Facts, Truth, Art, Gall

Recently we have explored questions raised by the history of visual journalism. Of primary concern has been the relationship between "the facts" and "the story"; or more precisely, the way certain facts lead in the direction of–or are selected so as to construct–one story versus another.

The lead article in today's New York Times Book Review (alertly flagged by a student before I'd managed to reach that section this morning) concerns The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. The book consists of a series of exchanges between the authors: D'Agata, who was working on a nonfiction piece for the Believer, and Fingal, the fact-checker charged by the Believer to vet the article. Their exchanges were difficult, even unpleasant.

The article in question was an essay about a boy named Levi Presley who jumped to his death from a hotel in Las Vegas in 2002. To simplify (but not a great deal): D'Agata took liberties with facts in the service of Art.

Jennifer B. McDonald's review demonstrates her deep impatience with D'Agata's stance. In her rendering, it seems difficult to imagine credible counterargument. Her review is so effective that I found myself wondering whether she'd eliminated available nuance to make her points. (But I do enjoy reading irritated [good] writers.)

"D’Agata argues... his duty is not to accuracy, nor to Levi. His duty is to Truth. And when an artist works in service of Truth, fidelity to fact is irrelevant."

Lest we harrumph too quickly, no less a personage than Aristotle has made the same argument. In the Poetics, Aristotle marks a bright line between poetry and history. The poet worries about form; the historian, accuracy. We have discussed these very issues in recent weeks in our Drawing Conclusions seminar.

Quoting Murray Krieger in "Fiction, History and Reality" (1978):

"What the Aristotelian poet does is to transform the empirical world's casual into art's causal(and what new worlds are opened up by the simple transposition of the "su" of casual into causal!). He marks off what, from history's viewpoint, may seem like a mere line segment, plucks it out of its empirical sequence, away from what comes before and goes after, and turns it into all the time there is or has been or even can be. In effect, he bends the line segment into a circle, a mutually dependent merger of all beginnings, middles, and ends; and the self-sufficient world of his poem is enclosed by it. We can never be further from the literal imitation of history, from the dependence of internal sequence upon external sequence, than Aristotle is here."

So is D'Agata an Aristotelian? Perhaps. These are weighty questions, in the abstract. But this case is this case. For my money, McDonald's points resonate. Oedipus Rex did not run in a newspaper or magazine as a nonfiction story. The particularities of Levi Presley's death are knowable; willful amendment to the factual context (which Jim Fingal establishes) in a publication (The Believer) which announces to readers that it does not publish fiction seems less like Art than Vanity.

As McDonald notes, aesthetics and nonfiction need not be strangers, and aren't in the best hands.

I recommend reading the whole of her essay.

Henrik Kubel & A2/SW/HK (a London design shop), Fact, typographic illustration, New York Times Book Review, February 26, 2012

Illustrator credit unavailable, Falling Burglar, Le Petit Journal Illustrated Supplement, Paris, Sunday May 14, 1899