John D’Agata has accomplished an impressive feat. In three thick volumes, over 13 years, he has published a series of anthologies—of the contemporary American essay, of the world essay, and now of the historical American essay—that misrepresents what the essay is and does, that falsifies its history, and that contains, among its numerous selections, very little one would reasonably classify within the genre. And all of this to wide attention and substantial acclaim (D’Agata is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, the most prestigious name in creative writing)—because effrontery, as everybody knows, will get you very far in American culture, and persistence in perverse opinion, further still.
D’Agata’s rationale for his “new history,” to the extent that one can piece it together from the headnotes that preface each selection, goes something like this. The conventional essay, nonfiction as it is, is nothing more than a delivery system for facts. The genre, as a consequence, has suffered from a chronic lack of critical esteem, and thus of popular attention. The true essay, however, deals not in knowing but in “unknowing”: in uncertainty, imagination, rumination; in wandering and wondering; in openness and inconclusion.
Every piece of this is false in one way or another. There are genres whose principal business is fact—journalism, history, popular science—but the essay has never been one of them. If the form possesses a defining characteristic, it is that the essay makes an argument (and does so, unlike academic writing and other forms, for a general rather than a specialized audience). That argument can rest on fact, but it can also rest on anecdote, or introspection, or cultural interpretation, or some combination of all these and more. There are “public essays” and “personal essays” and essays that are both or neither; the form is broad and various and limitlessly flexible. Yet what distinguishes an op‑ed, for instance, from a news report is that the former seeks to persuade, not simply inform. And what makes a personal essay an essay and not just an autobiographical narrative is precisely that it uses personal material to develop, however speculatively or intuitively, a larger conclusion. Near the end of the title essay in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, to take the most celebrated recent example, we read the following: “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us … It’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” The movement that culminates in that passage—from instance to precept, from observation to idea—is the hallmark of the essay.
D’Agata’s problem, conceptually and psychologically, appears to begin with the term nonfiction. Nonfiction is the source of the narcissistic injury that seems to drive him. “Nonfiction,” he suggests, is like saying “not art,” and if D’Agata, who has himself published several volumes of what he refers to as essays, desires a single thing above all, it is to be known as a maker of art. But the syllogism is false. Nonfiction may not be a very useful term, and it certainly is an ill-defined (and, with its double negation, a very odd) one, but no one believes that the thing it names cannot be art.
At least, no one has believed it for a long time. D’Agata tells us that the term has been in use since about 1950. In fact, it was coined in 1867 by the staff of the Boston Public Library and entered widespread circulation after the turn of the 20th century. The concept’s birth and growth, in other words, did coincide with the rise of the novel to literary preeminence, and nonfiction did long carry an odor of disesteem. But that began to change at least as long ago as the 1960s, with the New Journalism and the “nonfiction novel.” By decade’s end, the phrase creative nonfiction had entered the lexicon—a term that’s since become ubiquitous and that explicitly negates D’Agata’s claim about the anti-artistic implication of its second word.
As for the essay—a form whose exponents in English had included, from the 1860s to the 1960s, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and James Baldwin—its prestige was never less than high, and the emergence of creative nonfiction as a rallying point (and of the memoir as a publishing phenomenon) was soon followed by that of the personal essay, in particular, as an increasingly prominent and celebrated genre. The annual Best American Essays debuted in 1986, the first addition to the Best American franchise since the series was launched (with The Best American Short Stories) in 1915. Phillip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay was published in 1994. Joseph Epstein’s anthology The Norton Book of Personal Essays was published in 1997. Joyce Carol Oates’s anthology The Best American Essays of the Century was published in 2000. Also in 2000, the National Magazine Awards established a category exclusively for essays. D’Agata, whose first anthology did not appear until 2003, has hardly saved the genre from oblivion. If anything, he was rather late to the party.
