on John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact.
Blackboard courtesy of Nieman Journalism Lab
A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard
A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard
John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
The Lifespan of a Fact
W.W. Norton & Company, February 2012. 128 pp.
A writer colleague, referring to a document she had written, confessed: “I totally D’Agata’d this.” I couldn’t help laughing. But her comment was unsettling because she meant that she had fudged her story, made some of it up. And I suspected that the man behind the reference, John D’Agata, co-author of the book The Lifespan of a Fact, would be pleased.
The book’s backstory begins in 2003: D’Agata had written an essay on assignment for Harper’s Magazine about a teenager who committed suicide in Las Vegas. Harper’s rejected the essay because of factual inaccuracies, so D’Agata re-sold it to another magazine, The Believer. Jim Fingal, the co-author of the book, then a 23-year-old intern, was given the opportunity to fact-check the article, and a pack of red pens to help in the effort. He probably used the entire pack — to little effect.
The necessity of fact-checking nonfiction has been discussed and disputed off and on in the publishing world over the past 40 years, usually in the wake of discoveries of inaccuracies or outright deceptions. Clifford Irving, named “Con Man of the Year” by Time Magazine in 1972, sold a fake biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes and spent more than a year in prison for fraud. Six years before the flurry of discussion that has greeted The Lifespan of a Fact, there was the great debate — and much finger-pointing — following revelations that James Frey, author of the best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces, had exaggerated or simply made up information about his traumatic life. In 2008, Margaret B. Jones’s lauded memoir, Love and Consequences, the saga of her biracial gangbanging girlhood in the 1980s in South Central Los Angeles was revealed as pure fiction and “Margaret B. Jones” to be a pseudonym for a white middle-class woman from Sherman Oaks, Margaret Seltzer. The book was trashed by Riverhead, its publisher.
Book publishers maintain that they lack the resources to fact-check every book they publish. Fact-checking is up to the writer, they insist. But since writing and publishing is a partnership, and the publisher can be as liable as the writer if legal action is taken, sloughing it off on the writer doesn’t make a lot of sense. Most magazines, by contrast, such as The New Yorker and Harper’s (and The Believer), do fact-check. Even the tiny magazine I edit, Creative Nonfiction, checks the facts. It is a question of credibility and integrity. Factual accuracy goes hand-in-hand with personal truth. If readers can’t rely on writers to confirm the accuracy of verifiable details of their essays, especially when the task is often so easy, then how can anyone believe the more questionable contentions in their stories? In other words, how can we trust a writer’s interpretation of a story, if we can’t trust the foundation he or she has built?
Fingal, at least initially, represents this side of the conversation by calling out D’Agata sentence by sentence, word by word, on what he calls the “Factual Disputes” (and “Factual Quibbles” and “Factual Nudgings”) in the book. Responding to D’Agata’s exasperation with the fact-checking process, Fingal retorts, “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.”
I am, by the way, calling The Lifespan of a Fact a book, but if you expect to sit down, read, and enjoy it like most books and learn from its unfolding story, forget it. Lifespan is more like a 123-page maze. The first page begins with the 11 opening words of D’Agata’s Believer article, in bold black type, followed by a three-line confirmation of that information. Then we have a space break, followed by five more words in black bold, still from the first sentence, followed by three more lines of confirmation, then a space break and then nine words in black bold (we are still reading from the first sentence), followed by two lines of confirmation, followed by a space break, followed by eight words (still from the first sentence) in red bold type, followed by Fingal’s tireless refrain, “Factual Dispute.” Then there’s 12 red lines of Fingal’s explanation, a virtual almanac explaining why D’Agata is incorrect, and then a space break, and then more red words (still from the first sentence), then another red “Factual Dispute” and so on.
But that’s not all. In larger type, in the middle of every page, runs the original text as D’Agata submitted it to The Believer, so that if you want to read a 5,000-word essay parceled out over 123 pages, you’re in luck. And that is still not all, because Fingal is confused and quite often appalled by D’Agata’s cavalier responses to his requests for more information, and his incredulous appeals to his editor are also here, along with the editor’s responses, in red italics. Basically, it takes a while to figure out how to read or examine the text, and by the time you realize what’s going on, you have a headache. Or I did, at least.
The writer and editor, too, are headaches. D’Agata often goes out of his way to antagonize Fingal, at one point even calling him a “dickhead.” The editor seems not to care too much about Fingal’s cascade of “Factual Disputes.” The identity of this ambivalent editor is unclear, but in the Acknowledgements, D’Agata and Fingal thank Andrew Leland, and call Heidi Julavits “hands down the most generous and ingenious editor of our generation.”
It is pretty clear, however, that the editor knows D’Agata is fudging, big time, and doesn’t seem to care. Mostly when Fingal, in frustration, consults her (or him), she (or he) advises Fingal to “note the discrepancy and move on.” The editor tells Fingal, “John’s a different kind of writer, so you are going to encounter some irregularities.” An editor who seems to endorse or ignore factual discrepancies and downright fabrication is a different kind of editor, too.
But then there’s another layer of fudging — sticky and slimy and deceitful — that came to light after the book was published. Fearing that readers might not be fascinated by “two dudes having a sober discussion about the very nerdy issue of veracity in nonfiction,” according to D’Agata, the snarky and sometimes amusing discourse was purposely “amped up.” So the book about the anatomy of the process of fact-checking has itself not been fact-checked!
