I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear. I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”
I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.
But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.
That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.
Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.
It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.
For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.
Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:
To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.
I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.
And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.
Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.
John D’Agata: a genre of one
Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.
Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.
When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.
But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.
I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.
The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”
Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.
His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.
Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.
Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.
It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.