Dispatches | March 20, 2012

I didn’t want to say or write anything, ever, about this perpetual conversation about John D’Agata, but I’ve decided to write something for this blog this morning and while I’d love to tell you about how much I like the excellent book I’m reading I’m not far enough into it to really say anything about it.

I don’t have much to add to this big conversation being had about John D’Agata, facts, nonfiction, and John D’Agata – a conversation that I’m very worried will only make it harder for certain people, who have written nonfiction book manuscripts with all the attention to detail and facts that their work called for, to publish those books. I would, though, like to write briefly about “The Death of the Moth,” which I think is pertinent to the discussion. D’Agata included it in his essay anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, but that’s not what makes it relevant. It is, rather, a great example of something some people don’t seem to have made room for in their personal mental genre maps, a thing I’ll call The Essay in Which Facts Don’t Matter Very Much.

As everyone knows, not much happens in “The Death of the Moth.” A moth starts to die, tries not to, but dies anyway. That’s it, essentially. All of the real importance is in Woolf’s depiction of that death, the significance she grants it, the way she makes the narrative into something much more than the tale of a fading insect.

There is, I suppose, a kind of reportage in the essay, as Woolf relays to us the news of a moth’s windowsill death and her sympathy for it. But if news broke that Woolf never actually watched that moth die, never nudged it with her pencil, or didn’t care about the moth the way she claims she did, it would make absolutely no difference at all. The moth is not important. The moth’s death is not important. What is important is everything else happening in the essay, of which there is a lot, all of which is confined to the space between Woolf’s ears where the thinking happened.

Right there.

There are those who would claim that if I am right, and Woolf’s essay is not marinated in facts, if it does not adhere to objective truthfulness that we tend to demand of essays, then it is a work of fiction and we should call it a short story. I don’t see it that way; I think we have to live with The Essay in Which Facts Don’t Matter Very Much because there are many of them and to pretend they’re short stories, or poems, or other things that aren’t essays, is to live in an unnecessary kind of denial.

I know that others still would argue that everything in The Death of the Moth does indeed hinge on the reality of that dying moth, on its having actually died on the windowsill with Woolf watching. I don’t think so.  But they might be right; I am merely one person, one who flutters back and forth between one opinion and another like a moth dying on a windowsill.  I only want to advocate on behalf of a certain kind of essay where facts aren’t especially relevant, where to get upset about the verifiability of its details is to be truly pedantic.  While I am convinced – not having read About a Mountain – that it doesn’t belong in that category, I think this Woolf essay is one of them, and is worth a few minutes of our attention once every couple of years or so.

It is interesting to me that prior to About a Mountain, D’Agata did something like what it sounds like he does in About a Mountain, which is to blend literary journalism, or the appearance of it, with this kind of sheer contemplative writing.  I am thinking of his essay “Round Trip,” in which he describes, among other things, meeting a twelve-year-old on a bus to the Hoover Dam. There’s a memorable point in that essay where D’Agata inserts a monologue on the computer game Civilization, in quotation marks, offset from the rest of the essay’s text. It is given as if it were the kid’s transcribed rambling. When I first read that long paragraph, I was struck by how inaccurate a description it was of Civilization, which I’ve spent more hours of my life playing than I’ll ever admit. Having spent time listening to kids describe computer games, I couldn’t believe that any twelve-year-old would describe Civilization the way D’Agata says this one did. I questioned whether that kid ever said these things at all.  But if you look, he doesn’t really claim that the kid was talking about the game like this; it’s a quotation not attributed to anyone, ostensibly. It’s a description of the game, perhaps based on something this twelve-year-old said, that’s been sent through the meat grinder of whatever D’Agata wanted to do with it.

I don’t doubt that About a Mountain has all of the problems with it that have been identified by the good people I admire who’ve identified problems with it. But although it’s taken me a little while to come around to this, I also think it’s worth pointing out that D’Agata’s whole project is not illegitimate, and that at times it works rather well.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.