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When Creative Writing Gets Too Creative

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Media, media criticism, journalism, fiction, nonfiction, ethics, Columbia Journalism Review, The Believer,

Stratosphere HotelThe lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurring and giving rise to a new form “that we might call ‘true fiction,’” writes Alissa Quart in Columbia Journalism Review. Quart sees examples of this phenomenon all around, including Dave Eggers’ brilliant book What Is the What, which tells but also takes a few liberties with the tale of a Sudanese “Lost Boy”; the forthcoming graphic novel A.D. by Josh Neufeld, which depicts post-Katrina New Orleans; and even The Hurt Locker, the war film that is presented as fiction but is based on an original nonfiction magazine article.

Quart is quick to acknowledge that the fiction-nonfiction hybrid isn’t all that new, but she contends that writers well known for mixing the two, like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, “imagined their work to be a certain kind of journalism.” Members of the newer breed, she notes, “seem to be backing away from categorizing things as ‘true,’ even as they are also rethinking what nonfiction is and can be.”

The new anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, Quart writes, even makes the case “that some works long considered fiction are actually closer to this hybrid form,” and she quotes from a piece by the anthology’s editor, John D’Agata: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”

Coincidentally, it was a recent story by D’Agata in The Believer that left me confused about what was information and what was art. In “What Happens There,” D’Agata traces the final moments of Levi Presley, a 16-year-old who killed himself by jumping from the top of the 1,149-foot-high Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

The writer does several things at once: In the guise of a reporter, he attempts to penetrate the wall of silence surrounding suicide in Las Vegas, which has the highest suicide rate in the nation year after year. Wearing a memoirist’s hat, he interweaves his own experiences in the city, where he briefly lived to care for his mother. And as a facile prose stylist, he attempts to vividly convey the sights, sounds, and smells that Presley might have encountered as he walked toward his deadly jump through the sprawling casino complex.

I was immediately drawn in by D’Agata’s deft, artful writing, and yet as the tale unfolded I was stopped cold at several junctures, mostly because as a journalist I had certain expectations about what I perceived as, first and foremost, a piece of journalism. To wit:

• The story begins with the glaringly vague time reference “one summer,” yet anyone with Google at his fingertips can learn that Presley committed suicide in 2002. Why not place the story’s main event in time for the reader? When is one of the six key story components in classic news journalism—components that are, ironically, the organizing principle of D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain, which includes the suicide tale.

• After meeting with Presley’s parents to discuss their son’s death, he writes, “At some point, it came clear while I was visiting the Presleys that in fact I had not spoken to their son the night he died.” I first read this as a jarringly understated admission, delivered almost as an aside, that he had misrepresented himself to the parents in order to meet with them. Ethical red flags were flying all over the place before I figured out elsewhere—via his book’s jacket notes—that D’Agata himself had believed he might have spoken with Presley on that fateful night. Maybe fans of the new “true fiction” will read right past this, but for me this was a major stumbling block.

• D’Agata pays a private investigator $400 for “vital information” about Presley that he’s unable to ferret out himself, and rather than praising the investigator’s ability to dig up these details, he feels compelled to coyly note that she “had a smoker’s voice, a barking dog and screaming kids and Jeopardy on in the background” when he called her. Yeah, and she probably was overweight and wearing ridiculous slippers and sucking on a Bud Lite. D’Agata clearly has a keen eye for detail, but extending it to someone who’s basically helping him report the story, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge dose of classist disapproval, gave me a shudder of discomfort.

• D’Agata is able to get only one local official to go on the record about the suicide, county coroner Ron Flud. The coroner seems like a pretty straight-up guy—“a finder of facts,” he calls himself—who invites D’Agata into his office and expounds insightfully on the taboo of talking about suicide. But apparently this still isn’t enough for D’Agata. He calls Flud out for not answering a question about whether a suicide jumper is likely to lose consciousness in a fall, then proceeds to relay, in a self-serving writerly flourish, several things that Flud did not say.

• Someone who knew Presley hangs up on D’Agata when he asks personal questions about the deceased. But we don’t know who because the writer doesn’t tell us. The conversation is transmitted as a terse, paraphrased exchange with no context or explanation. Literary, yes, but mystifying.

• Finally, D’Agata appears to have never visited the suicide victim’s memorial website, which has been online since 2005. Here he could have gleaned several intimate details about Levi Presley—details not mentioned in the article—from reminiscences written by friends and family, and he could have learned the names of several sources to pursue for his allegedly hard-to-find interviews. He also would have learned from the entry by “Mom” that Presley’s mother called him her “precious Boomer”—from “baby Boomer”—not “Booper,” as D’Agata writes.

