interviewed by Andrew Zornoza
John D’Agata is the author of Halls of Fame, a collection of short essays, and About a Mountain, a meditation on the limits of human understanding, and, ostensibly, the disposal of nuclear waste. David Foster Wallace called him “one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years.” and Annie Dillard says of him: “A writer of rare intelligence and artistry . . . John D’Agata is redefining the modern American essay.” D’Agata is also an editor of two influential anthologies: The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. His new book, out now, is titled The Lifespan of a Fact. D’Agata teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives.
HOW: I am curious about how you deal with the aftermath of a book like About a Mountain. A fiction or poetry writer is free to create a whole cosmology and not be responsible for it: the response, “I made it all up,” is always available. While your books have a poetic movement to them, your subjects are nevertheless out there in the world, still changing, and can talk back at you, call you in as an expert, deride you as a heretic. The essay writer seems to be beholden to many things after the creation of their work.
D’AGATA: A year after the book came out, almost to the day, Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear emergency occurred. I was on my school’s spring break at that time, trying to get some work done. But what I spent that week doing instead was discuss with various news editors why I wasn’t the right guy to come on their TV program or radio show or to contribute to their Op-Ed page about my thoughts on Japan. I am agonizingly shy, so in truth that’s part of the reason why I was turning them down. But, more importantly, I’m not an expert on nuclear waste. Despite having spent nine years researching and writing about the subject, I knew I was not anywhere near the best person to be speaking about what was happening in Japan. Certainly there’s a lot of information in About a Mountain that’s about nuclear power, and in writing the book I had to learn how to turn on a whole new part of my brain that could process the physics and the politics that are involved. But, as a writer, my understanding of all that information was in the service of a metaphor, not in the service of the information itself. Nuclear power and nuclear waste were not really my subjects; they are a vehicle for discussions of larger issues. So, for example, when the book was initially rejected by an editor because he didn’t think it read like a “general nonfiction reader on nuclear power,” I was actually relieved. I was bummed too, of course, because I wanted the book to be published. But I was relieved because what that rejection indicated was that the book was indeed signaling that it was about something other than its information. And that’s the issue that so-called “nonfiction” writers grapple with—the assumption that their books are comprised of nothing but their information, that there could never be anything in them other than information, that they are, in other words, not literary works but merely dispensaries of information.
HOW: You’ve championed many contemporary writers (Jenny Boully, Joe Wenderoth, Ander Monson, Mary Ruefle, Eula Biss . . .). But are there any nonfiction writers from previous centuries whose work you feel is in danger of being lost? There seems to be a narrow academic line, at least in the way nonfiction is taught in composition courses, that the modern essay begins with Montaigne, takes a detour with Walter Benjamin, and then dithers into eclecticism after Didion.
D’AGATA: There are certainly essayists whose work we’ve lost sight of, but I think the greater threat isn’t that some of those lesser-known writers may disappear entirely but rather that they be usurped by other genres because our current interpretation of the essay isn’t broad enough to accommodate the variety of work in this genre. I’ve noticed that Sei Shōnagon, for example, is often taught as a poet these days, and I suspect this is partly because she’s a fantastic writer and the poets want to “claim” her, for which I do not blame the poets. But I also think this is happening because there is so little room in the “nonfiction” world for a writer who’s more concerned with inconclusive impressions than verifiable experience. Likewise, Herodotus seems to have lost his credentials not only as a historian but as an essayist too, and so he’s starting to be read as a fiction writer. It’s convenient to cite Montaigne as the starting point for the essay, because it’s from Montaigne that we inherited that very useful term “essai.” But of course there had been essayists writing and working for centuries before Montaigne. They just weren’t calling what they wrote “essays.” It’s our job as writers to acknowledge those essayists, to celebrate them, and to recognize that they are as much a part of this genre as Montaigne or Didion or Benjamin. And at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it’s our duty as instructors to expose students to that work. This means we have to actually teach Cicero, as well as Plutarch, Seneca, Xenophon, Thucydides, Heraclitus, St Augustine, and all of those very dead, very white, and very male writers who by no means are going to win us points for diversity, but who will definitely give us a broader sense of who we are and who we can be as essayists. I know very few English Departments that teach these writers however, and I know of only two graduate “nonfiction” programs that teach them. This is detrimental, because writers are leaving our programs without having any sense of the essay as a literary form that has a presence in the history of literature. This isn’t just about terminology and the issue of “essay” versus “nonfiction.” It’s about genealogy. And by resisting that genealogy, or by remaining indifferent to it, we as a community of essayists risk removing ourselves from history. And therefore, from our own heritage, from the story that can teach us where we have been as essayists, what we have done, who we are, and why we find ourselves here, now, in a community of writers who have allowed themselves to be defined by fiction writers as unimaginative and by journalists as liars.
