Let Us Not to Our Readers Condescend


John D'Agata, Jim Fingal


The Lifespan of a Fact

Let Us Not to Our Readers Condescend by Kass Fleisher & Joe Amato

True/Slant: D'Agata the Gambler and the Lifespan of a Debate

December 31st, 2012 reset - +

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.

Let Us Not To Our Readers Condescend

— 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 [2008], 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, do get Joe started. Say "plutoid." The mere mention of Pluto (discovered only 80-odd years ago) still galls him, what with his grade-school dreams of becoming an astronomer, or an astronaut — actually, Kass too shared this latter dream — and his correspondingly juvenile claim to cosmological knowledge. Pluto is now merely a plutoid, damn. So yes, we want facts to be more stable than they sometimes turn out to be. We rely on this stability to varying cognitive and instrumental degrees. Very well then.

As for truth, the situation is a tad more complicated, owing to the distinctively discursive nature of truth. We have the tried and true correspondence theory of truth, where when we say, "The sky is blue," the statement is usually evaluated as true or false based on whether the sky is indeed blue (and, uhm, on whether one is color blind, and inclined toward verbal verisimilitude). Correspondence here means correspondence with the facts. We have, as well, logical-propositional truth, or truth-table truth, whereby if we say that the following statement is true — "If a fruit is yellow, then it's a banana" — then its contrapositive — "If a fruit is not yellow, then it's not a banana" — must likewise be true. It's worth noting that, however irrational or dickheadish we sentient bipeds may be, we use, or aspire to use, logical truth in our daily conversations and disputations. We have truth ("truthiness," to which we've all evidently succumbed) of the sort that we struggle with on a daily basis, which has to do with those various modulations of truth and falsehood — not quite factual, not quite logical, but owing to shades of interpretation and all bound up with our intentions — from which we find ourselves drawing equal measures of wisdom and folly. (Is that true, really?) And finally, we have those transcendental Truths with which, regrettably, some of us like to beat some others of us over the head. Heads? Head.

One might observe, too, that one kind of truth can sometimes lead to another kind of truth. We love that passage in Whitehead's Science and the Modern World (1925) where, after observing that "[t]here is no parting from your own shadow" — true, yes? — he rather rapturously links "faith in the order of nature" with a (scientific) knowledge commensurate with same. For Whitehead, to participate in this faith is "to know that, while the harmony of logic lies upon the universe as an iron necessity, the aesthetic harmony stands before it as a living ideal moulding the general flux in its broken progress towards finer, subtler issues."

Did you catch that? That was us beating you over the head with our kind of truth, just as Bacon, Cornwallis, and Addison beat us up with theirs.

Anyway. If there's trouble, right there in Iowa City, it doesn't rhyme with T, or with F, though it might have something to do with narrative, and with poetics. Sure, we can, as Lee Gutkind quite reasonably argues, point to the requisite element of reportage and associated fact-checking that marks the nonfiction trade, at least as we customarily understand it today, and which is owing to the ways in which the rise of the journalism profession coincided with the rise of certain kinds of assumptions about literary genre. And sure, we can, with D'Agata, point to an alternative history of the essay form that extends back to the ancients. But deep down inside, those who are up in arms over D'Agata's rather whimsical departure from the constraints of fact are probably bothered less by his ostensibly self-indulgent aesthetic than by his seemingly cavalier stance toward history, and in particular, by his casual aestheticizing of history.

It's become something of a mainstay in discussions that take aesthetics and history as their twin points of departure to begin by observing that Aristotle distinguished between poetry and history by claiming that the latter trades in particulars, whereas the former trades in universals. From this point forward, tracking the intersections and divagations of these two fields of endeavor (we'll call them) turns up all manner of related deformations, and by the time we reach the 20th century, history and poetry seem natural bedfellows in the work of poets like, oh, Charles Reznikoff, Charles Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Melvin Tolson, Paul Metcalf, and Ed Sanders. At the Copper Canyon Press site for C. D. Wright's One with Others — which won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award — one learns that, in the case of this book anyway, "[i]nvestigative journalism is the poet's realm." For these and so many other writers, the formal and affective possibilities of the written word outweigh any clear-cut distinctions between poetry and history, between the universal and the particular, and if that vexed concept, objectivity, is an issue — objectivity today denoting something like accurate reportage, an entirely understandable aim — then the situation can perhaps best be summarized by paraphrasing that late historian of the left, Howard Zinn: we'll be as objective as we can, provided we get to keep our points of view.

