What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, February 27, 2012

In Fact

This week, in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Jennifer B. McDonald, reviewing The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (“In the Details,” February 26, 2012), calls D’Agata’s championing of belief over fact “hogwash.” I totally agree, although I would’ve responded more vehemently and said “bullshit.” I was pleased to see a number of New Yorker writers (John Updike, E. B. White, Katherine Boo, Elif Batuman, Philip Gourevitch, and John McPhee) among the examples McDonald provides in support of her position that “Superb literary artists have managed to do their work while remaining precise about details D’Agata would dismiss as frivolous.” According to McDonald, D’Agata argues that, “His duty is not to accuracy…. His duty is to Truth. And when an artist works in service of Truth, fidelity to fact is irrelevant.” But “truth” is such a weasel word. Consider, for example, James Wood’s concept of “fictional truth”: “Sebald so mixes established fact with unstable invention that the two categories copulate and produce a kind of truth which lies just beyond verification: that is, fictional truth” (“W. G. Sebald’s Uncertainty,” The Broken Estate, 1999). A journalist who toys with facts in the name of Truth is not a journalist; he’s a fictionist. David Remnick, in the preface to his 2006 essay collection The Devil Problem, writes: “In defense of these stories, the reader should know they are true. Or, better to say, factual.” I agree; it’s much better to say “factual.” McDonald’s piece powerfully refutes D’Agata’s outrageous propositions. I wouldn’t change a word of it, except the final line, which reads, “Stay true, young Jim. Stay true.” I would say, “Stay factual, young Jim. Stay factual.”

Credit: The above artwork is by Henrik Kubel; it appears in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (February 26, 2012), as an illustration for Jennifer B. McDonald's "In the Details."

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