HOW: But our current culture seems addicted to enhanced reality and “truthiness” in many forms . . . social networking, reality TV, steroids, the Kardashians, Mad Men, even the Colbert Report—all can be seen as artifacts trading on the “real” while dealing fantasy under the table. And beginning with the dot-com bubble, you could see our series of financial calamities as symptoms of a shared willingness to live with exaggeration that creates profit. It would seem, hypothetically, that the time is perfect for the artistic essay, with all its juxtapositions and impressionisms surrounding real observations. Instead, suspicion seems fixed on the nonfiction writer—or, rather, the role we assign nonfiction writers seems fixed, and deviations from that role are then marginalized. CEOs and athletes are more forgivable. Why?
D’AGATA: Yeah. . . . I have no idea, Andrew. It’s honestly perplexing. And frustrating. But most of all it’s terrifying. And I mean that, as melodramatic as it sounds. Because these concerns about reality in “nonfiction” are being propelled by a phenomenal ignorance of the history of the genre. They’re based on a reading of the genre from the last sixty to seventy years—during which time we’ve witnessed an attempt to apply the rules of journalism to the essay—rather than the past three thousand years of the form, during which time we saw the genre develop into a genuine literary art form that’s engaged with the imagination as much as fiction, poetry, or drama. Why are we fascinated with scolding “nonfiction” writers when they intentionally include inaccuracies in their work, but are reluctant to legally pursue CEOs when they almost destroy the world economy through greed, dishonesty, and, in some cases, outright theft? Maybe because it’s easier to recognize a misplaced or inaccurate fact, and thus to focus one’s outrage on the inconsequential “lies” in James Frey’s writing than it is to get our heads around the virtually inconceivable crimes of Countrywide, AIG, Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs. . . . These days we want to be able to believe something, we want to be able to place our faith in well-grounded and trustworthy facts. After the lies we were told by the Bush administration following 9/11, and after the scams we were lured into by the financial world before and after 2008, I understand this. I feel the same way. I want to be able to place both my faith and my anger somewhere. But I don’t turn to literature for that. I don’t expect literature—not even “nonfiction”—to give me those assurances.
HOW: You mentioned the “genealogy” of the essay . . . a bookshelf could mix The Arcades Project, A Fan’s Notes, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, even Moby-Dick—all those are works that could easily be incorporated into a larger definition of the essay. But that hasn’t happened. “The essay is condemned as a hybrid, the form has no compelling tradition, its emphatic demands are met only intermittently—all this has been said, and censured, often enough. The essay form has not yet, today, traveled the road to independence which its sister, poetry, covered long ago.” Georg Lukács, the Hungarian critic and writer, wrote that back in 1910—a century ago. Interestingly, he wrote this in a letter to Leo Popper—Lukács’s own essay, extolling the virtues of the essay form, wears another, epistolary, genre as a guise. If this hybrid, unmoored, between-condition permanently haunts the essay . . . couldn’t this be seen as a “genetic” advantage? All great works redefine the form and, often, misunderstand their forebears. In this regard, the essay seems more open to experimentation and less prone to terminal ends.
