"The Essay and Our Post-Fact Moment," 3 Quarks Daily, December 19, 2016.


The literary debate over the role of fact and invention in essay now appears to have foreshadowed our own post-fact moment. Suddenly this is not an idle matter. When writers knowingly take liberties with the facts in the name of art, they demote the reader from fellow traveler to spectator. Trust me, they say, it will be fantastic. For those who feel tricked, the betrayal is more than just bad feeling. An essayist who flagrantly manipulates fact fails to appreciate the essay’s greatest strength—the convergence of intimacy and shared inquiry.

The most recent review to enter the fray is William Deresiewicz’s “In Defense of Facts,” just published in The Atlantic. Deresiewicz attacks John D’Agata’s three essay anthologies for many things, notably a disregard for history. Deresiewicz rightly situates the historical origin of both fact and essay in tandem. For they are cousins, born out of the same revolutionizing changes that moved the Western intellectual tradition from the medieval world to the Renaissance. These changes laid the path for empirical science in the process. Montaigne’s “scrupulous investigation,” Deresiewicz writes, was the essay’s distinguishing feature in the sixteenth century.

If we pause to consider Montaigne and his time, we may make an even bolder claim that could renew our own contemporary relationship to the essay as an instrument of inquiry. Montaigne’s inward turn was not simply introspective. His scrupulous investigation was in service to a more ambitious endeavor: the relocation of the authority of judgment from the external authorities of the Church and ancient texts to the inward authority of the self.

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