Given that The Lifespan of a Fact explores the degree of artistic license a writer of nonfiction may be permitted, let me stress right up front that this is a book review. That means it registers one person’s reaction—mine—to the aforementioned work by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Therefore, implicit in what follows is the standard journalist-reviewer’s pact of good faith: I will read every page of the book, be fair yet honest in my opinions, support my views with quotation and argument, and try to write entertainingly. To this usually unstated contract with the reader, I would add my own personal codicil: I haven’t taken a quick peek at any of the previously published reviews or online commentaries. I have no idea what other people think of the book.
Why do I bother spelling this out? Because The Lifespan of a Fact questions the degree of importance of that tacit “contract with the reader.” If a work is presented as nonfiction, must it be true? Or can it be kind of true, or just simply true to the subject as a whole even if not nit-pickingly correct?
Long ago, under trying circumstances, the Procurator of Judaea asked “What is truth?” and would not stay for an answer. But D’Agata and fact-checker Fingal do stay, indeed each digs in and stands his ground, as they debate the question back and forth over more than a hundred surprisingly engrossing pages. D’Agata insists on the power of artistic truth, while Fingal, naturally, argues for the fundamental need for honest reporting and accuracy. But I get ahead of myself. What is The Lifespan of a Fact actually about? The book’s back cover—which essentially functions as an introduction—tells us this:
In 2003, an essay by John D’Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies. That essay—which eventually became the foundation of D’Agata’s critically acclaimed About a Mountain—was accepted by another magazine, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. What resulted from the assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction. What emerges is a brilliant and eye-opening meditation on the relationship between “truth” and “accuracy,” and a penetrating conversation about whether it is appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other.
Now, this blurb should strike many readers as just a tad strange. Why all the blatant pussyfooting about naming Harper’s Magazine and The Believer? This information is presented, straightforwardly, in the book’s acknowledgements. Then, there’s this business about the exchanges we are about to read taking place over seven years? Seven … years? This is practically biblical: And, lo, it came to pass that D’Agata did labor in Fingal’s vineyard for seven years … Really, something else is going on here, though we’re not told what. After a few months most magazines or newspapers would simply have killed the essay as more trouble than it was worth. Not least, the emails that make up the bulk of The Lifespan of a Fact are astonishingly polished. They are, in no way, typical of the Internet-chatter between writers and a periodical’s editorial staff. At some point, the raw data was spruced up. But the question is: A lot or a little?
In other words, even before readers crack open The Lifespan of a Fact, they have already been made dimly aware of its theme: How much fiddling can nonfiction bear before it becomes fiction? Of course, writing is never a simple transcription of reality; the author must select and arrange. But one man’s “shaping” may be another’s “warping.”
D’Agata’s essay explores Las Vegas as a suicide capital, contrasting the touristic glitz of the Strip with the city’s undercurrent of despair. To evoke this chiaroscuro he discusses the work of suicide prevention hotlines and interviews bureaucrats, police officers, and college teachers. But his major focus is a 16-year-old teenager named Levi Presley who killed himself in 2002 by jumping from the observation deck of the tower at the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino. While there’s obviously a lot more to the essay, in gross summary this is the piece that Jim Fingal fact-checks.
To integrate Fingal’s comments and D’Agata’s replies, the Norton editors decided that the book’s layout would emulate those old Bibles where a few lines of scriptural text are set in the middle of a page, then completely surrounded by learned annotation drawn from the Church Fathers. With his own almost religious zeal, Fingal goes through D’Agata’s text sentence by sentence, transcribing those that require verification and then presenting the results of his investigations. Here’s an example. In the essay’s opening paragraph D’Agata dramatically lists several other events that occurred on the same day as Levi Presley’s death. Among these is the statement that “archaeologists unearthed parts of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Buckets of Blood.” Fingal reports on his research:
Factual Dispute: This happened on June 28, 2002, fifteen days before Levi Presley killed himself, so it wasn’t discovered the same day he died. In addition, the bottle was discovered in Virginia City, which is 20 miles southeast of Reno—about 450 miles away from Las Vegas. So the relevance of this bottle’s discovery to Las Vegas is a little specious. Also, the bar it was found under is called the “Boston Saloon,” which, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, is “behind the Bucket of Blood Saloon.” The point being that none of this corresponds in any way with Levi Presley’s death. (“Hot Sauce Bottle Used in 1870s Found” by Scott Sonner, Las Vegas Review-Journal, June 28, 2002.)
