New York Times Book Reviewer Invites Your Shock, Outrage

Charles Bock invites you to be outraged. This past Sunday Bock reviewed John D’Agata’s new nonfiction book, “About a Mountain,” describing the material this way:

The mountain that John D’Agata is ostensibly concerned with … is Yucca Mountain, located approximately 100 miles north of Las Vegas. … [S]ince the mid-1980s, the United States government has been doing back flips to bury the country’s entire reservoir of spent nuclear waste — some 77,000 tons of apocalyptic yumminess — deep inside Yucca. In the summer of 2002, the summer after D’Agata helped his mother move to a Vegas suburb, Congress was proceeding with plans to make the mountain a nuclear dump. Also that summer, 16-year-old Levi Presley jumped to his death from the observation deck of a third-rate Vegas hotel. These subjects, disparate though they are, animate D’Agata’s sprawling narrative.

But Bock doesn’t want to direct your outrage toward government backed destruction of the environment, youth suicide, or even sprawling nonfiction narratives. No. He wants to direct your rage to a few of D’Agata’s footnotes.

Yes, that’s right: the footnotes.

With such weighty material to discuss, it seems ridiculous to zero in on footnotes but perhaps these are some outrageous footnotes, deserving of the full weight of our scorn. D’Agata writes nonfiction, you see, and he acknowledges in one of his naughty footnotes that he conflates the dates of two key events in his story by three days. MY GOD.

Bock uses inflammatory language, calling the material referred to by the footnote a “lie.” He goes on to charge D’Agata with playing “fast and loose with a verifiable historical date.” I suppose this is true if by “verifiable” Bock means that he had to read the footnote where D’Agata presents the discrepancy. But I wonder if adding footnotes to nonfiction really deserves the “fast and loose” qualifier that’s typically employed to discuss immoral women, or deviant sexual behavior (as fun as those things can be!).

To be fair, Bock speaks highly of D’Agata’s work:

Rarely does D’Agata betray his emotions or reactions to an event; rather, he works by establishing a scene, introducing tangentially related elements, building layers of complexity and scope, then jump-cutting or circling back at just the right moment, guiding the reader safely — and unexpectedly — to a destination D’Agata had in sight the whole time.

And Bock understands the bigger picture. He knows what D’Agata is trying to do with creative nonfiction, not just in this book, but in the whole of his career:

As D’Agata himself writes, in his introduction to “The Lost Origins of the Essay”: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. So this is a book that will try to offer the reader a clear objective: I am here in search of art.”

But ultimately Bock finds D’Agata’s voice lacking, having lost nothing less than his “moral authority” by conflating these dates. Although D’Agata offers no explanation for this conflation, Bock helpfully tenders a reason of his own: “for the sake of a tight narrative hook.” I don’t know. I haven’t read the book. But even knowing that the date of this child’s suicide has been conflated with some important back room vote doesn’t make the hook of this hard-to-grasp story much tighter for me. In Bock’s own words, the hook seems built on “layers of complexity and scope”; it does not easily give itself to a quick one line summary: this boy dies, that deal done. But even if we concede that a tidier hook is the reason for the conflation: Is it worthy of our scorn?

I’d argue that all of creative nonfiction suffers when we—writers and readers of creative nonfiction—allow journalists to manipulate us so easily. We do have to be wary of authors who pass off their fictions as truth. But do we need to be so dogmatic that a footnote raises a larger cry from us than anything found in our texts?

Of course, Bock can evaluate the book and the writer in whatever way he chooses. And calling into question the veracity of nonfiction is (sadly) the norm these days. I do want to know if the nonfiction book I’m reading has been made up. I just get tired of journalists revving up the scorn machine to score a point.

If John D’Agata can lose the moral high ground for footnoting his work, what does that say about us as readers and writers?

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4 thoughts on “New York Times Book Reviewer Invites Your Shock, Outrage

  1. Interesting. Seems Bock was playing with his review much as we like to play with our stories. Stretching it a bit, don’t you think? Calling for “outrage” is a cheap way to draw readers in, though it ultimately leads down a path where the reader no longer takes him (the reviewer) seriously. All the other points of his review seem well articulated, but his hang-up on the footnotes (which are there, obviously, in the name of full disclosure) makes him seem whiny and nitpicking.

    Meanwhile, the question of veracity remains a sticky topic, as you point out. Ever since the Frey debacle, we can’t seem to get over it, and reviewers are on the lookout for another “gotcha!” moment. Although I don’t agree with D’Agata’s choice to conflate dates (because what good does it really do in the end?), good for him for setting the record straight in the first place (trained as a historian, I find it annoying to read a piece of non-fiction which fails to provide clarification or further discussion or references where necessary).

    Really, it comes down to two things: 1)how well written is the story in the first place and 2)to what degree do you trust the voice?

    It seems one could judge D’Agato’s work favorably while at the same time pointing out the problematic nature of the conflation of dates — something we might all agree on while still trusting the overall narrative/moral voice. Given that Bock offers up no further reasons to mistrust D’Agato, his supposed “outrage” over this footnote seems all the more petty.

    As always, good to read your thoughts here.

  2. Tim Elhajj says:

    Michelle, RE: Bock playing with us is exactly what I thought. This seems similar to an attempt, a few years ago, to discredit David Sedaris, which elicited a huge ho-hum from most people, who could care less about his stories being held to some high standard of technical accuracy, as long as he keeps us chuckling. Like you, I do think it’s important to be truthful in nonfiction, and I think it’s a distinction most people make easily and intuitively, yet — like pornography — is very difficult to nail it down with a precise definition. Maybe I am being too cynical but I feel as if some journalists take advantage of this paradox to generate publicity.

    There was a very interesting discussion on (Brevity editor) Dinty Moore’s Facebook page about this issue and one of the commenters suggested that D’Agata’s footnote itself may have been a ploy to get people talking about his book. I’m not so cynical (yet) that I would believe this, but it’s an interesting (and not too far-fetched) idea. Look at all the sustained discussion!

  3. This is an interesting post about a vexing issue. But one of the most surprising things about it to me is that Bock is a fiction writer who’s decided, in this case at least, to police nonfiction. He may have been functioning as a journalist in writing that review, but he is the author of an acclaimed novel, which took him like ten years to write. I have thought about this aspect of the review more than what D’Agata did, which seems silly, because using the actual date would not have undercut his emotional linking of events and is the type of thing Joan Didion has done famously in her literary journalism.

  4. Tim Elhajj says:

    Interesting point about Bock’s background, Richard. I knew he was a writer in his own right, but I hadn’t given much thought to how that might have influenced his motives or the fact that he writes fiction. Perhaps he felt duty bound to offer this hyper scrutiny of the truthfulness of the book in light of all the recent liar-liar scandal.

    I agree that D’Agata’s confluence of dates seems silly—it’s still unread in my book pile, but it doesn’t seem to make for a clearly better or worse story. I wonder how he feels about it now, in hindsight.

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