October 24, 2012

The question of facts in non-fiction


This month, the TriQuarterly Review published an essay called The Facts of the Matter, which begins with the intriguing Editor’s Note,

“When we received this anonymous nonfiction submission it caused quite a stir. One staff member insisted we call the New Haven, Ct., police immediately to report the twentieth-century crime it recounts. But first, we figured out by the mailing address that the author was someone whose work had been solicited for TriQuarterly. Other questions remained. What animal was this? A memoir? Essay? Craft essay? Fictional autobiography? Should we publish it with an introduction, a warning—and what should we say? The author later labeled it “meta-nonfiction.” We thought it was worth publishing for the issues it raises.”

The essay appears to question the fashion for artistic liberties with the truth in creative non-fiction writing. (A matter discussed earlier this year with reference to the John D’Agata and Jim Fingal book , The Lifespan of a Facthere.) At first glance, the work details a rape committed by an older male academic. The man immediately discomforts the reader by being seemingly untroubled by his actions, and uses the awful event to ruminate on the fluidity between fact, narrative and identity.

“Would it matter to know my name, my race, or hers, or is a piece of nonfiction more potent for not knowing who I am, for not being able to make this personal, singular, my problem, not yours? Is it discretion not to reveal more of the facts, protecting her identity, or am I merely protecting my own? How much telling is a factual tale, and how much telling is too much?”

And most provokingly,

“Perhaps it is only those who are not subject to the consequences who can afford to say that facts don’t matter.”

As David Ulin notes in the Los Angeles Times, the first indication that something is not quite right is the anonymity of the essay’s author. Ulin says, “a key faith of the personal essay, after all, is its intimacy, the idea that we are in the presence of a writer, working under his or her own name and in his or her own voice, as something profound is explored.”

As it turns out, the postscript claims the essay was written by a woman, and as the author goes on to explain, there are facts in the piece, but they are bundled and arranged to suit the narrative and philosophical purpose of the writer. She says,

“The point of the piece is that we should be disturbed by fictions posing as facts in creative nonfiction; we should be horrified by the glibness with which some contemporary creative nonfiction writers are willing to pass off fictions as fact, to fuck over the reader, to seduce with lies; I’m all for lies in literature, but there’s a form for that—fiction.”

I was touched by the piece until it came to this point. My first reaction was that yes, there are facts that should not be played with in non-fiction writing, just as I thought D’Agata’s molding of the truth was disingenuous. I found myself agreeing with Anonymous’ statement that, “if we fail to recognize that there are facts (global warming, extreme rendition, gang rape, torture, “collateral damage,” civilian casualties, “friendly fire”), if instead we capitulate to the logic of the PR man and maintain that a convincing story is as good as fact, that personal or aesthetic truth is equivalent to a factual account, and that facts are (in fact) rather old-fashioned, distastefully earnest.” That seemed right, in an age of duplicitous spin.

But then I realized exactly how many buttons had been chosen for their emotional power and purposefully pushed: a rape, a young woman, an older man, lack of remorse, and given the anonymity of the author, female/male and “invention” as they may be, I still don’t know where the fact begins and the fiction ends. Am I continuing to be tricked, or have some important points been made? I suppose, to be glib, both.



Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.