Saturday, April 7, 2012

An Essayist's Responsibility To The Facts

A few weeks ago, I was listening to  On The Media, when they aired a story about essayist John D'Agata.  Apparently, in 2005, The Believer Magazine bought D'Agata's essay on suicide rates in Las Vegas.  When the publisher learned, via D'Agata's own admission, that the essay wasn't entirely factual, the magazine hired fact-checker Jim Fingal to correct what needed correcting.

Fingal found multiple misstatements of fact, from misattributed quotes to altered forensic details, such as the height of a suicide jump.   While D'Agata admits to fictionalizing certain details within the piece, he maintains he followed an ancient essay tradition of sacrificing factual details in order to make words flow better, in order to make an overall point.  

For example, a suicide victim took 8 seconds to hit the ground, in reality.   Yet, D'Agata felt 9 seconds had a better rhythm and flow, so he rewrote the fact.

Being a writer who researches everything I write, I have a lot of trouble with this way of thinking.  OK, considering that the end result was a splat and death, one second of drop is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  It's the willingness to change facts, and justify those changes with some multi-millenium old academic standard, which bothers me.

In my mind, the question revolves around what the readers believe they're read.  I haven't done a scientific poll, but I'd wager pretty good money that when most people think of an essay, they're thinking of those fact based reports they had to write during high school and college.  Every single teacher I ever had, drilled into me the crucial importance of all my facts being spot on within every one of those papers.  Thus, if this is our common way of thinking about essays, and I think this likely, then when people read a professional essay, they think they're reading the facts of a given topics.  Switching fact for fiction, when people believe they're reading facts, strikes me as literary bait & switch.

Readers' perceptions aside though, there's a far more important reason to relay facts accurately.  If the goal of an essay is to express a specific point of view, using fudged facts necessarily invalidates the point the essayist is trying to make.  It's like trying to prosecute a murder trial by using the evidence from the burglary trial next door.  Any conclusion will be erroneous, because the actual facts aren't there to back it up.

That's not to say that a work of fiction can't make a valid point about the real world.  To Kill A Mockingbird gave America a glimpse of, then, contemporary southern bigotry, and The Jungle gave people a wake up call regarding the meat packing industry.  In those cases though, readers knew they were reading works of fiction, based on part of the real world.

It's just my opinion, but I believe writers have a responsibility to their readers.  When readers read an essay, or other work of non-fiction the readers are trusting the writer.  Passing fictionalized quotes & stats off as facts, to make a point, seems like a betrayal of that trust.

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