As this suite of inaccuracies comes early on in his fact-checking, Fingal—an intern—naturally asks his editor “What should I do?” She—the acknowledgments suggest that it is Heidi Julavits—answers: “Go ahead and ask him about this.” Fingal duly points out his discoveries, then inquires if D’Agata would like to alter his sentence. The writer replies: “No, why would I change it?” To start with, he explains, “ ‘Bucket of Blood’ is more interesting than the ‘Boston Saloon.’ ” He then adds a gratuitous swipe: “From what I understand you are fact-checking this, right, not editing it?” And so the battle is joined. As Fingal proceeds through the text, he realizes that D’Agata has fudged details, guesstimated numbers, “streamlined” conversations, and altered actual facts to make a better story. The writer’s notes are either inadequate or, in many cases, nonexistent, D’Agata claiming, with some truth, that tape recorders and notebooks stifle conversation. He’s found it better to just remember the gist of what was said. Whenever Fingal points out incontrovertible errors, he is dismissed, and sometimes insulted for his lack of imagination. “The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as ‘facts.’ The work that they’re doing is more image-based than informational.” No matter what Fingal unearths, D’Agata’s response is essentially “stet”: Let it stand.
Their fundamental argument, made explicit in several long emails near the end of the book, can be reduced to this: D’Agata asserts that he is an essayist, not a reporter, that his work aims to liberate nonfiction from the fetishism of fact, and that through his art he attains a more profound truth than slavish fidelity to mere exactness can ever achieve. His goal, he emphasizes, is “to write something that’s interesting to read.” When Fingal asks, “It would ‘ruin’ it to make it more accurate?” D’Agata answers: “Yup.”
At this point, I have to interject that to a newspaperman this all seems incredible. Editors fact-check news stories, interviews, features, and book reviews. If something turns out to be wrong or misleading, the writer’s job is to alter it appropriately or leave it out. This is beyond argument. Journalists do work hard on their prose, try to compose artful and entertaining pieces, but even the veriest tyro recognizes that you can’t publish material that is known to be false or mistaken. To do so would be the end of your career. You can certainly fight for your metaphors, but you can’t fight for inaccuracies.
But D’Agata does. In these pages, he comes across as a total prima donna. What’s surprising, really, is that he allowed this book to be published at all, since it shows him in such an unflattering light. What’s more, I think that many readers will judge fact-checker Fingal to be a better writer, period. Fingal’s rigorous accuracy and his patient presentation of his material earns the reader’s assent far more often than D’Agata’s heavily contrived and orchestrated essay, one that opts for obvious razzle-dazzle throughout. As Fingal notes at one point, D’Agata regularly tries “to stir up some drama … where there simply isn’t any.”
Before many pages go by, Fingal clearly realizes that he is dealing with a lot of shoot-from-the-hip fancy writing, some of which verges on B.S. While his fact-checking remains impeccable, and indeed at times does grow Talmudically over-refined, he also begins to reveal his own sly humor. How many Las Vegans, he wonders, are vegans? “Visions of cruelty-free showgirl wardrobes abound.” Better still, consider his comment on this sentence by D’Agata: “Dave Hickey has been called the city’s resident art historian, an ambassador for Las Vegas to the rest of the world.” Fingal ripostes: “I think this is another one of those instances in which John is the one who is calling him this. Ergo, since John has called him that, Hickey has in fact ‘been called the city’s resident art historian.’ Fine.” That last word “fine” neatly combines conciseness, contempt, and resignation. Later, in frustration, Fingal defends himself and his fine-toothed work from D’Agata’s sneering:
You know, confirming factual details so that a piece like this has some semblance of accuracy isn’t “nitpicking,” and I think most readers would agree with me. This process is actually meant to help enhance your writing. But I can’t imagine you could appreciate anything that would require you to alter your precious words, which no doubt fell into the world from your pen fully formed and immaculate.
