Reviews — From the May 2016 issue

Note To Self

The lyric essay’s convenient fictions

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If D’Agata and Shields both want to free literature from the tyranny of novelistic make-believe, they also want to free it from the tyranny of fact. The two authors turn out to have the same bugbear: the controversies that erupt whenever a memoir is proved to contain fabricated material. Their beef is not with disgraced authors such as James Frey, whose exaggerations and inventions in A Million Little Pieces, his best-selling memoir of drug addiction, caused a scandal ten years ago. What angers them is the credulous, outraged reading public. Shields laments “the very nearly pornographic obsession” with Frey’s and similar cases: “The huge loud roar, as it returns again and again, has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality and, within that frame, great drama.”

D’Agata is even more contemptuous of duped memoir readers, as he demonstrates in The Lifespan of a Fact (2012), a book he wrote with Jim Fingal, a former fact-checker for The Believer. The book is composed of a series of emails between D’Agata and Fingal, who was assigned to fact-check a reported essay about a suicide in Las Vegas that D’Agata submitted to the magazine. (D’Agata first submitted the essay to this magazine, which ultimately declined to publish it after a dispute over the accuracy of its claims. Harpers later ran an excerpt from Lifespan of a Fact.) Lifespan poses a question: how much factual truth does a magazine essayist owe his reader? D’Agata’s answer amounts to: very little. Fingal contests dozens of D’Agata’s statements on the grounds that they are imprecise, misleading, or incorrect. D’Agata justifies most of the inaccuracies in the name of art, insisting on his right to falsify numbers for the sake of a sentence’s rhythm; to compress events that happened over the course of a month into a single day for the sake of literary intensity; and to attribute to an official police report facts that came from his private conversations with policemen, for the sake of streamlining the story. D’Agata’s tone is lavishly obnoxious. “It’s called art, dickhead,” he replies to one of Fingal’s questions. (This rhetorical excess is not to be taken at face value; the emails in the book are an approximate reconstruction of the original fact-checking process, and the authors have said in an interview that their argument “didn’t really take place the way it’s described.”) Critics seized on the book’s dubious assumptions: Why can’t a good writer arrange his sentences felicitously and use the correct numbers? Why must essayistic art be antithetical to verifiable accuracy?

Although Lifespan was published six years after the Frey incident, the scandal plays a significant role in D’Agata’s argument. A minor query of Fingal’s becomes the occasion for one of D’Agata’s most vigorous attacks on the overly literal reading of memoirs or essays:

Art is supposed to change us, to challenge us, and yes, even to trick us. What Frey’s audience was responding to so vehemently was the sensation of having had a genuine experience with art. And they freaked out. And they tarred and feathered a guy for having given them an experience they felt unprepared for. But whose fault was that?

The defense of Frey may seem odd. A novelist is free to come as close as he wants to the literal truth and still call his work fiction. But the essay and the memoir — whose very premise is that the author is making a good-faith effort to relate events as he witnessed and remembers them — are more clearly delimited. Of course, memory may be unreliable, interpretations are perforce subjective, and any good essay is going to be carefully shaped, which means emphasizing some aspects of experience while minimizing or leaving out others. But surely none of this is the same as deliberately making things up, right?

Shields and D’Agata are reluctant to establish a standard for accuracy, or even to define the essay and memoir as forms that specifically make use of the found materials of an author’s life. Both writers emphasize non-fiction’s artifice, rather than its fidelity to experience. Though they witheringly dismiss the quality of Frey’s prose, they take pains to show that as a liar he has something in common with all great essayists. Shields quotes Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story:

Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, written when Gosse was fifty-seven, recounts conversations that purportedly took place when he was eight; people who had known the Gosses protested that Edmund made up these conversations, which of course he had. Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys” was denounced for its inaccuracies by people who had been his classmates.

A large part of Shields and D’Agata’s purpose — in the anthologies, in Lifespan, and in Reality Hunger — is instructional. If the essay is to become our preeminent literary form, readers need a sophisticated understanding of its artistic principles and rigors. And indeed, though personal narratives are much read and appreciated these days, there does seem a lingering suspicion, among readers and reviewers, that writing about one’s own life is lazier and more solipsistic than conjuring a fictional world. The author of a weak novel is, at worst, unskilled in the art of the novel. The author of a weak memoir gets called names: narcissistic, navel-gazing, self-pitying.

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lives in Los Angeles. Her essay “The Prisoner of Sex” appeared in the September 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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