If you have decided for your work that a faithful adherence to the factual record is your best strategy, conservative arguments will not tell you how to adhere to that record. Nor will they tell you how to take the mess of the factual record and turn it into the elegance of art. They will not tell you how facts might be sequenced such that heretofore unseen truths might finally see the light of day. They will not tell you how to enact what D’Agata himself calls the “silent indictment”where a writer of nonfiction slips into an exclusively expositorial mode to influence her readers’ opinions on a person or place, without ever using her own rhetoric. Didion is the master at this. These arguments will not tell you how to learn from her example.
They will only tell you what not to do.
If, though, you’ve decided the oppositeif you’ve come to like that word creative in front of nonfiction because of the poetic license it seems to grantthese arguments are also unhelpful. They point you toward a slippery slope it may feel like a fun ride to fall down, for a while. You can enjoy the intimacy NF affords you as well as the free reign you get from fiction. It’s liberating. It makes many of your jobs easier. But this slippery slope doesn’t actually exist. Allowing two men to marry will not lead to men marrying dogs, as we’ve all seemed to agree on. Likewise, making creative use of the factual record will not lead to all writers of nonfiction never again being able to establish trust and authority.
Listen: It is not your job as a young NF artist to help other NF artists in their perennial tasks of earning authority and trust from their readers. It is your job to earn those things yourself.
These arguments will not help you in that job, either. They only assert that authority and trust are established by genre, by the word nonfiction. “Great, John,” goes the complaint. “Now we all have to go out and earn our readers’ trusts every single time we write a book.” And of course they do. Of course we all do. It is hard work and it is the sort of hard work we should spend our energies fussing over. It is the sort of hard work our critics, when it’s been achieved in a book, should be able to explicate.
Finally, regardless of what kind of factual-adherent you see yourself as, these arguments will not help you better understand the genre you have chosen. It is not wrong to think that what makes nonfictional prose different from fictional prose has to do with the factual record. But it is ignorant to think of this as the only difference, or even the biggest one. Conservative arguments claim that the appearance of one deviation from the public record turns a work of nonfiction into a work of fiction, but we all know this is not true. For it to be true, what would also have to change is the position of the narrator in relation to the reader and author. What would have to change is the structure of the book and how it establishes and develops its arguments. What would have to change is the concept of what a character is.
Nonfiction has so much more going on that’s not accessory to the factual record but on a par with it. What are these things, exactly, and what use can we make of them? What will help you in your work, young writer, is a better set of conversations in search of a more useful set of answers.