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Defending John D (Not that He Needs It)

BY GUEST OPINION | MARCH 30, 2012 6:30 AM

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If there is one thing we should take from the John D'Agata bashing based on his new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, it's that the essay, as an art form, should not be thought of as some journalistic thing handcuffed to a dry repetition of events witnessed. The essay is not inherently concerned with the facts of daily life, or a cross-cultural, statistical truth found concretely in a mess of bureaucratic paperwork, but rather the exploration of an idea. It can certainly attempt those things, but like any other form of art, there is no rule book. Totally cliché, I know.

For those of you reading and thinking, "S**t, everyone gets that" — well, apparently not everyone gets that. Last week's Daily Iowan hosted an attack on John D'Agata and the (I guess …) chaotic abyss The Lifespan of a Fact is tearing into the universe.

Despite the fact that the journalism, history, and English departments are separate entities, the author thought it made sense to apply the same artistic standard to all of them. And on top of that (this being rumor, not vetted fact), I hear D'Agata's book might be what all this 2012 hysteria is really about — not a misreading of the Mayan calendar, meaning if enough people crack open the cover, gravity might reverse, the color blue may cease to exist, and dogs could start to f**k cats in that little alley next to Which Wich.

An essay in the simplest terms is an attempt at something, in writing, in video, in audio, in whatever medium, etymologically coming from the verb "assay," or "to attempt." There is no freshman induction into essay writing that requires authors to raise their hands and pledge to write the truth and only the truth. As you can see with this debate, there isn't even an accepted definition of truth which to pledge.

Fictional essays, fabrications that take the form and method of the essay, exist. Donald Barthelme's "On Angels" is one I can think of immediately. George Orwell — a guy completely concerned with truth, meaning, and language — blended images of working-class people to create a more symbolically accurate image of Britain in The Road to Wigan Pier, letting one focused image stand for the oppression of the entire working class. Even the least-experimental essayists mediate their thoughts through a constructed group of symbols removed from the truth of physical reality, a messy thing called language.

So unless you're expecting an essay to be written in the same style as an instruction manual for assembling a deck chair, you'll never get the "truth" in an essay. John D'Agata's book is not some new wave of factless anarchy masquerading as journalism coming to consume and destroy the world; it's an art form that isn't limited to the nervousness of reactionary minds. If Ms. Arvidson and Company had read the book before criticizing it, perhaps they would have come to that realization.

Alex Fritz
UI senior
Nonfiction Creative Writing Program


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