How about the stories about the plantation south with happy slaves? For some folks, those stories are far truer than 'factual truth'. Or stories about savage, crazy natives attacking pure white women? Just because truth and fact are contested doesn't mean that whatever feels good is right or just.

Hell, what about the "story" of Martin Luther King as a total pacifist without an economic analysis? Or the "story" of Rosa Parks as a tired old woman who just naturally had to sit down on the bus one day?

I submit that as a white person, I can get all choked up about all kinds of bad narratives about simple, trusting, sincere people of color who naively pursue their own liberation without theory or plan. Those stories are "truer than the truth" for many white people. They're still dumb, they're still harmful, and the only meaningful weapon you have is research. Oh, I'm sure I could make up a tear-jerker lie about Rosa Parks to try to replace the other one...

The thing is, it's precisely because stories make people do stuff that it's good to try to figure out as closely as possible what actually happened. If I think Rosa Parks was part of a strategic movement and was herself a skilled organizer and community activist, my whole understanding of the bus boycott and by extension the civil rights movement and POC organizers changes. And my set of expectations about how to make social change is different.

Seriously, the whole question of absolute nonviolence is totally dependent on research - does absolute nonviolence work as a political tool on its own, or is it embedded in a matrix of other factors? Endless tee-shirt-level philosophy about Gandhi doesn't teach you jack shit about organizing.

And you never get outside your own head - it's always "your truth". So what if it didn't really happen like that? So what if "your truth" is just an echo chamber of one, your narcissism and your folly playing off each other?
posted by Frowner at 9:49 AM on February 16, 2012 [11 favorites]


In The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany has a passage where he described an event from his young adulthood, then went on to say or that's how he had always told the story until a friend pointed out that the dates didn't watch up.

Memory is the trickiest thing, so much so that sometimes it makes it hard for me to believe that there is even such a thing as a "fact."

Case in point, I have a memory, as crystal clear as pretty much any other memory I have, of sitting in the stands of a Washington Nationals-San Diego Padres game and watching David Wells hit a home run. The problem is that never happened. This is a memory from less than five years ago, and my brain has apparently completely made it up. If I were to write my autobiography and include an anecdote about watching David Wells hit his only career home run it would be factually inaccurate(and kind of boring), but don't tell my brain that.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:57 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is no real value in arguing about it. If you win, you get nothing.

I disagree. We live in a time when simple honesty is a devalued coin. Championing a return to openly distinguishing between reportage and embellishment enriches everyone. Consider it a bailout in the troubled economy of society's self-examination.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:58 AM on February 16, 2012


D'Agata was on NPR's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" the other day (alongside segments on William Gibson, Jonathan Lethem and Joan Didion). I feel like people might not be so knee-jerky if they heard him and his fact-checker discussing this - he didn't come across as a fraud or a hack, but as a writer, not a journalist operating in an area for which the standard labels of journalism and 'non-fiction' maybe aren't the best descriptions.
posted by unmake at 9:58 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are white lies and there are dirty lies.

The problem with Frey's lies was that they made him out to be uniquely fit to survive an addiction ordeal that kills millions like Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse and, unless you are very lucky, people that you have known and have loved. Ergo he is about as dirty a liar as there is, because there is an inference that if Whitney or Amy or that person you personally knew and loved had been as fit as Frey they wouldn't have died. That is why so many people hate him and making excuses for him or justifying him or rationalizing him puts your argument into fail mode.

Better rhetoric to point at the stacks of PhD theses debunking Herodotus.
posted by bukvich at 10:00 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have been back and forth about this because my impulse is to think that people's reaction to Frey was weird; what difference ought it make to you whether some guy you never will meet really went through what he said he did? But I think the Frey uproar was at bottom about economics. What was upsetting about the Frey saga was that his story only had monetary value if it was true. The book wasn't worth much as a book. It had little intrinsic "story-value." Its misrepresentations were not perpetrated with an eye toward achieving greater capital-T Truths. It was a cynical opportunistic ploy (the book, IIRC, was originally to be marketed as fiction, but Frey didn't speak up when his publisher decided to call it a memoir; they both knew it wouldn't sell otherwise). It was a piece of writing marketed to appeal to the segment of people who want to read things because they're true, and so calling it a fraud is appropriate.

