on “The Facts of the Matter

“The Facts of the Matter” is a difficult essay to summarize; instead of doing that, I’m going to jump into a refutation of it, with the expectation that if you’re reading this, you’ve visited the wonderful Triquarterly and read the essay for yourself.

God help me, but I’m going to invoke Sarah Palin and call “The Facts of the Matter” a form of gotcha essaying.

It seems as if its author almost hoped that readers would exclaim in response to the essay, “You lied about a rape!” just so s/he1; could say “Aha! You’re mad at me for lying about a rape but you’re not mad at John D’Agata?” Because that’s the point of this essay: you, reader, are supposed to feel like a cherry-picker of truth, because that’s what you are, and you, reader, should feel ashamed of yourself.

Based on the author’s wildly veering assumptions, many of the arguments put forth in “The Facts of the Matter” are sensationalist and dogmatic. There’s the lobbed question: if the “rapist” in the essay was actually a scholarship kid,  would the “act”  have taken on a “class narrative” and affected readers differently? While this might be an interesting line of inquiry, raising questions isn’t the point of the essay. Don’t let the punctuation marks fool you. The author believes that s/he knows not only what truth in creative nonfiction is (though it’s never explained), but your stance on the matter as well.

“It’s become fashionable lately to question the importance of facts in works of creative nonfiction.” Let’s ignore the sneer of fashionable and look at her evidence: she quotes Robert Atwan who asks “Is it possible that a piece of personal writing can be grounded in fiction and still be considered an essay?” Nowhere does the author quote Antwan’s answer, or wonder what an essay is or what it is supposed to do (besides its early definitions of “weighing”). Is the inability to define the form the root of this entire problem? Is asking the question the same as questioning the importance? Is wanting to engage in the debate  grounds for vilification?

What I think is most frustrating about this essay is that there are important moments, fertile places, where such a debate could usefully rage, for instance, when the author details the story of the Palestinian man convicted of “rape by deception” for telling the woman he slept with he was Jewish. But when the author quotes the judge in the case, “The court is obliged to protect the public interest from the sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims,” I could only think: this essay is trying to do what that judge did, convict D’Agata and Shields and protect the unsuspecting reader. Because, see, if any reader wonders whether they might agree with the judge and might not be sure what they think about D’Agata’s untruths in Lifespan of a Factgotcha! Never is the question pondered of whether a reader can be a victim. In addition, when the author writes, “if one considers the bond between reader and author to be as intimate as that between lovers,” it feels as if s/he assumes that, of course, “one” does. And if you don’t think that, where is your place in this essay?

My exasperation continued when I read: “It’s interesting that writers of creative nonfiction have become so at ease with lying, so uninterested in truth.” I am a writer of creative nonfiction. Many of the other writers I know or internetknow or don’t know at all probably don’t necessarily feel “so at ease.” This kind of generality is not glittering so much as covered in old dog crap, and it ignores that the label “creative nonfiction” has frequently been questioned by writers, and in fact, gives many the shivers.

But what’s second-most infuriating about this essay is that this generalization is followed by the idea that all this unconcern is happening “at a time when our government is obsessed with obtaining the truth through increased surveillance, interrogation of subjects…’credibility assessment’ has become a watchword in the paranoiac post-9/11 era, a government goal, while artists–at least in the realm of literary nonfiction–seem to be increasingly sanguine about lying.” Here, I go, disagreeing with the premise again: I don’t believe that truth-seeking is at the heart of any of these actions: interrogation techniques used to torture people into lies or that somehow  invasions of privacy are attempts to shed light. But again, I’m pulled back to the gotcha: if I have an idea of truth-seeking, why don’t I think essays should do that as well? Is outright anger at the noble lies at the heart of the Bush Doctrine or the most everything I’ve heard from the mouth of Mitt Romney this election the same reaction I should have about creative nonfiction that tells untruths? I’m not asking these questions because I know the answers. I don’t know. I don’t think I do. No, I don’t know.

While reading “The Facts of the Matter,” I thought constantly of the debate over whether photography reflects reality, fact, truth, and in return, thought constantly of  Errol Morris’ remarkable Believing is Seeing.  

In one chapter, “The Most Curious Thing,” Morris investigates the thumbs up, smiling photographs of Sabrina Harman posing with the dead body of al-Jamadii, the man murdered, either by U.S. intelligence officials or members of the U.S. military, in a shower in Abu Ghraib. Morris works, albeit hesitantly, with Paul Ekman, a leading psychologist and “smile scientist” to analyze the photographs. Ekman notes that Harman is not actually smiling in the Abu Ghraib photographs, because certain muscles that are used for “enjoyment smiles,” the orbicularis oculi pars lateralis, aren’t activated. She is using her “public smile”–it’s not real. Ekman goes on to explain that when we see someone else smiling, we smile in return; it’s contagious. And so our horror at the photographs was magnified, because our physiological reaction may have been to smile back, making us, somehow, complicit. What is the “truth” in a photograph if what we see when we see it isn’t what we’re really seeing?

Morris calls his book, “a collection of mystery stories;” he’s presenting you with the information, alternative points-of-view, adding fuel to the never-going-to-end-and-definitely-did-not-start-anytime-recently fire about truth and fact and interpretation. If anything, Morris confronts his questions, his own assumptions, in the book. Which is, in essence, the opposite of “The Facts of the Matter,”  where the author seems to already have a clear, though unexplained, notion of the definitions of truth and fact, and also, a clear definition of your notions as well.

In another chapter investigating a famous Crimean War photograph that may have been “posed,” Morris mentions the “Brownian motion of molecules in the atmosphere,” as a  simple way of proving that the moon landing was not, in fact, fiction. The way the dust “instantly plunged straight down in a way that no dust on Earth would,” is proof that the gravity of the moon, and not the Earth, was at work.

Is there a “dust-plunging-straight-down test” for writing? Whether there is or isn’t, isn’t a fact. There are always things excluded, “cropped out,” and they necessarily complicate any notions of the truth.

Does this make me a truth relativist? Is it unconscionable that I was both troubled and entertained by Lifespan of a Fact? Do I have to choose? Is it disgusting that I’m choosing to again vote for President Obama although I think his bailing out of the banks was disastrous and antithetical to  the progressive causes he espoused in his campaign and I morally object to the military’s use of drones? Do my contradictions disgust you?

If I’m willing to sit in the uncomfortable place of “I don’t fucking know man,” about the idea of memory and truth and what a lyric/creative nonfiction/or just plain essay is supposed to do, does this mean that I deserve to be lied to by my elected officials or doctors or journalists?

The author of “The Facts of the Matter” writes in the postscript, “My piece is meant to be shocking, in the hopes that it will shock us into thinking harder about what we’re accepting when we say that facts no longer matter in CNF, or to us.” Having never said that facts don’t matter, and being personally uninterested in an essay of manipulative shock and awing, I don’t think this author brings us any closer to any idea of what the fundamental facts of the matter are.

1.  The author posed as a male within the essay, and then states she’s really a “she” in the postscript.