To which, D’Agata replies with a smirk: “Yeah, I’m the immature one.”
In fact, D’Agata fails to recognize that an artist is someone who works with as well as against limitations. For instance, as many writers know, constraints liberate the imagination. When you can’t be too explicit in describing love scenes, you are compelled to use every element of art at your command to convey what is actually going on in that darkened tent or bedroom. Artists rise to challenges. A truly professional writer would have taken the information supplied to him by a fact-checker, adjusted his manuscript accordingly, and consequently made it better, both as a work of art and as a work of nonfiction.
But D’Agata insists, repeatedly, that what he presents isn’t journalism in the least; he’s an essayist. “My interpretation of that charge is that I try—that I try—to take control of something before it is lost entirely to the chaos. That’s what I want to be held accountable for as a writer; it’s how I want to be judged. Others can request to be judged by how strenuously they have tried to get their facts right, but for me, personally, that’s not exciting work. And neither does it seem like it would result in particularly consequential art.”
To which, Fingal insists on the reader’s trust that an author is presenting the “straight dope” or will at least point out whenever something is patently untrue for “artistic reasons.” He adds:
I’m just saying that there is something that feels strange about labeling your narrative “nonfiction” while you’re willfully manipulating facts… . It seems to me like it’s important for a person to know whether what they’re reading is the product of someone trying to “keep up the struggle to nail down the facts of the world,” as you put it, or if they’re reading something that disregards, discards, or manipulates those facts for artistic purposes. People feel like they’ve been trifled with if they discover they’ve been misled on that front.
D’Agata, the avant-gardiste, responds that the purpose of art is “to break us open, to make us raw, to destabilize our understanding of ourselves and our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with therefore the possibility of recognizing something that we had not recognized before. Art is supposed to change us, to challenge us, and, yes, even to trick us.”
As some readers will recognize, this is the central doctrine of the Russian formalists of the 1920s, what is called ostranenie or defamiliarization. Living in the world dulls our senses; people who reside by the sea no longer hear the waves. Hence, art should render the familiar world strange and thus compel us to actually experience it. This D’Agata has tried to do in his free-wheeling re-creation of the Levi Presley case. But, as Fingal rightly stresses, when artistic liberties go too far, they destroy the reader’s faith in a writer, they undermine the entire ontological edifice of the work. People no longer know what they can believe and what they can’t. Was there even a boy named Levi Presley? Perhaps he, too, was made up.
On the last pages of The Lifespan of a Fact, Jim Fingal seems to surrender to despair. Having argued the case for facts as the basis for authority in storytelling, he asks himself: “Does it even matter?” Suppose he calculated to a fraction of a second Levi Presley’s movements during his last hour or two of life, “wouldn’t he still be dead?” Yes, but I suspect the intensity of Fingal’s emotional sympathy grows out of his dogged fact-checking. He knows, to borrow the historian Ranke’s famous phrase, “wie es eigentlich gewesen”—how it really was.
In my view, had John D’Agata reworked his piece according to Jim Fingal’s findings it would have become a stronger essay, probably acquiring a bit of refreshing astringency to counter its overt artsiness. Plus he would have gained the satisfaction of knowing that he had actually gotten things right. As it now stands, what D’Agata defends as a ground-breaking work of nonfiction art seems to me a largely showoffy performance, rife with hearsay, make-believe, and exaggeration. Tastes, of course, may vary.