{random} the importance of fact and fiction

on

Sean sent me a link this morning from something he’d heard on NPR during his commute. He thought I would be interested, and he was curious if I’d come across chatter about it. There probably is, I am just that disconnected these days. Travis Larchuk’s “‘Lifespan’: What Are The Limits Of Literary License?” is about John D’Agata’s and Jim Fingal’s recently published work The Lifespan of a Fact.

Essay, noun, a short piece of writing on a particular subject. (Oxford English Dictionary)

10 years ago, John D’Agata wrote an essay in response to the suicide of a 16 year-old boy that occurred during D’Agata’s stay in Las Vegas. He took enough “artistic liberties” with the essay that Harper’s refused to publish it. He met Jim Fingal, a fact checker, when he submitted the 15-page essay to The Believer. Fingal produced about a 100 pages of inaccuracies. The first sentence alone contains as many “fudged facts” as most checkers will find in an entire piece. The first sentence was constructed for “dramatic effect.”

D’Agata is unapologetic, arguing on the side of Art. I like that he quotes T.S. Eliot here, “Sometimes we misplace wisdom for information. Accumulating all of this data isn’t really going to provide us with the answer we need. We need another approach, and perhaps that approach is one that’s more meditative, one that isn’t relying solely on gathering facts.”

The Lifespan of a Fact is the essay accompanied by the fact-checker’s sheets and the correspondence between the two, manufactured to discuss which is of greater importance the facts (the details) or the piece’s greater impact.

If facts are of little importance, why include them at all?

The venue in which any essay is published helps direct audience expectation. And the offense comes when expectation is violated. For instance, in an article discussing the limits of Literature, it is hard to get me riled on the subject of violated expectation. But then, I do not believe memoirs and travel narratives to be “non-fiction”–or to be without fiction anyway; they could be boring otherwise. Many, however, do believe that least the “facts” are true. On that we might agree. [ a: how sensitive are you on this subject? ]

Of course, we take in information from what we read, even “fiction.” And I am not only referring to truths about the human condition or whatever abstract notion a story might explore or impart. In Larchuk’s article, he quotes a Senior V.P. at HarperCollins, Jonathan Burnham, who reminds us that a disclaimer is usually wise, “It’s an almost essential piece of qualifying information that alerts the reader to the fact that not every single word in this book is true.” Not that disclaimers always work. I’m thinking of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code with “a novel” printed right beneath the title. At least the disclaimer places the error in truth in the reader’s chair, whether the reader thinks it should be there or not. [ b: what are your expectations regarding essays? ]

D’Agata believes that disclaimers could ruin the effect of the essay (and book) and that everyone needs to be a bit more flexible in that regard. Do you think he’s right in that disclaimers can be unwise if the author of a piece of literature is going for a particular effect? I mean, we need the memoir to be non-fictional for effect, don’t we?  If not every single word is true, might we have those words in, I don’t know, green or brown or gray? But then, we only require honesty on those points which can be verified by documentation–is that too much to ask? Larchuk talked to the family of the 16-year-old boy and they were fine, if not excited, about the essay. He didn’t talk to all the other people whose events were misrepresented. Should we care?

N is learning her forms of essays: their expected structure and content. They spend a great deal of time on the persuasive essay form in school. And why do they harp on the persuasive essay form? My speculation: to help people organize their thoughts and communicate with some coherence and acceptable bias. The teacher usually gives the class a topic and then divides them up to argue a different side (which also teaches empathy and abstract thought). N is so bored, she chooses the least popular side and works to create an argument that is persuasive. She doesn’t care if she doesn’t actually buy it herself. She can do this without lying about the facts, but some could say she is still lying, right? For N, it is a creative challenge to her skill as a writer, to test and use the technical form they are being taught. Her readership needs it to be as true only in as far as it seems true to them–and that she gets the structure right. And believe me, it is a lot about learning the technical formulation (to which I am not opposed to learning). N has shifted her concentration to the overall effect. She spends a lot of time on that first sentence. She is now learning what may be forgotten for some–that the essay is also an art form.

Is Cubist or Impressionist less true than Realist?

We teach people to use cameras so they can record images for posterity. Photography is also an art form. Ah, but they, too, are dealing with the ethics of artistic licensure, aren’t they? How much manipulation is just too much in the attempt to achieve an effect. How much plastic surgery is too much in order to pursue an effect. If we don’t know, it won’t hurt us?

Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang was brought to mind as I listened to NPR. If you are not all that interested in reading The Lifespan of a Fact, like I am not, then you should be reading Wilson’s fiction that explores many an artist’s conundrums; especially those artists who would like to provoke a life-changing/perspective-shifting response from their audience–you know, those artists who don’t mind if people get angry.

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{image: “Liar Liar Pants on Fire” by Nami-Tsuki}

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