Last weekend I heard this piece on NPR:
John D’Agata wrote an essay about a boy’s suicide, in which many of the facts were made up–in other words, it was a piece of fiction based on a true story. He says he was “completely open” aobut this, but that is obviously not true, since if he had sent the story out as fiction, the publisher wouldn’t have bothered to hire a fact-checker. So it is clear that he knew the things he stated in the article were not true, and he presented them so that people would think they were true; there’s a common English word for things like this, though no-one in the NPR piece uses it: they’re called lies. Now apparently he’s turned the whole experience into a book and, true to form, he has presented what purports to be his correspondence with the magazine’s fact-checker but was actually made up just for the book.
D’Agata remains indignant that anyone would question his right to make up facts, or insist that he insert a disclaimer–that would ruin the effect. He wants to “blow us open,” and he can’t do it if we’ve been warned the story is fiction.
That last bit is the key: D’Agata admits (really, boasts) that his deception was intentional, and that it is not trivial but central to his manipulation of the reader. My problem with Mr. D is not about rules or standards, it’s about arrogance: the liar uses deception to exercise power.
Of course, D’Agata thinks it’s in a good cause, and this is often true of liars. President Bush and his advisers knew we needed to invade Iraq and take out Saddam, and if persuasion required them to fabricate evidence of weapons of mass destruction, well, iso be it. The police officer who plants evidence on someone s/he knows is a criminal is just helping the justice system along, right? The reason that these lies are all unethical is that we have not entrusted Dick Cheney and Mark Furman and John D’Agato with the authority to “break us open” and shove their vision of the world down our throats.
But D’Agato says that this is what Art does (you can tell he is capitalizing the A from the way he says it). One wishes that he had given examples–how many of your favorite works of art pretend to be statements of fact, and depend for their artistic power on that pretense? Poetry frequently blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, but rarely stakes a claim on factuality: nobody really cares whether GM Hopkins really saw that falcon, or whether Emily Dickinson really dreaded that first robin, because the poems don’t do their work by imposing on our credulity.
Probably every gifted storyteller is familiar with the seductive fact that stories gain an added punch if you don’t tell people you made them up; the poet Stephen Dunn, for example, writes about this temptation. Then comes the reaction, and the storyteller learns that people get really pissed if you lie to them. The next step, for the real writer, is to become so good that you can bowl people over even though they know you’re making it up (or making parts of it up, as in the autobiographical novels of Edmund White). Or if you’re John D’Agata, the next step is to become an overbearing pretentious hack. Whatevs.
[Update: It seems to me somehow appropriate that our man calls to his defense TS Eliot, a gifted poet but a frightful poseur, whose philosophy of art (excuse me, Art) was mostly an imposing facade for his constipated bigotry.]