Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some thoughts on the political art of CNF and John D'Agata

Photo: andrefromont

Creating a work of creative nonfiction is a political act, a form of resistance. In writing we sift through experience, ideas, and factual information to discover the real story, one that rejects the easily available cultural narratives.

When writers like James Frey or Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea) lie about major events, they not only betray readers, but also this call, or purpose, of CNF. Rather than engaging in the hard work of discovering their own authentic story, they change facts in order to fit into pre-packaged narratives: Frey as that individual who can overcome any obstacle entirely on his own; Mortenson as a benevolent Westerner who selflessly helps poor villagers in foreign lands.


So where does the current blowup over John D'Agata and his problem with facts fall within this background of truth and lies in CNF scandals?

If you haven't be following the discussion, there's a great synopsis with fascinating comments over at the Brevity blog. Basically, Harper's recently published an excerpt of a new book that documents the correspondence between D'Agata and John Fingal, who fact-checked "What Happens There," D'Agata's essay on Las Vegas and the suicide of teenage Levi Presley.

The essay and the book, About a Mountain, that it eventually grew into, include many inaccuracies, alterations to actual facts that were made intentionally, rather than by fuzziness of memory. Many changes were made in the service of language and sentence rhythm (such as stating that Las Vegas has 34 instead  of 31 strip clubs), but others for dramatic narrative effect. The book also examines Las Vegas and Levi Presley's suicide, but primarily tackles the nuclear waste site of Yucca Mountain. These threads are explicitly connected early in book, when D'Agata tells us that Levi jumped to his death on the same day that the Senate voted to approve the Yucca Mountain site -- events that actually occurred three days apart.


Reading the correspondence between D'Agata and Fingal, I feel as if I should be disturbed over D'Agata's flexible approach to facts. That his choices, while not as extreme as Frey or Mortenson, are still motivated by the same urge -- to willfully change actuality in order to fit the writer's idea of what the narrative could be.

And I find myself agreeing with many of the comments on Brevity criticizing D'Agata. As Judith Kitchen eloquently comments, "I prefer to think we are humbled by the real world, and what really happens." And Laura Miller's comment that "he’s actually taking reality and reducing it to something simpler and more in line with conventional views of the world" gets exactly to this point that I'm struggling with.

However, unlike Miller, in D'Agata's writing, particularly in About a Mountain, I see a more unconventional view of the world than in nearly any other book I've read in the last few years. (And I should make a note here that I've moved from discussing the essay that was the germ of About a Mountain, to just looking at the book. I should also note that in the book D'Agata includes a notes sections at the end that documents the facts that he changed.)

In the book, D'Agata reveals not only unexpected and unconventional narratives, but forges and entirely new way of looking at environmental, or any other kind, of catastrophe. With the lyric prose and tireless listing, he actually makes me feel, truly feel the impact of Yucca Mountain. This nearly physical understanding was far more meaningful than hundreds of news articles on the subject could ever come close to achieving. And right now, this seems to be the critical work of creative nonfiction. It is not information that we are short of, but ways of understanding and living with an overwhelming amount of information.

About a Mountain avoids what Rebecca Solnit calls "the despair of the left. With its lyricism it creates a space for the reader to exist alongside all sorts of terrible knowledge. It allows the reader to neither succumb to that despair or retreat in what I think of as the willful ignorance of the right, providing us with new possibilities, new ways of interacting with the disasters of the world, one that goes beyond the usual bipolar thinking. In creating these possibilities it goes beyond the basic political purpose of nonfiction.

While I can't claim to understand why D'Agata made the choices he did, I wonder whether he needed to really inhabit them, to exist so closely with them that he made them his own, in order to pull me as a reader into this view of actuality. And while I don't want to claim that genius is an excuse for recklessness, nor why many of the facts could have remained true without losing any lyricism, as a reader I will happily exchange a small piece of certainty for the kind of possibilities that D'Agata opens up.


  1. I love D'Agata's writing for all the reasons you cite, Nuria: lyricism, unconventionality, truth-telling that is more (or different) than straight journalism. And yet, it's a false choice to say that either we can have all of that, or we can have facts. It's not an either/or choice in nonfiction, but a both/and. Sentences rooted in verifiable facts can be just as lyrical (or playful or jarring or adventurous or gorgeous) as those rooted in fantasy; and narratives crafted in fidelity to things as they really happened can be just as compelling as those that come to us in a dream. That's the real gift of writing nonfiction for me: we don't have to choose.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tracy! I just responded over on the Brevity blog --

    But I forgot to mention that I do love what you say about not having to choose. Perhaps I'm making exceptions for D'Agata because I was so moved by that book. But like I commented, I really do feel like subjectivity is closely related to the power of his writing.