“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.” ~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The second part of this quote is more apt to describe John D’Agata’s approach to the CNF (creative non-fiction) essay. Actually, the quote is taken from D’Agata’s book, The Lifespan of Fact, with Jim Fingal.
Premise: John D’Agata wrote an essay (a rather ‘day in the life of an event’) of the tragic suicide jump of Levi Presley in Las Vegas. The essay was to be Harper’s, however, they rejected it once the factual nature of the content came into question. The Believer picked up the essay with the caveat that it would be fact-checked before publication. The fact-checker was The Believer intern, Jim Fingal. What ensued was six months of dialogue regarding content, interpretation, and POV of the facts. This correspondence* was compiled and printed in a most artful, avant way; the essay smack in the midst of a black and red dialogue, containing the quotes of text and the preceding fact-checked information.
I knew nothing of D’Agata, or his controversial essay, until I read this** on Dinty Moore’s Brevity blog. I dare say, the comment field filled with unabashed, literary brilliance regarding truth, content, and the art of CNF. I became moth to flame, wings singed and caught in melting wax; I became stuck under the weight of the literati’s cerebral commentary.
Despite being over my head, the lively debate continued into the following week. Writers from across the country gathered in Chicago,*** where a panel (or more, was not there) discussed D’Agata’s truths, or lack there of, again. Truth in non-fiction writing is a fire burner; very black and white. Bottom line… it’s like the government, you’ve got both sides of the aisle agreeing that they cannot agree a full one hundred percent.
My take away: D’Agata desires to forge his own path. He sounds a bit cocky in his artistry. Warranted? I’d say ‘yes’, only because he is young; he has plum credentials; and he is a crafter of words. Will his talents mark his name in history? TBC.
Truth: The Lifespan of Fact was not going to get my time. I wrote it off a week ago. Life is funny, though; and today I found myself at the bookstore wandering around in essays for a Geoff Dyer book. I look sideways, Lifespan was in my peripheral vision.
Ten minutes later, people around me must have thought I’d already tipped the glass, for I was laughing out-loud; D’Agata’s deadpan to Fingal’s niceties (complete with =)) good stuff, indeed. Thumbing to the end, I read that all proceeds go to a scholarship fund in Levi’s name. Sold. (Not quite; I refuse to give B&N full price. I am a library worker after all).
D’Agata may not draw me to see his way, but I shall at least formulate an opinion regarding his ability to be a style definer. Is he cutting edge enough to warrant a new genre. After all, did David Foster Wallace demand such understanding of his brilliance?
It’s interesting to consider why we write the truth; and why we be compelled to lie. Lao Tzu is correct, the truth is not always beautiful. D’Agata sidesteps this by choosing beauty over truth. Is it right…to lie, in the name of art?
“Truth may not always be beautiful, but there is comfort in knowing where one stands.” ~
* Harper’s never published the article, but did publish an excerpt from the essay’s book.
** Upon visiting Brevity WP, comments are now up to 155. When I read it weeks ago, it was well under 100.
*** AWP 2012
[sidebar: Iowa is a small state, no denying; hell, we host a rather famous bike ride, river to river (border to border) that is completed in one week. It isn't my state of choice, but I'm here until fate turns her wheel. Iowa, as in the University, is home to the best writers program in the country (this isn't said with pride, folks, just a known fact). D'Agata teaches creative writing at the University.]