This is not incompatible with the separation notion that the artistes out there, the Tim O'Briens, the real authors, shouldn't use misdirection and factual lies in the service of the broader truth. Nor is it incompatible with the (I think undeniable) claim that all nonfiction is to a greater or lesser extent fictionalized due to the tricks of subjective experience, memory, etc. It's just a matter of fundamental honesty about what you're selling people.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 10:04 AM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I quit reading the article after I realized this guy was just an ass. It’s that combination of laziness, immaturity, inflated ego, and low self esteem that often go together in blowhards that makes them not very interesting.

Their ego says that their story, their thoughts and feelings about it, is more important and more interesting than what actually happened. But part of them knows (or is afraid) that they can’t tell an interesting story without lying. You may have run into those people in the real world. For a similar reason they’re afraid to just call a piece Fiction.

There is no real mystery here, just a bunch of bullshit and hand waving they're trying to excuse with the word ART, and "You just don’t get it".

It’s not that freakin difficult; If you want to write a story and change the facts you just change the names a little and call it fiction. People have been doing that forever.
posted by bongo_x at 10:05 AM on February 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


ack. the separation separate notion

shouldn't should be allowed to use misdirection
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 10:06 AM on February 16, 2012


I agree with you, dixiecupdrinking, and I think that's my problem with D'Agate's assertion that magazine articles don't have to be factual. My answer is, "Well, that depends on what they're selling."

I don't expect Cosmopolitan's "Sex Diaries" to be factual, but I do expect articles in Audobon Magazine to be. We can't just lump all articles and essays together and try to treat them the same (and I think that Kois makes the same mistake, in service to a greater point).
posted by muddgirl at 10:10 AM on February 16, 2012


I disagree. We live in a time when simple honesty is a devalued coin. Championing a return to openly distinguishing between reportage and embellishment enriches everyone.

I get just a tiny sense from your comments that you're not especially open to this argument, but "simple honesty" describes an attitude of good faith, not any specific theory of the truth or of its susceptibility to being captured in language. We definitely need more simple honesty. But it doesn't follow that more honesty would lead to a clearer distinction between "reportage" and "embellishment".
posted by oliverburkeman at 10:14 AM on February 16, 2012


I'm curious what you think the definition should be, if not "information delivered in the form of a story".

Now we're progressing down the rabbit hole by inches... and need to figure out what a story is. Are server logs a story? They do tell me what my Apache instance was doing at various times, and they do so in a chronologically linear format. They even give a little insight into why stuff happened, although this insight is only as good as the foresight of whoever wrote the logging algorithm.

If that's a story, well, yes, everyone's addicted to them, because it's really difficult to conceive of a way to communicate about anything at all without using a story. Even mathematical functions are regularly represented as graphs, and if neither of the axes technically represent the progress of time, you'll probably do fine just picking one and pretending it does.

If a story requires something more than an algorithmic connection between one event and the next, then what? Neil Gaiman said it needs someone who can read it start to end without feeling copped out; but there are certain folks who can read train station time tables start to end in just that way. Are we excluding them from the discussion of what narrative is? Why?
posted by LogicalDash at 10:16 AM on February 16, 2012


In non-fiction, I expect the facts related to be the actual happenings - unless it is stated that names have been changed, etc.

Of course, I'm not a fan of "creative non-fiction" at all. When I want strong narrative, I head right for the honest-to-goodness fiction and enjoy many worlds in which Narrativium is a real and palpable force. Sometimes I read very well researched historical fiction and/or fiction which illuminates places or cultures that are not my own - but I'm still aware that it is fiction and that not everything is just as it is written.

But when I read non-fiction, it's because I want to learn more about how our actual world works, and our world has no Narrativium, so I don't want the messy bits cleaned up, or the chronologies neatened or anything. Just the facts, ma'am, maybe with a bit of analysis and background.
posted by jb at 10:18 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


though I've been talking about "Narrativium" as story-power as in fictional motifs, "narrative" itself is a wider category. An argument could be said to have a narrative structure - when writing factual pieces, I often think "what's my story?" But because it is a non-fiction piece of writing, my "story" is about how I organize the presentation of my factual material and my analysis, not about changing any of those facts.
posted by jb at 10:20 AM on February 16, 2012


He's saying that there's a different kind of truth that stories can tell that is beyond (or behind) the facts.