Of course poetry always carries with it the stigma of…poetry. When we pick up a poem, we generally do so less to play the language game of information processing, to riff on Wittgenstein, than to indulge our literary-pleasure-receiving senses (these senses will doubtless resist this last clunky formulation). You can write history in poetic form, and while we might expect you to be accurate, we'll nonetheless expect a certain subjective surplus to come oozing out at us under the sign of poetic license. Similarly, you can wax lyrical in your essay, but we'll nonetheless expect a certain historical residue to anchor your ruminations, to moor us to the actual, and factual.

Now we might, as Colin Dickey surmises, be "witnessing […] the birth of a new genre," one that is, as well — Dickey cites D'Agata's two anthologies, particularly his second, as evidence to this effect — "the resurrection of an old one." A very old one. But Aristotle's injunction, as it were, seems still to be lurking within (many of) us, and its persistence has perhaps less to do with the pleasures of poetry than with the putative strictures of history.

We've been led to believe, that is, that history adds up, that it makes sense, not least because we seem to be able to make sense of it. In the political realm it must add up, as Dickey suggests when he corrects Senator Kyl's claim "that abortions constituted 'well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.'" There are causes and effects, actions and consequences. Even though we know there are competing versions of history; even though we former playground gladiators intuitively grasp that "history is written by the victors" (whether or not Churchill ever really said this); and despite the obvious narrative devices employed by historians in telling their historical tales, we've come to believe that there's a there there, that — as with Whitehead's "order of nature," above — history cannot be based on "mere arbitrary mystery." Not only does shit happen, but it's often meant to be, and if it's meant to be, why then it's goddamn well meant to mean. There's an underlying or overarching structural logic that explains the inexorable workings of war and peace. Events like the Holocaust are, well, facts.

The Holocaust — now there's some history for you. Are you a Spielbergian about it, or a Spiegelmanian? Can't one be both? Gutkind in particular regards the struggle between writer D'Agata and fact-checker Fingal as a matter of style versus substance — fair enough — and yet it's clear from viewing Schindler's List (1993) and reading Maus (1991) that this age-old dichotomy might not get us out of the woods. Neither artifact denies that the event (the substance) took place (whether or not you liked the stylistic effect of the red coat, or Spiegelman's scratchy graphics), which itself should suggest that history is never simply the facts, ma'am. More to the point, the representational purview of each artifact is markedly different, which accounts for why Spiegelman, for instance, has been so harshly critical of Spielberg's effort (not that we need to take sides). History, which is to say, the making of historical substance, is always politicized, always a matter of someone taking an ideological stand — point of view or even points of view — consciously or no. And we'll insist here, as Bacon might have, that it's better to be conscious of one's historical methodology, or historiography, than not to be. In which regard, one can fault D'Agata precisely to the extent to which he thinks himself immune — or rather, he thinks his aesthetic immune to ideology.

(We've met John briefly on one occasion, after a reading he gave with Cole Swensen at Naropa University some years ago, so we don't know him well enough to ask him outright how he imagines his pursuit of, let's say, jouissance over and against prevailing orthodoxies not of aesthetics, but of politics. As some have observed, contemporaneous with this controversy is the fact that the Right has been distorting the facts in atrocious fashion for some years now, which is of great political consequence. Yet the success of this strategy suggests that a deeper ideological problem prevails in (if we may) US national consciousness, and this problem might be rooted in the public's complacency about history generally, its sense of historical narrative as a given, as opposed to a work in progress. To lend another context to the debate: we wonder why we haven't seen the film community in comparable moral outrage over the recent spate of documentaries that trouble any easy fact-fiction divide? And yet another context: what to make of Douglas Coupland's recent christening, in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, of a new literary genre, Translit — novels that "cross history without being historical" and "span geography without changing psychic place"? "The zeitgeist of 2012," according to Coupland, "is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist." Is fiction too registering a corresponding twitch in the zeit, if not the geist?)

