Sunday, March 7, 2010

On Author's Notes, Endnotes, and other Apologies

Recent criticism of John D’Agata’s book, About a Mountain, by David Bock in the NY Times focused on his admissions in the endnotes that in at least one “heart of a crucial section,” he conflated time, and in other places used composite characters. In my response to this criticism on the Brevity blog, I said it was a shame that discussion of a good book had been derailed by focus on and endnote. Dinty (and others) argued that he might have been OK with some of D’Agata’s choices if he had known up front what to expect. This got me thinking even more about the Author’s Note as a formal convention and why they seem so problematic to me.

In my first book, I included the following Author’s Note immediately after the table of contents:

“This book is a work of creative nonfiction. Many (but not all) names have been changed. Other things have been added or subtracted, highlighted, distorted, possibly corrupted, compressed, expanded, exaggerated, or dramatized for emotional effect, and I promise that the reasons for this are very convincing. This book is full of detailed speculation. Any resemblance between reality and my imagination is purely coincidental and unintentional. This is not a book of fact. This is a story.”

I wrote this because I felt I had to (I’d blame my publisher but it wasn’t that simple). As you can hear in the tone, I was a bit resistant to writing it. Despite my careful use on the page of what Judith Kitchen calls “signposts” to mark departures into the imagination and my exaggerated speculations about the Guinness World Record Holders, I felt I needed to tell the reader up front what to expect and how to engage with the book. In effect, I was reluctantly giving the reader a map with the “Chicken” exit marked. But I was also trying to protect myself from readers who don’t pay attention to overt signposting, who don’t realize that I am speculating, fictionalizing and fabricating as a method of essaying.

The emotional heart of the book for me centered on my younger brother’s death in a car accident; but what I hoped to capture on the page was his life and his heroic stature in my mind. I expected some people to question how my obsession with Guinness freaks converges with a narrative of my brother’s life and death. What I didn’t expect was the Kirkus reviewer’s response to this based on my Author’s Note. He/she says:

“Matt figures so prominently in the narrative that it is a shock when, halfway through the text, he dies at age 18 after losing control of his car. Then again, some of the tragedy may have been invented. The Author's Note that prefaces this "work of creative nonfiction" states that many names have been changed, many distortions and dramatizations included. It ends with these alarming words: "Any resemblance between reality and my imagination is purely coincidental and unintentional. This is not a book of fact. This is a story."

That line, “some of the tragedy may have been invented,” is still hard for me to read. My efforts to prepare the reader and provide a map to reading the book succeeded in at least one case only in undermining the emotional power of what truly was the “heart of a crucial passage” and casting doubt over the one thing I didn't want readers to doubt. It allowed the reviewer the luxury to disbelieve, the easy exit of lazy reading, and an escape from engaging with the book on its own terms.

My second book contains an Author’s Note that basically says, “If you’re confused, call it fiction,” while my most recent book contains no Author’s Note, no apology or explanation for extended fictional explorations, and only a few signposts to mark the way.

3 comments:

  1. My word!

    That's just a devastating footnote story, Stephen. It's hard for me to read about the Kircus review here, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for you. I will confess that I have read similar author's footnotes (Augusten Burroughs, "Dry" comes to mind) and found myself thinking the same thing as the Kircus reviewer did with yours. Perhaps that's unfair of me. Or perhaps it's just human nature. I haven't read the memoir about your brother, but it's hard for me to read about an author trying to play fair, giving the appropriate disclaimers, and then suddenly find himself at a serious disadvantage. I had a disclaimer added to a Modern Love essay I did for the New York Times (in lieu of the little bio I submitted to go with my work). The note claimed that all the quoted dialog in my story were "the author's best recollection." I was grateful to have gotten my story published, but I was also a little mystified about the need for such a qualification—is it not assumed that in memoir one uses quotations marks differently than, say, in journalistic or editorial piece? Apparently not!

    We all have to be cautious, but it's just sad when a reviewer makes an assumption instead of researching what seems like (in your case) an easily verifiable fact. I have been following and enjoying the discussion about D'Agata here and elsewhere. Good luck with your new book.

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  2. Hey Tim,

    I've come to realize that things I assume to be common knowledge or commonly accepted as a convention of the genre (i.e. ALL dialogue is reconstructed), are apparently not as common as I thought . . . My cynical view is that art is suffering b/c of our litigious society; but the large issue for me as a writer is how much do I write FOR my audience? How many choices do I make (choices with the potential to undermine the art of my work) to help the reader understand how to engage with the text? Ugh. Tough questions.

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  3. Steven,
    I just finished reading The Guinness Book of Me, which I enjoyed very much. I remember as I started the book that your disclaimer at the beginning wasn't necessary. The book's form/structure, with juxtaposition of your brother and father and the Guinness record holders was in itself enough of an explanation. Or at least it was for me.
    I empathize with your predicament; that's a tough one. But I commend you on deciding not to over-explain or add a disclaimer for the new one; let the reader do the work. Which thanks to the writing, I wouldn't call work.
    I just started The Day After...which is already resonating with me. Excited to see where it goes.

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