There's also a different (and if you ask me, very compelling) "kind of" truth that facts can tell, and since we happen to be stuck at a particular cultural/historical juncture when it's almost impossible to tell what that story is anymore for all the counterfactual narratives and creative non-fictions rammed down our throats on a near constant basis in the popular culture, I think it's a little more important we draw some bright lines to make it a little easier--or at a minimum, remotely possible--to hear those fact-driven stories a bit more clearly.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:22 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


If that's a story, well, yes, everyone's addicted to them, because it's really difficult to conceive of a way to communicate about anything at all without using a story. Even mathematical functions are regularly represented as graphs, and if neither of the axes technically represent the progress of time, you'll probably do fine just picking one and pretending it does.

This is funny to me--I actually wrote a poem back when I was still trying to do that for a living that starts something like: "The number line, one of history's oldest and least [something, something] stories..."

posted by saulgoodman at 10:25 AM on February 16, 2012


My problem with Frey (in addition to his being a whiny jerk and a horrible writer) was that he was lying about something important. Saying "I was a terrible addict and a criminal, and I kicked addiction and got out of crime on my own, and you should do it that way too, and by the way Hazelden doesn't know what they're doing" is fucked up when none of that is true.

If he discouraged one person from seeking professional help for the addiction they actually had--at Hazelden or at another residential program--because of his lies, he fucked up someone else's life for at least a while because he wanted money and attention. That's beyond shitty.

Other people I have the same issue with include "Nasdijj", "Margaret B. Jones", "Little Tree", Ward Churchill, Binyamin Wilkomirski, the guy who wrote about how his wife used to bring him apples in Auschwitz, and all their ilk. Fuck those people, and anyone else who tries to co-opt others' experience of social prejudice and even oppression in order to enjoy a narcissistic moment in the spotlight.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:44 AM on February 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


“Story-truth,” Tim O’Brien wrote, “is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

And Tim O'Brien chose to discuss his experiences in books clearly labeled as novels. That's what people of integrity do. If they're writing "story truth" they don't label it as "non-fiction."
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:46 AM on February 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


this statement is false
posted by elpapacito at 10:49 AM on February 16, 2012


“Story-truth,” Tim O’Brien wrote, “is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

Eh. Let's look at some "story truths that are truer than happening truths". How about the stories about the plantation south with happy slaves? For some folks, those stories are far truer than 'factual truth'.


I think the key word in O'Brien's quote is sometimes.
posted by asnider at 10:52 AM on February 16, 2012


I get just a tiny sense from your comments that you're not especially open to this argument, but "simple honesty" describes an attitude of good faith, not any specific theory of the truth or of its susceptibility to being captured in language. We definitely need more simple honesty. But it doesn't follow that more honesty would lead to a clearer distinction between "reportage" and "embellishment".

It would if the honesty lay precisely in the honest distinction between "reportage" and "embellishment." The difficulty in determing an absolute truth has nothing to do with our responsibility to honestly represent our methods of communication. This a bit of misdirection from a strawman that I think creeps unintentionally into this type of conversation.

My point of "simple honesty" is not to claim a special relationship to the truth, but rather the opposite: to come clean about the extent to which we, as authors, have inserted ourselves into the stories we tell.

There are many ways to tell a story, each with its own benefits and drawbacks, but where we fail as authors is where we misrepresent our intentions.

If I report a story with clarity and devoid of extraneous editorializing or intentional bias, and represent that these are the facts as best as I could uncover them, that I researched and fact-checked and cited sources, that is one thing. If I recount a story to the best of my recollection, but with points for style and obviously inserting myself into the story, that is another thing. If I make up a story out of whole or partial cloth toward whatever end, that is yet a third thing. All of these things are fine, in their own right.

But we need to stop making excuses for the knowing and callous misrepresentation of one type of storytelling as another. If I tell you that I am reporting facts, but knowingly insert details that I, as the author, know are not strictly factual, then I am lying to you, plain and simple. And all this narrative post-modern handwaving is nothing more than a magician's trick to disguise the lie as a new-and-improved flavor of truth. And then I try to sell you something.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:07 AM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, if you can't make art within the confines of the real, then you are a crappy artist.