Of course, D’Agata would say that the essays he collects are not essays, or not those kinds of essays. They are “lyric” essays—something altogether different. They deal not in information or assertion but in ambivalence and ambiguity; in emotion, exploration, and suggestion. And that is certainly worthy as an organizing principle. But the qualities D’Agata claims to prize are not confined to a single genre, no matter what he wants to call it. They exist in fiction as well, and in poetry and memoir and indeed in the essay itself. And the clearest proof they do is that a large number of D’Agata’s selections are, in fact, stories, poems, autobiographical sketches, and personal essays. He gives us Jean Toomer’s “Blood-Burning Moon” and Renata Adler’s “Brownstone” (short stories), T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages” and Stéphane Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” (poems), Leonard Michaels’s “In the Fifties” and Natalia Ginzburg’s “He and I” (autobiographical sketches), and personal essays by E. B. White, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and others.
Yet that is not enough. D’Agata also gives us pieces that indubitably trade in fact, argument, and assertion. We get ethnographic selections by Plutarch and Bernardino de Sahagún, works of travel by Petrarch and Michel Butor, and lots and lots of journalism (by Norman Mailer, Lillian Ross, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, and more). We get a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, a catalog of maxims by Francis Bacon and another by Anne Bradstreet, and works of satire by Jonathan Swift, Washington Irving, and Mark Twain, among others.
What we really seem to get in D’Agata’s trilogy, in other words, is a compendium of writing that the man himself just happens to like, or that he wants to appropriate as a lineage for his own work. To be sure, there does appear to be a kind of prose that he’s particularly partial to and that is mainly what he seems to have in mind when he talks about the lyric essay. We find it, especially, in many of his more modern selections, including the bulk of the first anthology, The Next American Essay, which covers the period from 1975 to 2003. We find it, that is, when he isn’t limited by the literary record of older ages and can show us what his taste is like when granted full indulgence.
What it’s like is abysmal: partial to trivial formal experimentation, hackneyed artistic rebellion, opaque expressions of private meaning, and modish political posturing. We get gimmick pieces like Donald Barthelme’s “Sentence” and Kenneth Goldsmith’s “All the Numbers From Numbers,” flaccid “theme” writing like Fabio Morabito’s “Oil” and Alexander Theroux’s “Black,” lightweight narrative vignettes like Susan Steinberg’s “Signified” and Brian Lennon’s “Sleep,” and overwrought poeticizations like Dino Campana’s “The Night” and Saint-John Perse’s “Anabasis.” D’Agata is a professor of creative writing, and a lot of this material is indeed “creative writing” in the worst, collegiate sense: not fiction or poetry or memoir or essay, but verbiage that manages to be both all of them and none—formless, monotonous, self-indulgent, and dull.
If D’Agata wants to call these pieces “lyric essays,” he is free to do so (this is America, after all), but he might want to give us some warning, in a truth-in-advertising kind of way—might want to let us know that the word essay in his titles is used in a sense that is, let us say, idiosyncratic. If I bought a bag of chickpeas and opened it to find that it contained some chickpeas, some green peas, some pebbles, and some bits of goat poop, I would take it back to the store. And if the shopkeeper said, “Well, they’re ‘lyric’ chickpeas,” I would be entitled to say, “You should’ve told me that before I bought them.”
But to expect that kind of honesty from John D’Agata is to misunderstand his relationship to truth, amply documented in The Lifespan of a Fact, a book he co-authored in 2012. Lifespan is the record of D’Agata’s struggles with a fact-checker at The Believer over an article D’Agata had written about the death in Las Vegas of a 16-year-old named Levi Presley. Presley had jumped from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel, and D’Agata sought to use the event as the occasion for a narrative meditation on suicide, Las Vegas, and other themes. There is nothing wrong with that per se; the trouble arose when the checker, Jim Fingal, began to do his job. It turned out that D’Agata had “taken some liberties,” as he puts it to Fingal, by altering or inventing whatever he chose to in order to make the story, or the writing, sound better. “The rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ so I changed it,” he explains, or, “I need her to be from a place other than Las Vegas in order to underscore the transient nature of the city.” Fingal finds seven fabrications in the first sentence alone.
Nor do these inventions relate only to Presley’s life and death, as bad as that would be, or to incidental details like the number of strip clubs in the city. “Native Americans,” D’Agata writes, “once tended to kill themselves more often than any other group, but then, fifteen years ago, stopped killing themselves significantly.” The second half of that sentence (aside from being poorly written) is, as Fingal discovers, entirely false. Suicide rates among Native Americans did not change significantly during the period in question and remain much higher than among the U.S. population as a whole. D’Agata appears untroubled by the prospect of purveying misinformation about an entire racial group.
