The Quarterly Conversation, as a quarterly, is late to the D’Agata/Fingal/facts conversation of Winter 2012 (my contributions were themselves already late), but one of the luxuries of being late is letting the NY daily/weekly blowhards have their short-sighted say, and then come later and sweep up all the mess.
Mark Lane—who is sharp, and the sort of critic of nonfiction everyone writing in the genre should be giddily excited to have working on it—does just such a service in his review of The Lifespan of a Fact. I was going to share this review as a Very Good Paragraph, but too much of it is quotable. Lane nails precisely how D’Agata, in About a Mountain, does such careful work relaying the extent and the mess of the factual record surrounding Yucca Mountain and Lee Presley’s suicide that, in Lane’s words, we “trust him to fabricate the right things.” What D’Agata also works really, really hard to show (emphasis because no one before Lane has bothered to point out how hard a job D’Agata does, preferring to pass off his approach to the factual record as lazy, as if finding a fact and reporting it as found takes either time or effort), Lane points out, is that the factual record is a thing we are fool to trust blindly:
Those we elect or appoint to act on our behalf decide that we, the general public, want comfort rather than truth. So they give us facts.
It would be naïve, as D’Agata knows, to suggest that in place of facts art gives us truth. But it at least makes the effort.
Here’s what Mark Lane’s win shows: quarterlies have a certain luxury anyone hoping to write criticism should drool over. Tortoise criticism, let’s call it. Because it’s great being the hare, rocketing yourself into the race, but smart criticism takes time. You have to do a lot more reading around the text your critiquing. The tortoise critic can read not just Lifespan but also
Well, speaking of being a blowhard: it’s called “having the last word”, Dave, and everyone knows it’s great. No need for this belabored tortoise-hare analogy.