At any rate, at least D'Agata has attempted to theorize his position, as we academics like to say, and this is more than can be said for any number of essayists who behave as if their subject matter were a matter of unmediated vision. No, we can't be self-reflexive at all moments, and there's a place for plain old-fashioned vanilla journalism, especially in light of our current surfeit of the yellow variety. Frankly we wouldn't mind a return to discussions that reference something like the conditions on the ground — with Zinn's proviso — for we too find ourselves yearning for the days of Uncle Walter. (This is one reason Catherine Liu's American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique [2011] is such an important book — it resuscitates an intellectual history animated by precisely such concerns.) But nostalgia for the past aside, there's a very real danger in not understanding how our tacit assumptions about history serve to shore up a resilient status quo that would encourage us to believe in a programmatic or even preordained past, thus repressing other kinds of pasts. And this has implications both for the present, and for the future. Anyone for Manifest Destiny? How about the revolt of the proletariat? And what about the Holocaust? What do we do with those who say it never happened? Do we need to go Occupy something?


Difficult to be flip in these genocidal precincts, yes, so let's take a more sober — and momentarily more academic — tack: let's touch down at a disciplinary moment that some of us might recall with fondness, and some of us might not like to recall — that period during the 1980s when theory held undisputed sway, particularly in English departments — to see, in brief, how that New Historicist provocateur, Hayden White, handled this question of what to do about the Holocaust.

Late in his essay, "The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation" (reprinted in the volume The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, published in 1987), White poses a series of questions that "formalists" like himself were "typically confronted with":

Do you mean to say that the occurrence and nature of the Holocaust is only a matter of opinion and that one can write its history in whatever way one pleases? Do you imply that any account of that event is as valid as any other account so long as it meets certain formal requirements of discursive practices and that one has no responsibility to the victims to tell the truth about the indignities and cruelties they suffered? Are there not certain historical events that tolerate none of that mere cleverness that allows criminals or their admirers to feign accounts of their crimes that effectively relieve them of their guilt or responsibility or even, in the worst instances, allow them to maintain that the crimes they committed never happened?

We find White's manner of addressing this litany of provocations to be at once brilliantly compelling and not altogether convincing. With his remarkable talent for summarizing the salient points in thinkers like Kant, Schiller, and Hegel, he has in prior pages traced the development of a domesticated and aestheticized view of history, one absent what Schiller referred to as "the uncertain anarchy of the moral world." In the face of such "anarchy," one might reasonably be taken aback, not to say "'terrified.'" Edmund Burke's term for "the imagination's response" to awe-inspiring "natural [albeit not sociohistorical] phenomena" White shows how the turn away from the unmanageably sublime toward aesthetics, with its more regulated notions of the beautiful, encourages less dramatic responses to a history now conceived in less chaotic terms. The orthodoxy that gradually emerges renders the profession of history "a calling suitable for a kind of gentleman-scholar," a matter of disinterestedly confirming and completing the documentary record — in sum, fact (substance) checking.

Further, and as White has it, "modern ideologies" only complicate matters, "depriv[ing] history of the kind of meaninglessness that alone can goad living human beings to make their lives different for themselves and for their children, which is to say, to endow their lives with a meaning for which they alone are fully responsible". If this latter sentence doesn't do it for you, these next several should:

Everyone recognizes that the way one makes sense of history is important in determining what politics one will credit as realistic, practicable, and socially responsible. But it is often overlooked that the conviction that one can make sense of history stands on the same level of epistemic plausibility as the conviction that it makes no sense whatsoever. My point is that the kind of politics that one can justify by an appeal to history will differ according to whether one proceeds on the basis of the former or the latter conviction. I am inclined to think that a visionary politics can proceed only on the latter conviction.

White holds to this view even while acknowledging that the "latter conviction," or at least "the kind of perspective on history" that gives rise to it, is "conventionally associated with the ideologies of fascist regimes." To "guard against a sentimentalism that would lead us to write off" historical meaninglessness "simply because it has been associated with fascist ideologies," then, White presents us with something like a pragmatically existential paradox: that if human beings wish to "endow their lives" with self-actualized meaning, this can best be accomplished by first acknowledging meaninglessness.

Ergo White's rebuke to a Holocaust denier might go something like this: In addition to the preponderance of facts contra such a revisionist history, denying that the Holocaust took place is antithetical to the aims of human agents struggling to live meaningful lives, which might include — here we extrapolate with abandon — treating the past as if it were of substance, hence answerable to one or another working conception of justice.