And when he isn’t cooking quotes or otherwise fudging the record, he is simply indifferent to issues of factual accuracy, content to rely on a mixture of guesswork, hearsay, and his own rather faulty memory. “There are always nine Muses alive at any time,” he solemnly explains, as if a new one were appointed when one of the incumbents (who are immortal deities, of course) passed away—you know, kind of like the Supreme Court. When Fingal reports that the verses D’Agata describes as having been graffitied on a bridge in Magic Marker are in fact formally inscribed in the concrete—official public art, not a scrawl of countercultural rebellion—D’Agata gives a verbal shrug: “OK, I may have imagined the magic marker.”
It is a rare instance, on his part, of temperate behavior. His rejoinders are more commonly a lot more hostile—not to mention juvenile (“Wow, Jim, your penis must be so much bigger than mine”), defensive, and in their overarching logic, deeply specious. He’s not a journalist, he insists; he’s an essayist. He isn’t dealing in anything as mundane as the facts; he’s dealing in “art, dickhead,” in “poetry,” and there are no rules in art. Besides, he says, to think, like journalists and other writers of so-called nonfiction, that you can “find” the “facts” is as delusory as thinking that you can find God.
When Fingal points out that D’Agata, far from revealing the meaning of Presley’s life by sifting through its particulars, is inventing and imposing his own meanings on it—this is during an exchange about tae kwon do, which Presley practiced and for which D’Agata concocts an elaborate originary legend involving an “ancient Indian prince”—D’Agata replies that there is something between history and fiction. “We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance.” The “emotional truths” here, of course, are D’Agata’s, not Presley’s. If it feels right to say that tae kwon do was invented in ancient India (not modern Korea, as Fingal discovers it was), then that is when it was invented. The term for this is truthiness.
Yet D’Agata, as Fingal notes, is not presenting Presley’s story to the reader as something that has been “poetically embellished” (Fingal’s phrase), or as the chronicle, as D’Agata insists, of his own search for meaning. He is presenting it as a work of nonfiction. D’Agata clearly wants to have it both ways. He wants the imaginative freedom of fiction without relinquishing the credibility (and for some readers, the significance) of nonfiction. He has his fingers crossed, and he’s holding them behind his back. “John’s a different kind of writer,” an editor explains to Fingal early in the book. Indeed he is. But the word for such a writer isn’t essayist. It’s liar.
Don’t ask me why this book was ever published. What I can tell you is that D’Agata brings the same regard for truth, and for his readers, to the anthologies. The headnotes that preface each selection offer not only a theory of the essay but also a running commentary on the history of literature, art, and the world, as well as introductions to the pieces in question. The selections are arranged by year, and are sometimes given context with enumerations of a few of the events of the year. The procedure is odd for someone with so little respect for facts (including the possibility that they can even be established), but what isn’t odd is how consistently D’Agata bungles, garbles, or simply falsifies them.
We haven’t gotten six lines into the first headnote of the first anthology before we read that in 1975, “we are on the moon, again, for the eighteenth time.” There were six lunar landings, the last in 1972. D’Agata’s headnote to a.d. 105, introducing a selection from Seneca, confuses the emperor Trajan, who conquered the Dacians that year, with Nero, Seneca’s pupil. Seneca was long since dead by a.d. 105, as was Pliny, whose work D’Agata mentions as having begun in the wake of Trajan’s conquest.
And so it goes throughout the collections. D’Agata misquotes the first line of E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” (adding an entire word) on the page that faces the correct version. He tells us that the middle class was born around 1860, several centuries late, and that radio telescopes were invented to receive signals from extraterrestrials. He marvels that the computer could have been invented during the “turmoil” of World War II, oblivious to the fact that it was invented because of World War II. His headnote to the selection for 1997 mentions six events. Two did not occur that year, and a third did not occur as he implies. One of those mistakes concerns the piece the headnote introduces. “In this year,” D’Agata says, “David Foster Wallace turns his fact-obsessed attention to the Illinois State Fair.” “Ticket to the Fair” was published in 1994 and reported, as it says in its opening line, in 1993.