I'm having trouble thinking of a single artistic genre -- including (maybe especially) photography -- that only works "within the confines of the real."
posted by coolguymichael at 11:16 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sidhedevil: If he discouraged one person from seeking professional help for the addiction they actually had--at Hazelden or at another residential program--because of his lies, he fucked up someone else's life for at least a while because he wanted money and attention. That's beyond shitty.

This, exactly.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:20 AM on February 16, 2012


he didn't come across as a fraud or a hack, but as a writer, not a journalist operating in an area for which the standard labels of journalism and 'non-fiction' maybe aren't the best descriptions

Then why brand what he's writing as "journalism" or "non-fiction"? Why not just call it a short story that is based to some extent on real events. It's not as if that provokes some kind of terrible category confusion for readers. The same goes for Frey, who also tried that BS "I was just trying to get at a deeper truth" line. Fine--go for the "deeper truth" all you want; but don't then also try to claim the particular power that comes with telling a story of "what actually happened to me." You get to do one or the other, not both.

Similarly, for all of you who are mentioning the vagaries of memory and the difficulty of knowing whether or not one is telling the truth: that, again, is an utterly different issue. The fact that it is hard to convey the truth does not mean that deliberately lying is o.k., or that it's somehow impossible to tell the difference between an honest error and a deliberate falsehood. When a fact-checker is telling you "this is not true" and you say "I want to say it anyway because it's a better story than the truth" you aren't "making a mistake" you're telling a lie.
posted by yoink at 11:22 AM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]




There is no real value in arguing about it. If you win, you get nothing.



You do realize this is the founding principle of internet discussion boards (including this one), yes?
posted by deathpanels at 12:22 PM on February 16, 2012


I think the key word in O'Brien's quote is sometimes.

But the question is "who gets to decide?" I mean, if we're saying that sometimes made up shit is truer than research, why can't I just say "la la, I bet there were tons of happy child factory workers and it just never got recorded" or "everyone knows it's politically correct to deny that slavery was good for the slaves"? That's what feels true to me (well, actually it isn't) and who is some stuck-up history PhD to say different? Unless somebody has a really clear-cut rubric for deciding when a story is allowed to be "truer than the truth" and when it's not, we've pretty much lost the ability to decide which ones need to be fact-true and which ones don't, which is why "sometimes" is a bit of a weasel word here.

There's the vaxxer thread going on right now. "Vaccines are worse than polio and there is a government conspiracy to hide the evidence" is "truer than the truth" for plenty of people - it really resonates with them, fulfills their need to have a core truth experience, bonds them with like-minded peers, creates a moral framework.....all that 'story' stuff. Unfortunately, of course, it has the consequence of, for example, raising the measles rate in the UK by more than twenty times over the past ten years.
posted by Frowner at 12:42 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I still agree with O'Brien's quote, but you make a good point. It is pretty much impossible to decide when those "sometimes" are in any way that fits all cases.
posted by asnider at 12:47 PM on February 16, 2012


I think American readers are either very naive or very anal-retentive

And of course, those aren't mutually exclusive options.
posted by gimonca at 12:55 PM on February 16, 2012


As a writer of creative nonfiction and a detractor of D'Agata (having met the fellow, attended several of his readings, and read a good deal of his work), I have found myself talking about this whole situation a lot, about the idea of Truth and what that means for nonfiction writers.

What I've come to (and what several of my colleagues agree with) is that the goal of creative nonfiction isn't necessarily to write the truth, but to write honesty. Because the major engine that drives nonfiction writers is memory, the idea of having absolute fact within a piece is all but impossible. Memory changes, memory is unsteady, memories blend and shift. The best we can do is to take the events as we remember them, the emotions as we remember them, the ideas and the people as we remember them, and translate that onto the page.

There ARE things we can verify. We can verify certain information – when a divorce happened, who killed himself or herself, what happened on such-and-such day – but that's not the point of what we're trying to do or what we're writing for. The point of it is to investigate the why, the how, and these are things that are going to, by their nature, lead to avenues where we don't necessarily know the full and total truth. But we can write them as best as we can perceive, as much as we can know.

