This is an insider post. For the majority of you unencumbered by this debate that’s been going on, I’ll point you . Everyone else keep reading. N.B.: I’ve been pretty sick this week, and in the midst of being sick I’ve been in the midst of a large annual conference of writers.
The glaring, undiscussed fact about D’Agata’s book (though Dinty W. Moore does touch on it ) is that it was both published and acclaimed, which is more than can be said about the books of most of his detractors.
What I mean by this is that people who are not writers have deemed it literature, which is to say art, which is to say we artists who make literature now have a responsibility to respond to it.
To respond to a work of cultural studies that does creative work with the factual record in ways that read as fresh and new by saying “No, wrong, false, that’s not what the factual record shows,” feels to me like what it must have been like in 1910 to respond to, say, Braque’s still lifes by saying, “No, wrong, false, that’s not what a violin looks like to me.”
It’s to miss the point. No, worse. It’s to respond to a work of art in ways irrelevant to the response it’s asking for.
This is such terrible and sloppy criticism. This does so much more damage to whatever one might think “creative nonfiction” is than whatever damage one might be trying to argue D’Agata has done. Art should live and grow, and no living thing thrives by being reined in and caged.
Here, maybe, is the problem: I don’t see enough difference between (a) dismissing D’Agata’s work because it fails to conform to standards codified by people who have come before him and (b) denying the rights of gay people to marry because of what Leviticus has to say about lying with mankind as with womankind to trust the argument of the former.
It is an argument that relies on the adherence to tradition for the sake of tradition. Or no: adherence to tradition in the face of deviations from that tradition. Or, to be more generous: successful fecund outgrowths from that tradition.
This adherence is, we must recognize, the hallmark of the true conservative. These are for young artists damaging, worthless arguments to listen to. They will not help you in the work you have to do. They will not help you in the work you have to do.
(Part 2 coming up tomorrow.)