But the more important pratfalls are the literary ones. For the self-appointed curator in chief of an entire genre, D’Agata shows a stunning paucity of literary judgment, even of literary knowledge. He labels a sentence by Jonathan Edwards a run-on when it is merely long and complex. He claims a prose poem by James Wright “scans perfectly” (consists, that is, of perfect iambic pentameters), when its very first unit (“Deep into spring, winter is hanging on”) manifestly does not. He asserts that it is “hard to imagine” that British readers understood that “A Modest Proposal,” which advocates the eating of babies, was meant ironically—this in the golden age of English satire, no less—because, among other things, Sir Isaac Newton, “the smartest person in the world,” had recently calculated the exact date of Armageddon. (No, I don’t get it either.) D’Agata brings to mind the kind of undergraduate who seizes on a single fact, innocent of its context, and builds upon it an entire, inane idea. Natalia Ginzburg wrote economical prose because she lived “under the confines of Italian fascism,” he tells us, and in the course of misquoting, mischaracterizing, and generally misconstruing a passage from “Urn Burial,” he notes that its author, Sir Thomas Browne, one of the great rhetoricians of the 17th century, “does not believe in the efficacy of rhetoric.”
The point of all this nonsense, and a great deal more just like it, is to advance an argument about the essay and its history. The form, D’Agata’s story seems to go, was neglected during the long ages that worshiped “information” but slowly emerged during the 19th and 20th centuries as artists learned to defy convention and untrammel their imaginations, coming fully into its own over the past several decades with the dawning recognition of the illusory nature of knowledge.
It takes a lot of hammering and bending to try to get this argument to fit reality. D’Agata’s claims about the conventional essay, to start with, are ludicrous—for example, that as late as 1960, “essayists who are trying to offer more than information are still not being recognized as practitioners of the form.” (Woolf? Emerson?) Or that essays have a tendency “to dilute a potent image by dissecting it, inspecting it, and explaining it away”—a claim, like many, that he seems to make up on the spot. Most delectable is when he speaks about “the essay’s traditional ‘five-paragraph’ form.” I almost fell off my chair when I got to that one. The five-paragraph essay—introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion; stultifying, formulaic, repetitive—is the province of high-school English teachers. I have never met one outside of a classroom, and like any decent college writing instructor, I never failed to try to wean my students away from them. The five-paragraph essay isn’t an essay; it’s a paper.
D’Agata’s running argument about the essay is also where the lies come in, though they aren’t as blatant as they are in The Lifespan of a Fact. He slips the word essay into his translation of Petrarch’s account of the poet’s ascent of Mont Ventoux, written more than two centuries before Montaigne coined the word. He undoubtedly knows that the term nonfiction was not invented around 1950, but that is when it lost its hyphen, and that’s presumably excuse enough. He informs us, in his chip-on-the-shoulder way, that something called The Directory of American Writers began publication in 1993, but that authors could qualify only with credits in poetry and fiction. I have searched for that title and failed to find it. What I have found (feeling a lot like Jim Fingal) is A Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers. But the fact that essayists are excluded from such a resource does not make for much of a story. I wouldn’t trust a thing this person says.
Yet the worst of it, and the clue to what is finally so bad about D’Agata’s whole misbegotten project, is what he does, in introducing them, to so many of the selections themselves. He tries to make them over in his own image. “Knowledge—real knowledge—is problematized the moment we start trying to nail it down,” he says in his preface to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a straightforward piece of reportage in which knowledge is never problematized and most efficiently nailed down. Jonathan Edwards, we are told, “obey[s] the rules” of the Puritan plain style “so that he might later break them,” as if the hellfire preacher were a student in art school. Of the 16th-century Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún’s monumental ethnography of the Aztecs, compiled over more than 40 years, D’Agata asserts, with eye-popping chutzpah, that “it’s unlikely that the book’s point is the accuracy of its data.” (“I think the point,” he moistly adds, “is song.”) Socrates, D’Agata confides, “was an essayist.” Yes, Socrates, who not only never wrote anything but famously rejected writing altogether, and whose disciples, when they came to make a record of his words, created dialogues, not essays—as they hardly could have, given that the form did not exist in ancient Athens.
