When Creative Writing Gets Too Creative


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:

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.

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