In the end, the story seems to be a case in which a creative writer took on a semi-journalistic task, in the process taking liberties that some audiences may enjoy (James Wolcott of Vanity Fair certainly did, calling the story a “show stopper”) and that others may find confusing, distracting, or journalistically dubious.

If we are indeed entering a new world of hybrid literary journalism—one in which, Quart writes, “we are seeing nonfiction freed from its rigid constraints”—I for one hope we remember that some subjects, like a teenager’s suicide, seem to demand a deep and abiding respect for facts and clarity. At first impression D’Agata appears to be honoring the memory of Levi Presley by speaking the unspeakable—yet by the story’s end, at least to this reader, he appears to have done just the opposite.

Source: Columbia Journalism ReviewThe Believer  (subscription required), Vanity Fair

Image by Marcin Wichary, licensed under Creative Commons.

6/7/2010 10:09:25 PM

Keith, I appreciate your concerns and qualms about the piece. I encountered your article after searching for Levi's name after I read the issue of The Believer in which D'Agata's excerpt appears. I work as an arts critic, my job requiring the ability to clearly, concisely present a story while still making my opinion known. It also requires a pride in the ethics of exactitude when disclosing details about a play, film or concert. I take this very seriously. However, I also consider the medium and the venue in which my work appears. The Believer isn't a news magazine, and the pieces it publishes are not intended to convey cold, hard facts. While a periodical is not suited - simply given space considerations - to long-form narrative-based journalism, D'Agata's piece fits in that mold, which is what readers expect of The Believer. When I want a news story that seeks to present itself without memoirist reflection or judgement, I read The Nation. When I'm curious about an author's personal reaction to a situation or story, I read The Believer. It's a tricky divide, the balance between laying out someone else's story and honestly presenting your thoughts about the situation. I think D'Agata found good footing. The piece, in my opinion, isn't really about Levi Prestley, but more interested in the culture of Vegas, it's relentless - even aggressive - push to paste a smile on every situation. If nothing else, the piece encouraged me to ferret out some details for myself.

2/24/2010 3:37:15 PM

First off, you misread a couple things. For instance, the private investigator was actually a man, but it was a woman who picked up for the service. And it was that private investigator who hung up the phone on him after he inquired for the reasons why the boy committed suicide. He didn't know Presley. He was investigating him. And he didn't hang up on D'Agata. He hung up because the conversation was presumably over. But to the larger point, this wasn't an article about a suicide but an excerpt of a larger narrative essay about the proposed nuclear depository at Yucca Mountain called About a Mountain. As such, your interpretation is fundamentally flawed as it is incomplete.

2/17/2010 12:46:45 AM

I do not see this form dangerous or misleading unless one is unaware that this style is being used. However, what I think is a dangerous form of Journalism is that of bloggers. The problem with bloggers is they are advocacy driven. They write what readers want to hear. They are constantly being quoted by legitimate news media but bloggers are not held to the same standards. They can manipulate, leave out or plain lie with no accountability. This has led to an explosion of both Left and Right Advocacy Opinion Journalism which has generated negative effects. Today it is common to see Prostitutes(a criminal offense) blithly called a "sex worker." Illegal Aliens are now called "undocumented workers" as if they are not illegals at all, but merely individuals that somehow--mysteriously--have misplaced their "dccuments." Workers that engage in poorly negotiated agreements are listed as "slaves," while women that agree to work with no understanding as to where,how or what they will actually be doing are listed as "sex slaves," and the people they negotiate with in a working partnership are listed as "sex slave traffickers" as if to equate them with African slaves caught,trapped and shipped to the Americas. What is truly frightening to me is how casual society accepts this perversion of definitions. The end results are ever more hystrionic and wild accusations in both politics and social interactions achieving greater instability and legislative gridlock.

2/15/2010 12:05:01 PM

Good article. What Goetzman is talking about here is fiction masquerading itself as journalism. Just because it's based on a true story doesn't really make it "non-fiction," IMHO. Edgar A. Poe's The Mystery of Marie Roget was based on a true story about murder victim Mary Rogers, but it was written as pure fiction. Poe really pioneered a kind of "reality fiction" that sometimes fooled people into thinking it was a true account (e.g. his story The Balloon Hoax), but it was always considered fiction. D'Agata's story, however, seemes to have been represented as journalism even though its clearly includes creative elements (e.g. imagining the thoughts of Presley before he jumped). In a world full of urban legends and Internet hoaxes, I think that the novelty of faux journalism is going to become aanathema to our new and future generations of readers, who will love fiction that is credible but will also detest purported journalism that has no grounding in the facts.