The appropriation goes beyond what’s said in any given headnote, though. D’Agata’s trilogy, by its very nature, misrepresents almost every piece it includes. When he refers to his selections as essays, he does more than falsify the essay as a genre. He also effaces all the genres that they do belong to: not only poetry, fiction, journalism, and travel, but, among his older choices, history, parable, satire, the sermon, and more—genres that possess their own particular traditions, conventions, and expectations, into and against which the pieces in question were written. By ignoring all this—by ignoring the actual contexts of his selections, and thus their actual intentions—D’Agata makes the familiar contemporary move of imposing his own conceits and concerns upon the past. That is how ethnography turns into “song,” Socrates into an essayist, and the whole of literary history into a single man’s “emotional truth.”
The history of the essay is indeed intertwined with “facts,” but in a very different way than D’Agata imagines. D’Agata’s mind is Manichaean. Facts bad, imagination good. Commerce bad, art good. Reason, data, scholars, critics, scientific knowledge: bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. What he fails to understand is that facts and the essay are not antagonists but siblings, offspring of the same historical moment. But to see as much, one needs to recognize that facts themselves have a history.
Facts are not just any sort of knowledge, such as also existed in the ancient and medieval worlds. A fact is a unit of information that has been established through uniquely modern methods. Fact, etymologically, means “something done”—that is, an act or deed—a sense that still survives in phrases like accessory after the fact. It was only in the 16th century—an age that saw the dawning of a new empirical spirit, one that would issue not only in modern science, but also in modern historiography, journalism, and scholarship—that the word began to signify our current sense of “real state of things.”
It was at this exact time, and in this exact spirit, that the essay was born. What distinguished Montaigne’s new form—his “essays” or attempts to discover and publish the truth about himself—was not that it was personal (precursors like Seneca also wrote personally), but that it was scrupulously investigative. Montaigne was conducting research into his soul, and he was determined to get it right. His famous motto, Que sais-je?—“What do I know?”—was an expression not of radical doubt but of the kind of skepticism that fueled the modern revolution in knowledge. A generation later, Galileo turned his telescope upon the outer world. Montaigne aimed his instruments within. It is no coincidence that the first English essayist, Galileo’s contemporary Francis Bacon, was also the first great theorist of science.
That knowledge is problematic—difficult to establish, labile once created, often imprecise and always subject to the limitations of the human mind—is not the discovery of postmodernism. It is a foundational insight of the age of science, of fact and information, itself. “The life span of a fact is shrinking” goes the fuller version of the phrase. D’Agata heard it, he tells us in the trilogy, from a famous biologist, but he clearly failed to catch its meaning. The point is not that facts do not exist, but that they are unstable (and are becoming more so as the pace of science quickens). Knowledge is always an attempt. Every fact was established by an argument—by observation and interpretation—and is susceptible to being overturned by a different one. A fact, you might say, is nothing more than a frozen argument, the place where a given line of investigation has come temporarily to rest.
Sometimes those arguments are scientific papers. Sometimes they are news reports, which are arguments with everything except the conclusions left out (the legwork, the notes, the triangulation of sources—the research and the reasoning). And sometimes they are essays. When it comes to essays, though, we don’t refer to those conclusions as facts. We refer to them as wisdom, or ideas. And yes, they are often openly impressionistic and provisional, colored by feeling, memory, and mood. But the essay draws its strength not from separating reason and imagination but from putting them in conversation. A good essay moves fluidly between thought and feeling. It subjects the personal to the rigors of the intellect and the discipline of external reality. The truths it finds are more than just emotional.
If you want to get a sense of what the process looks like, read Phillip Lopate’s anthology, or Joyce Carol Oates’s, which between them offer just about every relevant selection in D’Agata’s trilogy (or better ones by the same authors), plus a great many more. But those are older books, and I fear D’Agata now commands the field, if only by dint of claiming it. No doubt one or more of his anthologies are being used as college texts, imposed on students who, in many cases, are bereft of other sources of cultural information. It kills me to think that there are going to be people walking around who believe that Socrates was an essayist because a self-important ignoramus named D’Agata told them so. Honestly, can’t we do better than this?