Over at The Utne Reader, Keith Goetzman asks a question originally posed by John D’Agata, “Do we read (nonfiction) to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”
Goetzman said the question ate at him most while reading D’Agata’s recent essay in The Believer about a teenage suicide in Las Vegas. “I was immediately drawn in by D’Agata’s deft, artful writing, and yet as the tale unfolded I was stopped cold at several junctures, mostly because as a journalist I had certain expectations about what I perceived as, first and foremost, a piece of journalism.”
The article in The Believer is journalistic. The first part of the story is written in an authoritative voice, complete with lots of statistics, but very quickly, it becomes a piece of memoir, too, and one, as Goetzman points out, that gets a little sloppy ethically. He doesn’t make the time frame clear, for apparently no reason. He hires a private detective to do his research and describes her in a bit of a stereotypical way. The list goes on.
Says Goetzman: “I for one hope we remember that some subjects, like a teenager’s suicide, seem to demand a deep and abiding respect for facts and clarity. At first impression D’Agata appears to be honoring the memory of Levi Presley by speaking the unspeakable—yet by the story’s end, at least to this reader, he appears to have done just the opposite.”
It seems to me the problem is that writing personal memoir about someone else’s tragedy is a dangerous, dangerous game. It’s not impossible, but you have to put empathy for the victims and those that surround them above all else, and playing loose with that, whether it manifests artistically or factually, is what can get you in trouble.