Language in a Straightjacket: John D'Agata on Nonfiction

It’s possible that nonfiction, as a label for an entire literary genre, has outlived its usefulness. It seems more and more readers (and some critics) are on a passionate, hell-bent pursuit of truth in their reading materials—hence the rise of the memoir over the tried-and-true novel on bestseller lists. And though memoirists and authors of other creative nonfiction have always taken liberties with character, time, and place—sometimes to protect the innocent, but just as often for dramatic purposes—in this era of reality television and instant gratification, the masses are no longer likely to accept “but it’s art” as an excuse for what they define as lying. See, for instance, the unprecedented outcry after it was revealed that author James Frey had exaggerated and confabulated portions of his addiction-and- recovery memoir, A Million Little Pieces.

“When Oprah starts calling people out and scolding them on national television, I think we’ve come to a point where it’s impossible to have an intelligent and reasoned conversation about the issue of veracity in the genre,” writer John D’Agata said in a recent email exchange with Pasatiempo. He explained that when it comes to his form—experimental essays with poetic and investigative leanings—“veracity is only an issue because of some readers’ insistence on calling the genre nonfiction, which strips the form of its chance to be art.”

D’Agata’s most recent book, About a Mountain, is an exploration of the federal government’s plan to store waste in Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, but this description barely scratches the surface of what the book is actually about, which includes life and death, language and image, hope and hopelessness, Edvard Munch, and something called The Atomic Priesthood—and even this list fails to encompass the whole. One strand of the book follows D’Agata’s interest in Las Vegas’s high suicide rate, which leads him to volunteer with a suicide hotline, and then look into the life of a boy who jumped from the roof of a hotel, while another strand traces the problems surrounding communicating with the people who will live on Earth 10,000 years from now. That some of the events he describes seem to converge or overlap in the book, but did not in real life—a fact D’Agata clarifies throughout a lengthy notes section—and that certain scenes or characters are composites didn’t sit well with some critics, who otherwise praised the work for its scope and style. But assessing About a Mountain solely on whether it is “truth” or “fiction” is to miss the point entirely—it’s akin to asking a poet not to use so many metaphors or asking a photographer to capture what happened before and after the picture was taken.

“For me, an essay is about discovery…movement, an attempt for the consciousness that’s on the page to journey someplace new,” said D’Agata, who takes part in the Lannan Foundation’s Readings and Conversations series on Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Appearing with him is Ben Marcus, author of Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String. D’Agata teaches at the University of Iowa; his first book was Halls of Fame, and he is the editor of The New American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay, the latter of which was called “an anthology in the service of a wonderful idea: that the essay has been encumbered by its obligation to tell us the facts” by National Public Radio commentator Michael Silverblatt. Lost Origins begins in Sumer, circa 2,700 B.C., and works its way to Canada, 1974, by way of Heraclitus of Ephesus, Sei Shonagon, Francis Bacon, Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf, and Octavio Paz, among others. Most of the translations are new, commissioned especially for the anthology. Some were done by D’Agata, who majored in Latin and Greek as an undergraduate. “In the Lost Origins anthology, I gave myself the task of not just trying to trace the roots of the essay, but even more importantly to try to revitalize our appreciation of the form as art by challenging our perception of what an essay is, what it can do, and what we can expect from it,” he said. “That’s why some of the selections were a bit controversial, because a number of the texts in the anthology are traditionally read as stories or poems. My hope in including those texts, however, wasn’t to plant a stake in them and to claim then on behalf of the Land of Essay. … If there are elements of the essay that are noticeable in Blake or Borges or Beckett, for example, then maybe the essay isn’t too far different from the literature we enjoy in other genres. Perhaps the essay can be considered literature, too, which is something that hasn’t yet happened in our culture. Most of us still think of the essay as that thing we had to write in high school or college about our summer vacations or about economic policy in mid-century Latin America.”

D’Agata’s organizing principle of choice in his prose is the list, which can be straightforward, such as a four-page account of the substances and objects—animal, vegetable, and mineral—that would have to be “removed, scrubbed, tagged, and then stored in a repository all their own” if there was an accident while shipping nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. Or the lists can be more complex and abstract, such as the significance of the number nine, or its ultimate lack of significance, depending on what you, as a reader, are looking to get out of the text. Are you looking for a news report, a scientific study, a spreadsheet that leaves nothing to the imagination, or are you looking for something bigger? “Nonfiction basically means not art, since fiction is a word that’s derived from the Latin fictio, which means ‘to form, to shape, to arrange,’ which is a pretty fundamental activity of art,” D’Agata said. “So by calling something nonfiction you are saddling the genre with a label that means it's incapable of doing what art does, and this of course sets up expectations in readers’ minds for what they should and should not expect from such a text. It makes sense that readers would demand from nonfiction the same kind of factual accuracy that they experience in journalism, because after you’ve said the genre is unable to do any arranging or forming or shaping, reportage is pretty much all that’s available to it.”

from About a Mountain
Or we may see “Forbidding Blocks.” Or we may see “Rubble Landscape.” We may see “Irregular Grid,” “Spikes in a Field,” “Landscape of Thorns,” “Tall Leaning Stones.” We may see a whole catalogue of visceral warning markers, artificially built environments we’ll be meant to enter into to help make their warnings work. But these will be environments, writes the panel in its report, “that will exist without transmitting any gestalt for the intruder,” “without perceivable foci,” “without the possibility of being understood.” Why? We must find ourselves, the panel says, having an experience: an essaying into the purpose of what’s apparently purposeless, an essaying that tries desperately to cull significance from the place, but an essaying, says the panel, that must ultimately fail. 


Originally published in Pasatiempo on 02/11/2011