The problem here, as we see it, is that White assumes that meaninglessness of the sort he posits is better able than meaningfulness to motivate human agents to make (living) history themselves, primarily because this lack of meaning will run counter to what he views as the thrust of "modern ideologies." But there's another possibility.

Witness the concluding lines of Whitman's "This Compost" (1856):

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of
              diseas'd corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

Here Whitman stands in awe of the Earth's capacity for regeneration through (natural) violence (to torque the title of Richard Slotkin's pioneering work on the American frontier). Whitman's response aligns squarely in fact with Burke's "terrified" response to natural phenomena cited earlier. But isn't Whitman's poem itself testament to the power of natural processes to inspire a human agent to participate in the historical record? The poem in effect documents evidence in support of its narrator's mounting anxiety as to renewably creative and destructive natural energies, thus participating in the then-nascent concept of the conservation of energy and beckoning to what the scientific community of Whitman's time framed in terms of biogenesis (or so Joe argued some years ago in the pages of Nineteenth Century Studies). Poetry becomes inquiry, then, into a real that is both empirically verifiable and historically situated, a real that yet remains a mystery. Here one might think as well of the insurmountable evidence presently in support of evolutionary theory, with its inexorable succession of mutations and natural selection, as against creationism (or "intelligent design"), where everything is presumed to be arbitrarily imbued with transcendent intention.

To turn to our social habitat, consider Jean Renoir as Octave in Rules of the Game (1939): "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons." Is the "awful thing" that we're at the mercy of one another's rationalizations? Or is Renoir suggesting that reason is never unfettered from motive, and can be profoundly unreasonable?

Sometimes it's best to fight fire with fire, or in any case, to combat fearful symmetry with symmetry of a different order. Even a "visionary politics" has to reckon with the fact that there will always be people who believe what you tell them. We might jar such people out of their complacency by confronting them with a historical abyss. But might it not be as rhetorically expedient to say to such people that there is no getting around certain facts, whether of the natural or the social realm? That one's histories must account for same, and that in this sense such histories do have at least some empirical authority? That if they are to believe something, then they would do well to believe our best conjectures?

Yes, that "they" distributed throughout the foregoing paragraph is not a little obnoxious. But it's not nearly as exclusive as it appears. Having to believe what we're told might seem an ungainly position to be in, especially for 21st century knowledge workers, but it is no less for that a constant feature of our everyday lives, whether at the doctor's office or at the car repair shop. And doesn't a "visionary politics" have to reckon with that?


Even so, even so: we make history according at least in part to our political convictions, finally. And this brings us rather full circle from White back to Whitehead, with his "faith in the order of nature.” It makes little difference that where White would render unruly, Whitehead would, what, "harmonize"? That is, while one thinker seeks to reinstate immanent historical tumult, the other seeks an idea of natural order (albeit even a glance at Whitehead's Process and Reality [1929] would show him to be in pursuit not of static regularities, but of a generative, organismic metaphysic). At any rate, if epistemological faith — faith in our capacity to know — and political conviction are, at root, driving science and history, respectively, it's incumbent upon us to find some ethical place to stand in order to live through "uncertain anarchy," not to say political tyranny, all the while aware of the fact that we are everywhere followed by our own shadows. (And in this regard, D’Agata’s description of his stylistic druthers as “a little intellectual anarchy” resonates with historiographical precedent.) To whatever degree we grant the stability of facts and their relation to our (provisional, contingent, or absolute) truths, we can in any case make heads or tails of said facts only via the application of some kind of conceptual glue. And from a political and ethical perspective, such conceptual glue is never duty-free. It requires for its application faith, conviction, and ultimately of course, some kind of power.


