D'Agata's book provokes strong reactions
Friday, April 13, 2012

Who could have imagined that a book about fact-checking in literary nonfiction would become one of the most discussed books of the year — the subject of a cover story in The New York Times Book Review and the focus of both praise and condemnation? But it happened.

portrait of John D'Agata
John D'Agata

In the wake of About a Mountain, UI Nonfiction Writing Program faculty member John D'Agata's book prompted by controversial plans to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, he and fact-checker Jim Fingal collaborated on The Lifespan of a Fact, which documents their sometimes testy and convoluted correspondence about how fastidiously factual a nonfiction book must be.

D'Agata, who is also an alumnus of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, wrote an essay in 2003 that became the basis of About a Mountain, but it was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to "factual inaccuracies," before The Believer accepted the piece and put it in Fingal's hands. What resulted from that assignment was seven years of wrangling, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction. Their exchange helps to illuminate the tricky distinction between accuracy and truth, between journalistic responsibility and literary license.

This book has obviously gotten a lot of attention. Has that surprised you? And do critics get it?

Well, I hoped that the book would spur a conversation, and we definitely got that! This is an issue that those of us who write so-called "nonfiction" deal with and discuss frequently. But it's also an issue that our culture has been trying to handle multiple times over the past few decades.

The problem, however, is that we tend to have this conversation only in response to a scandal that's erupted around a memoir that's been revealed to have been partially fictionalized. The resulting conversation inevitably devolves into a screaming match. So I had hoped that we might have a slightly more sober and sophisticated discussion about the role of the imagination in nonfiction.

And, despite some of the high-profile and very silly comments that have surrounded this book, I think we're gradually getting there. It'll happen. But certainly the loudest voices out there are from journalists who seem to feel that I am trying to destroy Western civilization. I can't really speak to that sort of criticism, to be honest, because it seems so over the top that it's clearly being fueled by anxieties generated by more than just this book.

And forget about the intentional misreadings of the book that seem to suggest that I think that journalism should all be made up. Nothing of the sort is ever expressed in the book. In fact, the book makes pains to distinguish between nonfiction art and nonfiction journalism.

The fundamental problem the book's addressing is our tendency to want to lump all kinds of nonfiction together under one giant umbrella term, insisting that a memoir be written with the same rules a newspaper article might. I think those critics definitely aren't getting it — or at least they're pretending not to in order to scream and stomp their feet a bit.

Would it be accurate to say that your point of view draws a distinction between substance and details? For the sake of engaging storytelling, details that don't alter the substance are negotiable? And if they are not, is that just nitpicking?

I would agree with that distinction. But I think the more important distinction to make is between the multitude of modes that exist in nonfiction. As I mentioned before, I think we need to be clear about the sorts of expectations we have when we're reading something like a medical textbook and when we're reading memoir. Both sorts of books fall under that big umbrella term of "nonfiction," but I think we expect different kinds of experiences from them.

Obviously, I want medical students who are training to become doctors to get accurate and verifiable information from that medical textbook. I want to be able to trust that the details in that book are factual. But when I'm reading a memoir, I'm not looking for information. It's unlikely that I'm reading someone's memoir because I care about their life — as cruel as that may sound! But the reality is that I'm reading that memoir for an emotional experience.

So I really don't care whether the big life-changing event that you experienced in your childhood happened when you were 7 years old, or 8; or whether you were living in Cleveland, or a suburb of Cleveland. What I care about, instead, is the significance of the story you're telling, and the resonance that the arrangement of those details is going to have over the course of the book in order to gradually build into significance.

I suppose I might be a little bothered if you and I were best friends, and yet while reading your memoir I had trouble recognizing the details that you were describing from your childhood. But, chances are I am not your best friend, and so I'm not reading your memoir in order to get an accurate report of our childhood. I frankly don't care about your childhood. I care about the significance that you are finding in your childhood, and how I might apply that to my own life. I'm reading the details of your childhood as a metaphor.

Carl Klaus, the founder of the Nonfiction Writing Program, wrote a whole book on the memoir narrator as, essentially, a fictional character created by the writer. Does this apply to the discussion of your writing, which you make it clear is not journalism?

Carl Klaus is absolutely right. Narrators have always been constructed in nonfiction, from the very start of the genre. This isn't to say that there were never such people as Herodotus or Virginia Woolf or Joseph Mitchell, but rather that the "I"s through which these writers have told their stories weren't necessarily the same "I"s that these people were at home with their families.

It's been particularly fascinating to listen to some of the chatter around this book, because all of the less positive reviews have made a point of noting the "jerkiness" of my character in the book. Except they aren't distinguishing it as a "character" — and they also aren't using the word "jerk." (They're using slightly stronger language.)

I definitely was frustrated by the fact-checker in the book, and I remember feeling pretty annoyed by his nitpicking throughout the fact-checking process. But the fact-checker assures me I never called him names or yelled at him or mistreated him.

Nevertheless, while we were writing the book together, we made a conscious decision to step up the tension between the "writer" character and the "fact-checker." I allowed myself to become a little bit more of a "jerk" and he allowed himself to push back, despite the fact that he was always pretty cordial. So there's an element of construction in the book. And this is intentional. In fact, that construction is illustrating the larger point in the book — that some forms of nonfiction require such constructions.