With respect to the requirements of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.
-- Aristotle, Poetics
There was a battle about truth last weekend, an old-fashioned meeting engagement fought in the open pages of my favorite sources of truth, the New York Times and National Public Radio. There's a book about this battle,* the quarrel seven years ago between a writer and a fact-checker. Jim Fingal the fact-checker said to John D'Agata the writer that he had made many errors of fact. Said D'Agata to Fingal, don't bother me I'm an essayist and the details are of no consequence.
D'Agato had written about a suicide in Las Vegas in the year 2002. He referred to the young man who had jumped from a hotel observation deck by his actual name and then, shall we say, he mused about what was going on in the city at the same time. Along the way he made statements of factual form. He wrote for instance that at the time of the death there were "34 licensed strip clubs in Vegas," and that it took nine seconds for the suicide to reach the ground. Fingal's findings included the following corrections: there were 31 licensed strip clubs, and the fall lasted eight seconds.**
Ah, if only I had a person of skill at my disposal, who would verify or disprove with more care than I can give the few factual statements I allow in these digital pages! I would be grateful for such service. It's hard for me to get excited about a difference of three strip clubs or one second. But D'Agato got very excited and defended all his, let's call them liberties; he defended them as the prerogative of a writer seeking greater Truth. Those lucky enough never to have been confused by false pedagogy of the "five-paragraph essay" (a bizarre creature of remedial education precisely opposed to what it claims to be) will know that D'Agato is claiming certain privileges of an essayist. He certainly disdains the title of journalist. He was not, he says, "reporting" on the death, and Fingal is "ruining this essay" by confronting its factual statements with actual facts.
D'Agato's very specific defenses illuminate the literary territory that he wants to live in. 34 is the right number of strip clubs, he says, "because the rhythm of '34' works better . . . than the rhythm of '31.'" (I can't help but note, factually, that the the rhythm of "34" is precisely the same as the rhythm of "31.") He describes the other Vegas suicide of the date in question as a hanging (when it was in fact also a leap from height) because "I wanted [the death] to be more unique." D'Agato assumes omnipotence, in the manner of a poet or novelist, over the figurative world of his text. Works of fiction aim to be true in a way related to fact but at the same time transcending fact. There was no Oliver Twist, but Dickens revealed the brutality and cruelty of nineteenth-century London more effectively than a hundred books of social history (and this, dearest reader is not a factual statement, so I am beyond the need of a fact-checker as I write it.) Here's the point: D'Agato was not writing a novel. He might have written a novel. Many novelists these days write about this kind of subject (Don DeLillo, where are you when we need you?) But the piece of writing in question is not fiction.
If the fact-checked essay had been a short story instead, its writer could invent names, persons, dates, cities, incidents and personal narratives, with only a voluntary and impressionistic relation to fact. Readers would understand his allegiance, and no issues of truth would arise. The truth of fiction, as Aristotle noticed, is the truth of the probable rather than of the possible. The beholder is not supposed to say, "Yes, I was just talking to Antonio the other day in the Rialto," but rather, "Yes, Antonio is like a kind of person I might talk to if I went to some place like the Rialto." There is no controversy among liberally educated people about the contract of fiction; but if a writer behaves this way outside the bounds of fiction he wanders in the Colbertian wonderland of "truthiness."*** It's truthy though untrue that there were 34 strip clubs. It's also truthy though untrue that Obama is a Muslim. In the South as half my family grew up there it was truthy that "niggrahs" weren't ready for freedom, and in 1988 it was plenty truthy that Willie Horton was coming to rape your daughter.
It's worth saying again that I'm a liberal, was born, raised and will die a liberal. But these days a liberal has to be a conservative as well, since those who now call themselves conservative have abandoned their posts. So as a conservative I must point out that, though I do not own it, there is such a thing as truth. It's precisely because there is truth that as a liberal I must refuse to let anyone claim to own it. The truth is too important to be owned, and everyone who claims it must be tested. There is truth, and what conflicts with it is falsehood, and no human being is completely true.
We don't hold it against Tolstoy that there was in fact no civilian named Pierre Bezukhov wandering through the battle of Borodino. And when Tolstoy says that all happy families are alike, you may disagree with him but your disagreement is not factual, because you are disagreeing with his judgment and his definitions not with the facts. What is "happiness"? How exactly are happy families "alike"? These are not factual questions. You want to know what Tolstoy means when he asks them, and he tells you for a thousand pages, and no fact-checker comes to plague him. But these are rights of a novelist.
There are different categories of truth. There's the truth of a fact, of a cadence, of a currency, of a soliloquy, of a dialogue, of an epigram, of a quatrain, of a prayer, of a lover's vow, of a plumb line, of a gunsight, of a song, of a self-evident right. The different categories of truth are tested in their various ways, but factual truth is tested factually. And unless you're writing fiction, every factual statement a writer writes is subject to fact-checking -- and the writer should be grateful.
An essay is not fiction, but it is not particularly about facts, and an essayist who does not want to spend his days with the fact-checker will be sparing in his factual statements. Lucky for him, such a writer is in a great tradition. Montaigne wrote that "I study myself more than any other subject." And the essay is a private musing on experiences not meant in themselves to be questionable, a private musing written in the hope of being so predictably unpredictable, so astonishing in its self-evidence, that it has public appeal. Emerson's thundering serial aphorisms are meant like an organ concerto to sweep you into another realm before you can wonder about the truth of the first note, which would not in any case determine the value of the last one. The essayist says "I am here, now, seeing this and thinking that, reminded of a third thing and suffering its experience, following where it escapes and tracking it to the next site where a dying campfire shows that the sprite has once again gone missing." To read an essay is to go on a journey with a guide who, if she had a map, wouldn't show it to you. If you don't like this, you don't like essays.
An essay is literature not science; it is a singularity not a generalization. It is verifiable -- or disprovable -- only by the power -- or the weakness -- of its performance. Many of the most important truths are performative. Certain things become true because the right person says it in the right way at the right time. If the pastor says, accompanied by the signing of certain documents, that you are now husband and wife -- well then you are now husband and wife, and if you try to pretend otherwise the law will catch you up. If the Treasury says in writing that a pigmented piece of paper has the value of a dollar, then it really does have the value of a dollar, whatever at the moment that value is; and if you try to pass off another piece of paper as a dollar, a piece of paper that the Treasury has not approved, then you are a criminal no matter how exactly you have rendered the "truth" of a dollar in your counterfeit. Emerson mints his own currency; he gets away with arrogant ellipses because his fireworks blind you.
An essay is not a news report. But when it acts like a news report it is vulnerable to factual correction. There are many today who say they are not journalists, and all they really want is to avoid the responsibilities of journalism. So Mr. D'Agato, if you are not a journalist, don't act like one; if you are an essayist, remember how essayists write.
Yes, as a liberal compelled to be conservative, I say that there is truth, and that to refuse correction is to lie. All discourses are not equivalent in value; and we know this because the Deconstructionist Word once became flesh, and it was George W. Bush.
*The Lifespan of a Fact, John D'Agato and Jim Fingal (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012). I have not read the book. My source for the facts of their dispute is Jennifer B. McDonald's review in the New York Times Book Review of Feb. 26.
**I do not find the latter dispute in McDonald's review, but I heard it discussed on NPR.
***McDonald also noticed the destination of this slippery slope: "Suddenly there is no difference between essaying the Truth and essaying Truthiness."