Reviewer Envy: Jennifer B. McDonald on The Lifespan of a Fact

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jennifer B. McDonald delivers such a compelling, interesting, forceful review in the New York Times Book Review this weekend that a) I have a severe case of reviewer envy and b) I wish I could quote the whole for you here.

I'll give you the link instead.

It's a front-page review of a book called The Lifespan of a Fact, authored (if that's the word) by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal.  The book is the biography, in a sense, of an article D'Agata had written about a suicide in 2002.  D'Agata's piece—nonfiction, for The Believer—was apparently riddled with made-up stuff, inaccuracies, small and large fictions, and the fact checker (Fingal) had called D'Agata on each one.  D'Agata's response, we're told, devolved into self-defense and bullying, a blatant, often preposterous insistence that his version of the "truth" was superior to the actual facts. 

D'Agata's arguments strike me as bluster, silliness, big-headed wrongness, and perhaps it wouldn't matter that much if, for example, he wasn't a writing teacher at the University of Iowa, churning out the next contingent of truth slayers.  Throughout her review, McDonald gives him no room, offering paragraph after paragraph of such beautifully argued stuff that I'll be reading the bulk of it to my memoir students this Tuesday.  (NOTE: I have not yet read the book myself, but McDonald quotes so freely from it that it is possible to form some early opinions.)

I'll quote here from the core of the piece and hope you'll read the whole for your self:
Superb literary artists have managed to do their work while remaining precise about details D’Agata would dismiss as frivolous. What of Updike’s criticism and E. B. White’s essays and Joan Didion’s sociopolitical dispatches? More recently, what of the narrative journalism of Katherine Boo, Elif Batuman and Philip Gourevitch, or the essays and criticism of Jonathan Franzen, Pankaj Mishra and Zadie Smith? What of John McPhee, who three years ago in The New Yorker went so far as to write a lengthy ode to his fact checkers? Would D’Agata claim that these writers’ adherence to fact diminishes their art? That when working in “nonfiction,” they don’t weigh the same ingredients he does — structure, theme, resonance, rhythm — in order to wring something wondrous from the ordinary? 

No text is sacred. The best writers know this. Fiction or nonfiction, poetry or reportage, it can all be endlessly tinkered with, buffed, polished, reshaped, rearranged. To create art out of fact, to be flexible and canny enough to elicit something sublime from an inconvenient detail, is itself an art. For D’Agata to argue otherwise — to insist that fact impedes the possibilities of literature, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is “unsophisticated” — betrays his limitations as a researcher and a writer, not our limitations as readers.


Richard Gilbert said...

Thanks for calling our attention to this, Beth. I side with McPhee, et al!

Serena said...

Woah...a professor is gleefully bullying a fact-checker! Egad what have we come to?!

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