JOE AMATO AND KASS FLEISHER penned this as part of our examination of nonfiction ethics — touched off, once again, by the publication of John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact — an expanded version of which we will be publishing as an eBook in March. In the meantime Mike Daisy and now Zeitoun have added fuel to the various fires. Amato and Fleisher add important considerations to this ever-fresh, if, as they say, hardly new debate.
— but there will always be people who believe what you tell them.
What bothered people about the D'Agata/Fingal affair — which has been, for most commentators, more D'Agata than Fingal — has been obscured somewhat by a kind of sublimated ethics, not to say politics, which Ander Monson helpfully intimated in these pages by refusing to take sides. That is, despite the shared sense that something deeply ethical is at stake, it's difficult to hear through the din to the source of this ethical, not to say political, clamor. What we offer in the following is a desultory, armchair-philosophical approach to the conundrum of reaching for verities while remaining all too fallibly human.
Or, as Emily Dickinson so memorably put it, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." Or, as Montaigne had it: "There are authors whose only end and design it is, to give an account of things that have happened; mine, if I could arrive unto it, should be to deliver of what may happen." Or, have a look at what Joseph Addison gives us by way of one of the ur-moments of this wrangle: "Among my Daily Papers which I bestow on the Public, there are some which are written with Regularity and Method, and others that run out into the Wildness of those Compositions which go by the Names of Essays. [...] Seneca and Montaigne are Patterns for Writing in this last kind, as Tully [Cicero] and Aristotle excel in the other." (The Dickinson and Montaigne snippets can be found in Truth in Nonfiction: Essays , ed. David Lazar. The Addison excerpt appears in Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time [2012}, ed. Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French.)
Let us not, then, pretend that this conversation began yesterday. Received wisdom is that Seneca the Stoic TKOed Tully many moons ago.
We'd like to mention in passing the suicide of Levi Presley.
Has anyone remarked on the masculine contours of this conversation? Note Monson's astute observation that these guys are like gladiators, like boxers who take to their corners (in this corner Tully, in that corner Seneca), and note the constant reference to the "dickhead" crack, fabricated or no. There's also a latent buddy quality to the exchange, such as D'Agata's post facto admission, "I recall being a gigantic asshole." And how startling it is to find this statement in a dispute about, for instance, D'Agata's recollection of whether it was four or eight heart attacks. Apparently the one thing we can all agree to trust is D'Agata's recollection that he was a gigantic asshole.
So you want to talk about "the lifespan of a fact"? Don't get us started. Or rather, ...read more