Is Travel Narrative Bullshit?

Las Vegas, as a city, has long been a reliable creative irritant to the sensibilities of travel writers who work in a genre called “literary”, “narrative”, “nonfiction-creative”.

Detail of the Ceiling at Wynn Las Vegas

The city’s shiny surfaces candy-shell over a variety of social cankers, plus real people live their lives there, and any of these conditions alone, or all of them together, make for a good subject. See, for instance, Stilettos in Paris, In the Neon Boneyard, The Las Vegas Imposter, Road Trip.

Two years ago, I read John D’Agata’s  “What Happens There”, an essay  about Las Vegas in The Believer,  and About a Mountain, the same essay at book length.

I found them both satisfying, which is a high compliment. D’Agata articulated much of what I’d perceived in my visits to Vegas.  His writing allowed my experience to make larger sense.

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up The Lifespan of a Fact, by D’Agata, and Jim Fingal, who fact checked the essay at magazine length. The book is the back-and-forth between the two, as Fingal reckons with the “liberties” D’Agata took with facts.

The liberties are myriad — massaged quotes, multiple elisions,  and many changes for poetic reasons: the rhythm of thirty-four works better than thirty-one; a description of a van as pink instead of purple, because purple has two beats and pink has one; four deaths from cancer on a particular day instead of the factual eight, because it worked better in a list for the numbers to descend.

Read the rest at Perceptive Travel. I’m still really troubled by the notion that consensus equals truth.  And in case you’re wondering, the photo above is a detail of a ceiling at Wynn Las Vegas, which I took during a 2008 visit.

2 thoughts on “Is Travel Narrative Bullshit?”

  1. I tried to comment directly on the Perceptive Travel article, but kept getting an error message. I wanted to say, I love how you describe one aspect of the beauty of narrative nonfiction: “I think the facts are an interesting and appealing creative constraint. You have to make the art work inside the narrow band of fact, and I like that.”

  2. Thanks! And sorry about the trouble commenting at Perceptive Travel, the site had a major redesign today and so I’m sure that’s creating some trouble backstage.

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