D’AGATA: Do most great works misunderstand their forebears? I’m not sure I agree with that, but it’s intriguing. My impression is that great works acknowledge their forebears—as well as the prevailing forms in which they worked—and then they disregard them, or dismantle them, or, as you put it, redefine them. I definitely agree that the inherent nature of the essay makes it experimental. The very consequence of “essaying” is that a writer will find him or herself in unfamiliar terrain, and will have to therefore rely on impression, improvisation, and the vastly mysterious realm of the sensorium to make sense of those new surroundings. I think, in other words, that if we take to heart the traditional idea of the essay as an attempt to figure something out—an attempt, but not a guarantee—then the essay is also inevitably an apprenticeship with failure. Now, does the threat of failure necessarily make something experimental? For me, yes, it does. But the more important question is whether genuine risks are in fact being taken in the essay these days. Where is the legitimate danger?
HOW: These deep concerns you have over the essay, do they infect your own work as a writer? Or do you save them for your role as an editor and as a spokesperson for literary nonfiction?
D’AGATA: So far, these concerns have rather baldly been a part of my work. In my first book, Halls of Fame, I consciously was trying to explore as many different forms as possible, as if attempting to say, “See, look what the essay can do!” And in hindsight, I think I was trying to convince myself of what the essay could do more than anyone else. There’s definitely an effort in Halls to apply the same kind of playfulness that I enjoy in poetry to a genre that I had always been taught was anything but playful. So there’s a slightly defiant tone to Halls. And I think in a different way there’s also a sort of defiance in About a Mountain, too, although it’s more subdued. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t think the book is significantly about Yucca Mountain, despite the fact that Yucca is its ostensible subject. For me, the book is about our limited capacity of human knowledge and human understanding. And so formally it was very important to me that the book demonstrate those limitations, to point out the strategies that we use, in literature especially, to secure knowledge, and how those strategies are sometimes flawed. I’d say the book does this in particularly loud ways with journalism and that form’s tradition to “nail down the facts.” The first few sections of About a Mountain proceed in what I would call a traditionally processional manner: investigating questions, gathering facts, organizing evidence, and ultimately unveiling some sort of “truth.” But eventually that approach is abandoned because the speaker isn’t satisfied with what’s being discovered. The overwhelming amount of facts and evidence and information that’s being gathered ultimately isn’t providing a sense of meaning. So the book begins to digress, and in doing so it starts making very big associative leaps. And ultimately, I would argue that the significance that the book discovers is revealed in the spaces between those leaps—in all of that white space that isn’t investigated.
So yes, my concerns as a reader of essays often find their way into the essays that I write. I’m not sure this new book will be doing any of this, though.
HOW: Can you share with us what you are currently working on?
D’AGATA: I’m finishing up a book that’ll be out this winter called The Lifespan of a Fact, which is a collaboration with a fact-checker about the issues of veracity in nonfiction. We take an essay of mine from the Believer and reveal everything in the essay that the fact-checker determined I got “wrong,” as well as our discussions about those inaccuracies, and how we “negotiated” which of those inaccuracies were acceptable and which were not. It’s a real sausage-making kind of book that will probably disgust a lot of people, because the book demonstrates just how tenuous the concept of a “fact” really is.
In addition, I’m finishing up a third and final anthology that will round out the series of anthologies I’ve been editing about the history of the essay. Earlier I put together a collection of contemporary American essays called The Next American Essay, and then a collection of work from all over the world and from as far back as about four thousand years called The Lost Origins of the Essay. This one will look at American essays again, but from the early 1600s through the early 1970s.
And then I’m working on a new collection of essays. But I don’t really want to talk about that, because it is still slowly cooking.
John D’Agata is the author of About a Mountain, Halls of Fame and editor of The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives.