Is it all right for a writer not to tell the truth?

Today's big retraction by the "This American Life" people (see below post) is bound to re-engage that question - or in other words, how to accommodate facts, exaggerations or outright lies in pursuit of the greater truth? Here are some snippets from a provocative exchange aired just a few weeks ago on the public radio program, "On the Media." It centers on a piece by writer John D'Agata concerning the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas and the subsequent fact-checking by a fellow named Jim Fingal. Here are some snippets of the back and forth between D'Agata and Fingal:

JIM FINGAL: In other words, he's manipulating what this guy actually said in order to create a literary effect, which apparently is allowed among writers of John's non-journalistic literary genre, for which he apparently writes all the rules.

JIM FINGAL (AS JOHN D'AGATA): I'm not sure how I can this so that you understand, Jim, because it doesn't to be getting across to you, but one more time for the record, I am not a journalist. I'm an essayist. And this is a genre that has existed for a few thousand years. Ever heard of Cicero? So these rules that I'm working under are not mine, but rather were established by writers who recognized the difference between the hard research of journalism and the kind of inquiry of mind that characterizes the essay.

JIM FINGAL: Basically, it sounds like you're saying that an essayist can write things with arbitrary truth value and make quotations up out of whole cloth that are attributed to real people who live in the real world. Is that right? And, if so, isn't that what people call fiction?

JIM FINGAL [AS JOHN D'AGATA): Have I changed the meaning of anything here, Jim? No, I've just streamlined this quote in order to help things move along a little better and to create a bit of resonance with neighboring paragraphs. It's what writers do.

JIM FINGAL: Okay. So now I understand. The rules are - there are no rules, just as long as you make it pretty.

JIM FINGAL [AS JOHN D'AGATA]: That's a bullshit interpretation of what I just said.


JOHN D'AGATA: Those who embrace the idea of nonfiction are very welcome to it, and I wish them every joy in the world in that pursuit, genuinely. But please don't hold me to parameters for making essays that I wholly disagree with and that I believe misrepresent the true purpose of this genre. An essay is an attempt, Jim, nothing else. And fundamentally for centuries, that's all it's been. Even etymologically, "essay" means an attempt. And so, as a writer of essays my interpretation of that charge is that I try, that I try to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos. That's what I want to be held accountable for as a writer. It's how I want to be judged.

JIM FINGAL: I don't necessarily believe that a nonfiction essay has to strive for an objective account of an occurrence as its primary project or that the writer is ethically obligated to secure the reality of an event in cultural memory. And I'm all for the beaux mots historiographic metafictional appropriation of events and personages. But there still seems to be something strange about doing this sort of thing with someone like Levi, who is just a teenager, after all, just a kid in Las Vegas, not a cultural figure or an icon whose life is for the taking and can be radically manipulated and reinterpreted. I mean, clearly it's not like you're defiling his grave by propagating these inaccuracies, but it's kind of like you're being dishonest about where that grave is.

Previously on LA Biz Observed:
'This American Life' retracts piece on Apple

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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