I have a piece about my history with my brother and how everything between us fell apart. There's probably some elements in there that aren't 100% accurate. I'm not entirely sure if, for example, my brother and I found the lizards we caught in Florida each summer by the basketball court or by the lake. But it doesn't matter, because what's important about that event is the emotion and the meaning behind it. And this is why what D'Agata is doing is so damn wrong and damaging to nonfiction as a genre.

What D'Agata does is the willful manipulation of facts to make his writing better, which I find an abhorrent practice. You should never, ever alter your facts to accommodate your writing. You alter your writing to accommodate your facts. He deliberately changes things. He deliberately ignores truths and evidenced information. He deliberately alters things for the style or sound of it. What he does is an act of lying and of manipulation, whereas what I do, what good nonfiction writers do, is an act of recollection and remembrance.

There are people who might argue against that, though, as being in defiance of what nonfiction is supposed to mean. But I think that the idea of nonfiction that many people hold in their heads isn't quite what's meant by the idea of literary nonfiction. Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, these are the canonical authors of literary nonfiction and not everything in their work is absolute truth. It can't be. We have no way of producing the absolute truth years after the fact.
posted by Modica at 1:26 PM on February 16, 2012 [7 favorites]



I have been back and forth about this because my impulse is to think that people's reaction to Frey was weird; what difference ought it make to you whether some guy you never will meet really went through what he said he did?


The problem with making stuff up to make it "truer" is that you can't help but do so based on cliches and your own misconceptions about how the world works. The problem with Frey was that he believed he knew something about addiction because of his personal experience and his personal experience of the cultural narratives about addiction. He was wrong: he ended up reinforcing misguided ideas that hurt people with addiction and that's why his lies matter and pissed people off. I wrote about this here.

This is also why this fiction masquerading as nonfiction is bogus: yes, we can't get at the truth of the world perfectly and yes, sometimes, the best way to get at truth is to write fiction. But be honest: if your reporting isn't telling the story you want to tell, don't bend the truth. Write fiction instead or go out and do the work to find a story that truthfully illustrates your point without having to fake it. Your preconceived notions about reality are what gets in the way of telling good stories; using them to make stuff up is not the answer to your problems when your writing doesn't work.
posted by Maias at 3:43 PM on February 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


What D'Agata does is the willful manipulation of facts to make his writing better, which I find an abhorrent practice. You should never, ever alter your facts to accommodate your writing. You alter your writing to accommodate your facts. He deliberately changes things. He deliberately ignores truths and evidenced information. He deliberately alters things for the style or sound of it. What he does is an act of lying and of manipulation, whereas what I do, what good nonfiction writers do, is an act of recollection and remembrance.

I think you can go either way and come up with something interesting either way if you're the right kind of writer and you're up front about what you have produced. Hunter S. Thompson being another example of blurred fantasy and reality (even his reality was blurred fantasy and reality). But Thompson never really pretended to be playing it straight, so his heightened reality was honest in its dishonesty, a kind of literary shaggy dog story with moments of biting commentary and occasional artistic brilliance thrown in for good measure. But D'Agata doesn't seem to be about that at all, and Frey, of course, is just a huckster/liar who got caught and tried to backpedal his way into a justification.

I like photography and I like PhotoShop. I just don't like when PhotoShop pretends to be photography.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:51 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Readers demand truth in nonfiction because that is what nonfiction means.

Paraphrase Steve Jobs: Readers don't know what they want.
posted by ovvl at 5:02 PM on February 16, 2012


Hizonner: Precisely because your brain is highly susceptible to narratives [...] their use in any serious discourse has to be heavily policed. Otherwise the player tend to use them to manipulate each other's minds, leading to bad outcomes.

Although I take the same kind of stance as you about these issues, I think you overstate the case here, in two ways.

First, "manipulation": It exists in many types and grades, and many of them are unobjectionable. (Any attempt to convey an idea to another person is by that very fact an attempt to manipulate that person's mind from one state to another, from a state without the idea to a state with it.) I think we need more subtle distinctions.

