On “The Facts of the Matter:” Why I’m Angry Instead of Convinced

I have been wrestling with “The Facts of the Matter” by Anonymous for about two months, since a fellow writer friend first passed it on to me. The first time I encountered it, I had to stop reading about a third of the way through. Despite my friend filling me in on the spoiler (surprise! It’s a woman all along!), I couldn’t stomach the treatment of what was being said in the essay. That is, out of all the lies to choose to make the point that lying in nonfiction is abhorrent, why choose rape? Why adopt the persona of a rapist?

In the Brevity roundtable, Anonymous claims that “The essay is not alas ‘an abstract falsehood’; I would that it were fiction: but save for the rapist’s persona (which is, as in all nonfiction, an invention), it’s all too true. All of it.” Anonymous brushed over her lie, and this struck me as very problematic because the rapist persona is the part of the essay I found to be most troublesome.  It is literally the only lie that Anonymous claims is fiction, and she does not devote more than this sentence to explaining her motive behind why this lie, and not that one. In fact, it isn’t really even an explanation, but more a statement.

As I read the essay, I became angry – no, let’s not lie. I became livid. I was cussing in public spaces, and writing “Fuck you” in the margins of my book, even in the interview section. And here’s why I am so angry:  Sexual assault is a real problem, one that must be addressed with the utmost attention and delicacy towards survivors. This essay does not do this, but instead creates a triggering and traumatizing piece in order to produce a gotcha! moment. I am absolutely disgusted that Anonymous compares being lied to in nonfiction to being raped: “A lie can be a violation, a forced entry, a kind of rape.” Being lied to in nonfiction cannot ever be equated the amount of suffering survivors battle and endure. She describes the two acts as “metaphorical kin” in subsequent comments on the Brevity blog, because “both can have devastating consequences.” By holding the two up to each other, Anonymous trivializes the effect rape can and does have on an individual. While lying in nonfiction may also have a negative effect, it hardly comes close to that of sexual assault.

The question I find myself returning to is this: If Anonymous hadn’t created the fictional persona, would the essay be successful? That the essay hinges on this lie, would her argument collapse if it were removed? What would the essay look like if another lie were selected?

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3 Responses to On “The Facts of the Matter:” Why I’m Angry Instead of Convinced

  1. LeAnne says:

    Great observations and questions, Alison. I’ll try to address your first two questions (maybe in a roundabout fashion). At my most generous, on the writer’s end I would say that this piece is trying to do too much and, on the editorial end, that questionable choices were made during the interview and beyond. First the writer: I think I’d still find the essay annoying if Levy had stuck with the male persona and never hinted at the whole thing being a construct because there are places that feel digressively pretentious/didactic (such as the discussion of verb forms and their implications). I might even forgive the “wait, am I a woman?” twist at the end if the author weren’t simultaneously so strident about the importance of fact and truth in, for example, covering international atrocities. I felt an unacknowledged contradiction there that destabilized the whole project for me, rape or no, and (again with the annoyance), a near-righteous persona that I couldn’t even love to hate (like some great narrators/characters). Instead, it was, “Let me tell you about our surveillance society! It’s serious!”

    On the editorial side, I was both fascinated and puzzled by some of the choices Talbot made. Even more so than her outing of the author in the interview, I was confused by her question about Levy wanting to sleep with her students. This is your tough/awkward question? Did we read the same essay? I felt like, had this particular interview taken place in person, Talbot might have been forced to ask different questions. Even more than the interview though, I was struck by Anonymous being listed as Levy in the author notes. What if a reader went there after a cursory reading of the essay titles? “Hmmm, no ‘Anonymous’ listed back here – let’s use the process of elimination!” I was reminded of David Shields’ book Reality Hunger; he says “cut out the attributions in the back pages,” but then he includes his own authorial asides and quips…so you really do want us to read it, don’t you, David? You want to have it both ways. And it’s this similar editorial choice on the part of Talbot and Levy that speaks the most volumes (?) to me: the piece was never about being anonymous (at least not in this publication). It was about being Anonymous and Recognized at the same time. Because c’mon, how fun is it really to be anonymous? Ever since Joe Klein was outed for authoring Primary Colors, most authors want the mystique of anonymity followed by the acknowledgment of talent, hard work, etc, when they’re unveiled (or when they unveil themselves). If Levy had written a piece about *that* contradiction – now that might have been interesting 🙂

    Thanks for getting the conversation started Alison! I look forward to talking more about this piece with all y’all in class on Tuesday.

    • zoeedithcohen says:

      “I was confused by [Talbot’s] question about Levy wanting to sleep with her students. This is your tough/awkward question? Did we read the same essay?” Ha- Yes, LeAnne! Well put.
      I also appreciate your drawing attention to the Remain Anonymous/ Seek Recognition tension of the interview. Would it be an overstatement to say that it seems kind of transparently attention seeking (recognition seeking?) to publish the essay in this volume at all (both for the truth-concerned-author, and the publisher…?)

  2. EJ Levy says:

    As the author of the essay in question, let me be clear that I have no interest in “sleeping with my students” and never have and made that clear in my interview with Talbot (or thought I had). The sentiments expressed in that passage are “true” insofar as they represent comments that a number of professors have expressed to me, but they are not my own. That said, I did not seek “recognition” (I argued long and hard and repeatedly for Anonymous publication of the piece) and sought long (and futiley) to keep my name out of it for the very simple reason that the essay only “works” if the reader has some doubt as to the “fact of the matter”–whether this is a man or a woman writing, whether the rapist or the raped or neither. But given that readers and publishers have urged me to “come out,” in the end of my lengthy interview with Talbot, I did. In that context, I hoped my name would matter less than the exegesis that proceeds it. That others have chosen to focus on the personal–ie, the author–rather than the genre seems to me a pity. I’d far rather talk about the facts of the matter and what it means for us as a culture that we are playing fast and loose with facts in nonfiction as in politics these days. The best reading of the piece, as far as I’m concerned, is David Ulin’s in the LA Times, which I hope you’ll read. He makes the sense of this that I hoped would be made, not uncritically, but wisely and insightfully.

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