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  • "Proper Names Are Poetry in the Raw":Character Formation in Traumatic Nonfiction
  • Daniel W. Lehman (bio)

"Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable."

-W. H. Auden from A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, 1970

As literary nonfiction has shouldered its way into the longstanding generic trinity of fiction, poetry, and drama, writers and theorists have argued about what sorts of allegedly truthful narratives qualify as nonfiction. Last year, these intermittent squabbles about classification broke into open war with the publication of The Lifespan of a Fact, in which essayist John D'Agata, a professor in the University of Iowa nonfiction writing program, sparred with an exacting fact-checker named Jim Fingal, who was probing the facticity of D'Agata's essay about teenager Levi Presley's suicidal plunge from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. Their debate ranged from the mundane to the vital. For example, D'Agata admitted that he changed the color of a pink dog-grooming van to purple, explaining, "I needed the two beats of purple, so I changed the color. I don't think it's that [End Page 57] big a deal" (39). More seriously, D'Agata conceded that he altered the actual suicide of an unrelated Las Vegas victim from jumping to hanging "because I wanted Levi's death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique" (18). Ultimately, Fingal proved that many of the surreal events that D'Agata said happened the day that Levi Presley died did not, in fact, happen at all—or at least not the way that D'Agata had essayed.

Challenged on these points, the Iowa nonfiction professor protested: "I'm tired of this genre being terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public that's afraid of accidentally venturing into terrain that can't be footnoted and verified by seventeen different sources" (22). An exasperated Fingal was moved to respond: "Basically it sounds like you're saying that an essayist can write things with arbitrary truth value and make quotations out of whole cloth that are attributed to real people in the real world. Is that right? And if so, isn't that what people call fiction?" (53). And so the debate was on. One New York Times review called D'Agata "a fight-spoiling dodobrain" and added, "[J]ust trying to sneak and bully his work into magazines is a disingenuous strategy; it borrows the prestige of a credibility he forsakes" (Lewis-Kraus). Another charged that D'Agata "shimmies too close to the flame. In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid's suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. . . . [I]t damages the moral authority of D'Agata's voice, which is his narrative's main engine" (Bock).

Perhaps the most perceptive response came from's senior writer Laura Miller, who argued that D'Agata's and Fingal's set-to in The Lifespan of a Fact "is a travesty of the fact-checking process." She noted: "Any lingering impression that Fingal is a put-upon toiler in the boiler room of journalism dissolves as he introduces more and more tedious digressions and unfunny wisecracks into an ever-burgeoning pissing match." In fact, D'Agata and Fingal had staged and embellished much of the argument that became The Lifespan of a Fact, disclosing as much in an interview with Weston Cutter on his Kenyon Review blog. D'Agata called the book-long debate over the facts of Levi Presley's death "a bit of a reconstructed performance" while Fingal revealed that [End Page 58] his six months of part-time fact-checking were inflated in the book to an increasingly obsessive seven-year debate with D'Agata. Yet, to his credit, D'Agata seemed to understand that their discourse—even if substantially staged—did foreground some essential peculiarities about what we commonly call creative nonfiction, literary essays, or narrative journalism. By whatever name, this form of nonfiction is intertwined with the characters, events, and memories that precede the...