The Atlantic

In Defense of Facts

A new history of the essay gets the genre all wrong, and in the process endorses a misleading idea of knowledge.
Source: Javier Jaén

John D’Agata has accomplished an impressive feat. In three thick volumes, over 13 years, he has published a series of anthologies—of the contemporary American essay, of the world essay, and now of the historical American essay—that misrepresents what the essay is and does, that falsifies its history, and that contains, among its numerous selections, very little one would reasonably classify within the genre. And all of this to wide attention and substantial acclaim (D’Agata is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, the most prestigious name in creative writing)—because effrontery, as everybody knows, will get you very far in American culture, and persistence in perverse opinion, further still.

D’Agata’s rationale for his “new history,” to the extent that one can piece it together from the headnotes that preface each selection, goes something like this. The conventional essay, nonfiction as it is, is nothing more than a delivery system for facts. The genre, as a consequence, has suffered from a chronic lack of critical esteem, and thus of popular attention. The true essay, however, deals not in knowing but in “unknowing”: in uncertainty, imagination, rumination; in wandering and wondering; in openness and inconclusion.

Every piece of this is false in one way or another. There are genres whose principal business is fact—journalism, history, popular science—but the essay has never been one of them. If the form possesses a defining characteristic, it is that the essay makes an argument (and does so, unlike academic writing and other forms, for a general rather than a specialized audience). That argument can rest on fact, but it can also rest on anecdote, or introspection, or cultural interpretation, or some combination of all these and more. There are “public essays” and “personal essays” and essays that are both or neither; the form is broad and various and limitlessly flexible. Yet what distinguishes an op‑ed, for instance, from a news report is that the former seeks to persuade, not simply inform. And what makes a personal essay an essay and not just an autobiographical narrative is precisely that it uses personal material to develop, however speculatively or intuitively, a larger conclusion. Near the end of the title essay in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, to take the most celebrated recent example, we read the following: “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us … It’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” The movement that culminates in that passage—from instance to precept, from observation to idea—is the hallmark of the essay.

D’Agata’s problem, conceptually and psychologically, appears to begin with the term nonfiction. Nonfiction is the source of the narcissistic injury that seems to drive him. “Nonfiction,” he suggests, is like saying “not art,” and if D’Agata, who has

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