The term “lyric journalism” is a rather fresh term in the world of creative non-fiction, and like other subgenres, carries with it controversy regarding what comprises “fact” and “fiction.” Creator of the term, Peter Trachtenberg, is an associate professor in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, and is dedicated to instructing his students on how to detect the difference between true and false stories in all genres of writing and communication, including creative nonfiction, fiction, and even politics and the media. Trachtenberg defines lyric journalism as, “work that combines hard research and reporting with a fluid, associative narrative.” Lyric journalism embodies a fusion of facts, as found in traditional public essays, and story, as found in more descriptive, personal narratives.
Knowing this, how much liberty does lyric journalism allow a writer when addressing fact? In other words, how does the lyric essay handle the role of fact?
To tackle this question, I turned to criticism of the work of John D’Agata and his work itself, including a reading for this week, excerpts from his piece “2003,” which directly speaks on the lyric essay. The controversy surrounding D’Agata’s work can be seen quite plainly in the article “In Defense of Facts” by William Deresiewicz, which asserts D’Agata “misrepresents what the essay is and does, [and] falsifies its history.”
To D’Agata, the lyric essay is the push we need to exit postmodernism, and is what happens when “an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem.” He introduces an intriguing argument that the true role of creative nonfiction should be to focus not on the “knowing”—not on being simply “a delivery system for facts” as it has been in the past—but to focus on the “unknowing”—“in uncertainty, imagination, rumination; in wandering and wondering; in openness and inconclusion” (Deresiewicz, “In Defense”). In D’Agata’s definition of the lyric essay, the emphasis is placed on blank space, on what the writer doesn’t know, as opposed to what they do. D’Agata questions truth; “what, we ask, is a fact these days? What’s a lie, for that matter? What constitutes an ‘essay’…”
D’Agata’s perspective, which seems to turn our commonly-accepted definitions of what creative nonfiction does, receives flak from critics. The role of the basal nonfiction essay is not to simply relay and preserve fact, as D’Agata asserts, but to develop an argument, critics say. The argument can find support in fact, can rely on it, but can also turn to other forms of backing, such as “anecdote, introspection, or cultural interpretation…what distinguishes an op‑ed, for instance, from a news report is that the former seeks to persuade, not simply inform,” according to Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz further argues that the genre of nonfiction is much more flexible, broad, and limitless than D’Agata is allowing for in his definition.
Deresiewicz also takes offense in D’Agata’s claim to the definition of an essay–far from the traditional sense–and argues that readers should be warned of the falsity of the lyric essay prior to reading, so that they are aware what they are reading is not an essay, but a trading in of “fact, argument, and assertion” (Deresiewicz, “In Defense”). Accordingly, the fact that the word “essay” is in the title of the subgenre itself is a problem.
However, it seems as though both D’Agata and Deresiewicz are arguing broadly a similar point—creative nonfiction is capable of taking on many forms and serving many purposes, and is, yes, limitless. It can embody D’Agata’s lyric style that reaches into the depths of our unknown thoughts, or lean more towards Deresiewicz’s argument-based narrative, or any combination there between. The controversy comes, then, in the role of creative nonfiction–not its physical appearance or definition–and therefore, the concept of truth.