Samantha Abrams, February 26, 2012
(view all comments by Samantha Abrams)
This book is cheeky and rude - take this shot, for example, from John: tread very carefully, asshole - and infuriating and fascinating and original and beautiful and silly and exactly the debate we - we, as writers; we, as people who read nonfiction; we, as people who live in a world where nonfiction and fiction do exist in some odd realm, where peace and agreement are not possible - should be having, right now. It is all necessary: this book, this argument, these people.
John and Jim - Jim and John, fact-checker and artist - dislike each other, I think, because each poses a threat to the other. Jim is the intern who volunteers to fact-check John’s essay, and John is the writer who carefully, consciously creates a world that has its heart - but not necessarily its facts - dipped and coated and submerged in the truth. But John’s truth - his emotional and his artistic truth - is not Jim’s truth, which is cold and verifiable and perfect, by definition. So, this book is what you’re left with. And that’s great.
Neither Jim, nor John, is correct. Neither plays necessarily fair. Neither can be hailed at the victor at the end of this book. At times, they both look foolish and immature - at one point, Jim writes: "I’ve never met John in person so I can’t speak to his animal magnetism, but it sounds like he’s tooting his look at me I have kind eyes and am so empathetic that people just want to tell me their stories horn," and John retorts, numerous times, with what should be considered direct insults.
But it is the at the end of this essay - a span of five pages - that turns a - let’s be honest, here - look at how stubborn and witty we are contest into a genuine, important conversation about art, writing, and nonfiction. You should pick up the book for pages 107 - 112 alone, because that is what nonfiction needs. But, if you still refuse, read - a small, edited - excerpt, where both Jim and John make their best arguments:
"Jim: You are writing what will probably become the defacto story of what happened to Levi, and so every detail you choose to do that with will become significant, because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him […] Why not suck it up and do the work to get it right?
John: […] This is what I believe the job of the artist is. […] What we do, like every other artist, is a compulsion for meanings, and so, just as any other would, we arrange things and we alter details and we influence interpretations as we pursue ideas. I know that most hard-core nonfiction writers won’t agree with this, and that’s fine. I know I’m in that minority. But I also suspect that those are the kinds of writers who still have faith in the genre, who have faith in the idea that by calling themselves “nonfiction” writers they automatically are. And bless their hearts for having that kind of faith, really, because somebody’s got to keep up the struggle to try to nail down the facts of the world. […] An essay is an attempt, Jim. Nothing else. […] And so, as a writer of essays, my interpretation of that charge is that I try - that I try - to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos. […] I understand your concerns, Jim - I completely do. But what I believe is that unless the imagination can do this, then I don’t know what it’s for. What writing isn’t fueled by the imagination?
John: Numbers and stats can only go so far in illustrating who a person is or what a community is about. At some point, we must as writers leap into the skin of a person or a community in an attempt to embody them. That’s obviously an incredibly violent procedure, but I think that unless we’re willing to do that as writers, then we’re not actually doing our job.
Jim: […] Its about people searching for some sort of Truth that connects with how they feel about themselves and their place in the world, finding that Truth in a piece of writing that resonates with them deeply, and then being devastated when they find out that the thing they were inspired by turned out to be deliberately falsified… And so they end up feeling alone in the world all over again.
John: […] of course that’s going to feel like a betrayal, because we don’t have enough deep experiences with art to know that that is what art is for: to break us open, to make us raw, to destabilize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with therefore the possibility of recognizing something that we had not recognized before."
And then there’s this - which is the last part of the book, which is what you should not read if you haven’t read the book - that leaves us right back at the beginning, at the heart of the question and issue:
"Jim: I mean, even if everything that’s in question could be verified by unbiased third-party witnesses, and even if I could definitively determine to a fraction of a second exactly when it was that Levi left his house and from how high it was that he jumped and in what direction the wind happened to be blowing - and how hard, and at what temperature, and whether there was dust or not - when he dove off the tower at 6:01:53 p.m., and plummeted for a total of 8 seconds onto a sidewalk of brown-brick herringbone … well, then … I don’t know. I’d have done my job. But wouldn’t he still be dead?"
And so the question becomes, almost, I think, not - what is nonfiction and where can we put it and how do we classify it and what is true and what is emotionally true - but, instead: why do we care and what do we do with it? Because we have to - we have to - do something with it as writers, as readers, as people.