Second, "bad outcomes": The power of narrative can be used for good. For example, occasionally you meet a person with a rigid set of ideas about some topic, who reacts too defensively to alternative ideas for a direct approach to succeed at conveying anything. A story can get around that kind of defense, restoring open-mindedness (whereupon a rational evaluation becomes possible). Once in a while, you are that person.

Someone once told me that singing involves a lot of muscles which are more or less involuntary, and some of the absurd things that singers say they're doing when they sing are best understood not as descriptions of physical acts but as elements of a complicated mental operation needed (or at least, used) to make those involuntary muscles do the desired thing. (A similar statement recently appeared here on Metafilter.) Such things are falsehoods, but they are useful falsehoods.

Most of the operation of the mind is involuntary, too, so...
posted by stebulus at 12:59 PM on February 17, 2012


Additional articles: NYT, LAT and Salon.

Harpers has published an excerpt.
posted by zarq at 10:51 AM on February 23, 2012


I missed this discussion here...which I sort of am glad I did. Because I think I would have gotten mired in an argument with people here who seem to me to be a bit naive about the factual nature of presumed non-fiction narrative. Others above have addressed those concerns, and it's really beside the point.

It's not the point that D'agata failed to say, hey, I'm not writing non-fiction here, because that just goes back to the argument above. What is the point is that D'agata failed to make it clear that he was not following contemporary conventions about what a non-fiction essay is.

I don't think there's a hard line dividing fiction and non-fiction in the sense that many people above assert, not even the "willful changing of facts" distinction that Modica discusses above. Instead, I think there's just a line determined by shared expectations. A writer of non-fiction can, for example, compress timelines or many other things that aren't strictly factually true. We (well, those of us who aren't completely naive) expect this. In the deepest sense, we expect that writers of non-fiction make something a coherent narrative in a way all those events really weren't in reality. I mean, that's their essential job.

But what we don't expect them to do is to alter or manufacture facts that we normally would consider to be, you know, facts. This is what D'agata did. Which would be defensible if he had told the reader that he did. However, he steadfastly refused to do so. His sin is that he violated the assumed trust between the writer and reader. This is what Frey did, too. We can argue, as D'agata does and Frey's defenders do, that the expectations that the reader brings to these works are faulty and counterproductive. And maybe they are. That's just not the point.

If I buy a children's book and get pornography, the problem isn't that it's necessarily true that a children's book cannot be pornographic. Maybe it could be. But because essentially no one thinks that it can be, selling me a pornographic children's book is a deep violation of my trust as a reader. If someone wants to write and sell pornographic children's books, because they think the restriction against children's books being pornographic is limiting and they want to write pornographic children's books and, perhaps, the world would be a better place with pornographic children's books in it, then that's fine. The one thing they need to do, however, is tell me on the cover that this is a freaking pornographic children's book.

D'agata thinks the current conception of the non-fiction essay is limiting and causing the degradation of their quality. He wants to write outside that conception, and he believes that if he does so, he will be making essays, and the world, better. Fine. He just needs to explain to the reader what he's doing.

The only reason he is resistant to doing so is because he doesn't trust the reader. This is why he's willing to violate their trust—he doesn't trust them in the first place. So, instead, he's willing to commit a sort of violence against them by essentially deceiving them. He thinks the end justifies the means, presumably. He thinks that this sense of violation is a regrettable price to pay for having one's notion of what is and isn't a non-fiction essay altered.

In this regard, he's pretty much of the same mind as many other artists of a certain temperament. I think those artists are assholes. As D'agata proved himself to be in this whole five (seven?) year incident.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:39 AM on February 27, 2012


He thinks that this sense of violation is a regrettable price to pay for having one's notion of what is and isn't a non-fiction essay altered.

The article doesn't leave me with the impression that he regrets the violation at all. On the contrary, it seems he thinks the reader's expectations are wrong, so the violation is the reader's own fault, and screw them.

I guess that does make him an asshole, but... well, I've been musing about this lately, and I have a lot of empathy for people in that situation. When you think some prevailing cultural norm is bullshit, conforming to it (or even just being considerate of it) can feel not like just being appropriately sensitive to others' feelings, but like, er, letting the crazy people win. I certainly have things like that, where I consider a principle more important than the feelings of people who don't believe in that principle — and I even affirmatively disregard their feelings because I think of disagreement with the principle as itself blameworthy, so those feelings don't deserve my consideration.

That's not a pragmatic stance to take, but from the inside it sure feels like a principled moral high ground. I'm not sure how to talk people in that situation into taking a more pragmatic view of things, and I'm not even sure pragmatism is really better, in general.
posted by stebulus at 12:17 PM on February 27, 2012


I agree with you about that, but I feel that a difference is that the writer/reader interaction (as well as artistic interactions in general) involve a trust-based relationship and it's almost never the case that violating that trust is justified on the basis of changing society.

In other contexts, yeah. I mean, honestly, that's how I live my life. I'm pretty aggressive about not conforming to unjust social expectations in social contexts, but it's also pretty much never when the interpersonal relationship is as trust-dependent as the one that's involved in writing non-fiction essays.

For example, before I have sex with someone, I disclose to them that I've on three occasions had sex with another man. This is completely unnecessary from a reality based standpoint as, for the first thing, in all three cases it was only oral sex and on only one occasion was there an exchange of "bodily fluids"; and, for the second thing, I'm not HIV positive and it's been a long time since those experiments; and, for the third thing, relative to what most other people are doing just within the limited domain of heterosexual sex and, as it happens, what I've later learned about the history of most of my heterosexual partners, the idea that these encounters were "risky" is absurd. Nevertheless, I disclose this. Why? Because people are irrational about this, and more importantly this is a context of intense interpersonal trust. I mean, I take that pretty damn seriously in general. There's about exactly two things in my history that I don't freely disclose to people. That is to say, as just this comment demonstrates, I'm so open even on the Internet to thousands of people, it's the case that there's basically exactly two things that I've never disclosed here or anywhere else in public. But I've never entered into a serious relationship without disclosing those two things to my partner. I just couldn't do that.

Anyway, publicly opposing false, unjust, and widespread beliefs is I think a very important thing to do. It's not self-indulgent, it's an important part of making the world a more just place. But in interpersonal relationships, that's always weighed against whatever you might be costing that other person in doing this. It may sound weird to think of the writer/reader relationship in these intimate terms, but I think it really is. Individual people would read that essay expecting certain things and it really would matter to them to be what they believed was deceived. That's why people freaked out so much about Frey. It seems disproportionate, but it makes more sense when you think about more in terms of what is actually a pretty intimate relationship between writer and reader.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:43 PM on February 27, 2012


the writer/reader interaction (as well as artistic interactions in general) involve a trust-based relationship

Makes sense to me. But I don't see that this would answer (a more thoughtful version of) D'Agata, if the principle they felt strongly about concerned exactly the nature of this relationship. Suppose you explain about the trust and intimacy in this relationship, and then they say something like, "But that's the whole point — the relationship shouldn't be understood as intimate, but as [insert alternative conception of artistic interactions here], and this whole concept of art as involving an intimate trusting relationship is damaging to art and to society, and I won't support it! I won't let people with this broken notion of art prevent me from doing art the Right Way." Then what?
posted by stebulus at 7:26 AM on February 28, 2012


Well, I guess then we'd have to just learn to ignore him, like we usually do people who are habitually assholes because they believe that It's For The Greater Good. Meh.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:13 PM on February 28, 2012


Ignoring such people is exactly the option that I want to avoid. See, if I ignore people on the grounds that they value certain principles over the comfort or feelings of others and I therefore consider them assholes, then I have to expect that other people will ignore me for the same reason, since I too have such principles, as mentioned above (and you seemed to approve of, above). But then they and I will never get a chance even to discuss our differing principles, much less change one another's minds about anything, or learn a new way of looking at things, or anything. That's a large loss.
posted by stebulus at 3:13 PM on February 29, 2012


Options: posted by LogicalDash at 8:52 AM on March 1, 2012


None of those options involves having a conversation, which was my goal. Is that your point? That conversation with assholes is impossible?
posted by stebulus at 7:45 AM on March 2, 2012


Assholes are kind of defined by their not being open to honest conversation.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:45 AM on March 9, 2012


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