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Nonfiction Is Supposed to Be True

In the preface to his biography of Lincoln, Pulitzer Prize biographer David Herbert Donald recalls meeting with President John F. Kennedy in 1962.  Kennedy was unhappy about scholars’ attempts to rank presidents, arguing that “no one has the right to grade a President … who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”

Donald’s biography of Lincoln is based on the spirit of Kennedy’s remarks.  “I have asked at every stage of his career what he knew when he had to take critical actions, how he evaluated the evidence before him, and why he reached his decisions,” Donald writes.  “It is, then, a biography written from Lincoln’s point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him then.”  Donald uses only Fact.checkLincoln’s own words and original sources, and makes no attempt to invent thoughts, conversations, or actions to explain Lincoln’s decisions.

Enter John D’Agata, whose new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, reveals an interpretation of nonfiction far different from Donald’s. The book chronicles the long and ugly fight between the author and the fact checker assigned to him before his article is published in The Believer. The article purports to describe the circumstances of the suicide of Levi Presley, a young man who jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.  The book is co-authored by fact checker Jim Fingal and is composed of his line-by-line textual questions.

Fingal found D’Agata’s article to be rife with inaccuracies, discrepancies, and downright fibs.  There were name changes, actions presented on the same day that were weeks apart, and actions that never happened.  D’Agata’s increasingly annoyed responses to Fingal’s concerns include this one: “The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as ‘facts.’ The work that they’re doing is more image-based than informational.”  He adds, according to Jennifer B. McDonald in her book review, that his duty is to truth, not to facts.  In short, it’s “truthiness,” not accuracy that he’s after. 

Gideon Lewis-Kraus notes in his article about the book in the Sunday Times Magazine that D’Agata, a professor of writing at the University of Iowa, believes that we should give up the idea of nonfiction and instead embrace the essay.  Let readers decide for themselves what’s true and what’s not, he says.  When nonfiction becomes art, the writer (and the reader) can interpret or change facts as necessary to get to the heart of the matter.

The problem, of course, isn’t with nonfiction, nor is it with essays; both serve a valuable intellectual role.  The problem arises when an author tries to pass off essay as nonfiction. And nonfiction does become art not when the facts are manipulated, but when they are presented with accuracy and clarity.  One could argue that Donald’s work, for example, is art, not because he interprets the facts for us, but because he creates a vibrant, living story that actually happened.

The discussion about what constitutes nonfiction is particularly timely, given the new Core Curriculum requirements for students to read more “informational text” (nonfiction) along with fiction. The concern expressed by some teachers is that fiction might be phased out (it won’t) or that they won’t know how to teach nonfiction (they do).  Since most students’ textbooks require a close read and don’t have a beginning, middle, and end, it isn’t as if students have never read any nonfiction.  What worries me, however, is the selection of materials and whether those who select them and teach them can distinguish between the Donalds and the D’Agatas.  If we teach kids that “informational text” is true, it better be.


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