One can argue that debates about the essay and its variations preempt the foregoing discussion if only because the form predates it. That would amount to privileging one kind of form (or formal content) over content — which is a mistake, because we sentient bipeds have forever been confabbing with one another over the proper response to history and its discontents. For that matter, D'Agata might easily have neutralized this entire controversy by appending a small disclaimer to the front of his work to the effect that his narrators are unreliable. That might seem more appropriate for work aspiring to fact than to fiction, but it might have spoiled the fun too. We are having fun, aren't we? (Joe has been threatening for years now to write a cookbook with an unreliable narrator — sans disclaimer — but his best bet at this point is CreateSpace. Still, given that so many cookbooks already present us with inadvertently unreliable narrators, well….) Regrettably, and as Gutkind reports, the name "D'Agata" is already becoming, for some, synonymous with "disclaimer" (or something worse). We can hear the jokes already. Intern to managing editor: "I think I gotta D'Agata here." Hoaxes do have a secure (we were going to write, reputable) place in literary history — we're thinking, for instance, of the Araki Yasusada controversy (see Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada [1997]), which has yielded valuable insights into quandaries of authorship, even as it has occasioned fraught rebuttals from guys like Joe — but D'Agata strikes us as less a trickster than a gambler, which could be said of most good writers, regardless of genre. Dickey reminds us that the rise of the novel (at least as conventionally understood) grew out of a cultural preference for nonfictional veritas, and names some of D'Agata's favorite gambler-fibbers: McCarthy (but why not her buddy Hellman, John?), Orwell, and — Cicero, of all rhetors.

If we're correct, then as a gambler, D'Agata is feeling some pain at the moment. One of us likes to think that she can feel his pain. Kass suffered a similar dressing-down, in a much more minor key, upon publication of her first book, The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History (2004). Note that subtitle: the making of history. And she even allowed in her Preface that she "assumes the presence of error in this document." You can get some sense of what went down by checking out the customer reviews at the Amazon site for the book. Be sure to read all six of them — two of them were written by Joe.


Thus far what we've said has salvaged, we trust, some of D'Agata's intentions, and has mitigated his alleged violations of essayistic propriety, showing them to be perhaps less perverse and irresponsible than many have deemed them to be. What we have to say next will be somewhat less kind, if somewhat more oblique — and not because we have any qualms about telling it like it is, but because the matter really is complex.

Great nonfiction writing, for us — whether straight-ahead nonfiction or creative nonfiction or some new-old hybrid genre — is writing that manages somehow to confront the sorts of concerns that we've been busy unpacking. This is part of what it means for nonfiction to be nonfiction — or as Kass is prone to saying, for it to be not-not-true. We are in no position to say how one ought to present one's struggle with such concerns; it's certainly not a matter of postmodern self-reflexivity — often our preferred mode — nor is it a matter of steely prose (as opposed to what? — florid verse?). The last thing we'd want to do is to foreclose on anyone's aesthetic or sensuous predilections. If it's Eat Pray Love you want, then it's Eat Pray Love ye shall receive.

The Souls of Black Folk, A Bright Shining Lie, The Mismeasure of Man: three great titles on, arguably, the more conventional (Ciceroan) side of things. Rats, Lice, and History, In Pharaoh’s Army, Living Downstream: three great titles on, arguably, the more creative (Senecan) side. Political conviction and epistemological faith are present, to varying degrees, in all of these titles. Conviction and faith, in our view — even blind faith, alas, and stubborn conviction — figure irrevocably into readers' and writers' subject positions. To the extent that writers are invested in their readers' subject positions — which is to say, to the extent that they worry about what they're effecting as writers — they would probably do well to consider the kinds of readerships they're helping to foster. We're speaking now both as writers, first and foremost, but also as educators — teachers who have to contend with a student body more and more at the mercy of dire socioeconomic conditions, conditions that have started to erode, as Andrew Delbanco and others have argued, both the ideal of a liberal education and the likelihood of an informed and literate public, or at least one more informed and more literate than is presently the case.

You probably have to be educated beyond high school to want to read what we're in the process of writing, here, now — let alone to take pleasure from reading it. So if you are reading this, then consider yourself part of a relatively privileged (if put upon!) few. What we say may or may not have value, but in observing as much, we feel instantly pressured not only to provide pleasure — of the sort we experience as writers? — to our privileged few, but to somehow do justice to the attention this privileged and mortal few is, here, now, giving us. We're hoping that they're giving us critical attention, in fact — scouring our meanderings for gaps in logic, for ideological (e.g., masculinist) bias, for faulty conceptual linkages and, sure, for infelicitous expressions. (We thought it wise, under the circumstances, to refrain from using "whit" — until now.) Scouring our meanderings for the presence of this justice we claim to be doing — justice to ideas, to Whitman, Whitehead, White, D'Agata, et al., to those material, social, and noetic resources that figure into what we call publication. Justice done to an assembled lineage, then, and to an imagined readership. We're hoping this is the case.

Because after all, John, there will always be people who believe what you tell them.