D’Agata is an associate professor at the University of Iowa, teaching creative nonfiction writing, and is the author or editor of four books, so he should know better — and I’m sure he does. So what is he up to? This is the intriguing question. What’s his game? You could say, as some have, that he is lazy, unwilling to follow through with the heavy and often tedious background work to get it right. You could say he doesn’t care about his responsibility as a writer to tell a story and enlighten his readership, or even the people about whom he is writing. You could say — and I would agree if you did — that D’Agata is not only untrustworthy but downright arrogant.
For example: When Fingal proves that there are 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas and not 34 as D’Agata claimed, D’Agata says: “The rhythm of ‘34’ was better in the sentence than the rhythm of ‘31,’ so I changed it.” And when he swaps the name of a bar from “Boston Saloon” to “Bucket of Blood,” it’s okay, because “‘Bucket of Blood’ is more interesting.” And when Fingal demonstrates that D’Agata’s information about how many heart attacks took place during a certain time period in Las Vegas — there were eight, not four — and asks if the text should be changed, D’Agata replies:
I like the effect of these numbers scaling down in the sentence from five to four to three, etc. So I’d like to leave it as it is.And so it goes: a constant struggle between the writer’s obsession with style and the fact-checker’s passion for substance — and of course the “amped up” disingenuous ruse they are perpetrating at the reader’s expense. D’Agata might say that he is seeking what some respected writers of nonfiction have referred to as “a larger truth.” In fact, toward the end of the book, he explains, “I am seeking a truth here, but not necessarily accuracy … 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.”
Jim: But that would be intentionally inaccurate.
John: Probably, yeah.
Jim: Aren’t you worried about your credibility with the reader?
John: Not really, Jim, no. I’m not running for public office. I’m trying to write something that’s interesting to read.
But there is a big difference between not trying strenuously to get facts right — that’s just shirking responsibility and hoping no one notices — and actively changing them, as D’Agata does, to suit his own needs. You don’t achieve a larger truth by changing statistics or the names of places or people. Doing so makes you dishonest and unethical. It might be easier and more poetic to write this review, for example, if I changed the name of the writer to Don’tgotta or D’Errata. But, alas, that’s just not the guy’s name.
When people read nonfiction they expect it to be as accurate and as true as possible. That’s the promise that nonfiction always makes: that the writing and reporting are as faithful as possible to fact, that truth and accuracy make a difference.
The writer, through history, has tried to make a difference, to touch readers, to make them aware of what’s going on around them. We have learned that information, enhanced by story, can be ammunition, our weapon for change. In 2009, President Obama made his entire staff read a New Yorker essay by Atul Gawande about ways to control the rising costs of health care. Gawande spotlighted the health-care system in McAllen, Texas, where patients suffer through twice as many cardiac surgeries than the national average, four times the ambulance spending, and eight times the end-of-life home health-care costs; Gawande compares health-care costs in similarly sized towns in order to spotlight unnecessary waste and mismanagement. Some of the ideas from Gawande’s piece ended up in the Obama health-care package, and so the consequences of misreporting — or inaccuracy for any reason — could have been profound.
There are so many wonderful books of creative nonfiction that are dramatically, stylistically, rhythmically powerful and factually accurate that have made a difference — from Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to one of my favorite books, which I frequently assign to my classes, Susan Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Is There No Place on Earth for Me? We could all make such a list of books and writers whose dramatic, spellbinding narrative nonfiction has helped influence public opinion while remaining true to fact: Rachel Carson, John Hersey, Ernest Hemingway, Ernie Pyle. They were all reporters.
Not D’Agata, who tells Fingal, “I am not a reporter and I have never claimed to be a reporter, and the magazine took on this project with the understanding that I have no interest in pretending to be a reporter or producing journalism.” This may be true, on a certain level, but it is nevertheless a ridiculous claim: all nonfiction contains a significant portion of reportage. (For that matter, so does most fiction.) In his article, D’Agata is — accurately or not — reporting, researching, and interviewing, from beginning to end. In creative nonfiction, in contrast to traditional nonfiction, the reporting may be filtered by a writer’s perception and the use of narrative, but that does not mean we are creating characters and situations. We are recreating, as vividly as possible, in dramatic form, what we think happened. It may be, in the classic informal essay, that style may often take precedence over substance — but the substance must nevertheless remain reliable and accurate. Fabrication — doing what my friend called “a D’Agata” — is fiction.
Early on, when the phrase “creative nonfiction” began to be adopted in creative writing programs in the early 1990s, many journalists rejected the term because the word “creative” seemed to connote that writers were making up facts. Many of us have fought the good fight to demonstrate to the journalistic and academic worlds that it’s possible to write terrific nonfiction narrative and stay steadfast to both truth and fact. One can be creative and truthful simultaneously. It just takes a lot more work.
The fact that creative nonfiction has become the fastest growing genre in writing programs and the fastest growing genre in the publishing industry proves that we have made great progress. Most people recognize that creative nonfiction presents a challenge in balancing substance with style — many believe that the substance is most important and the style is the vehicle that makes the substance more compelling to a larger readership.
But D’Agata is not really writing for the general public. For what it’s worth, he acknowledges this. And this acknowledgement, I believe, answers my earlier question about what he’s up to.
Fifteen years ago, D’Agata helped introduce the term “lyric essay” to university creative writing programs. He has vigorously promoted the lyric essay, and the term has acquired a bit of cachet; it is often included in essay writing classes. Interestingly, D’Agata’s initial definition of the lyric essay conflicts with his current cavalier attitude toward facts. In 1997, D’Agata, along with his mentor, poet Deborah Tall, wrote in the Seneca Review (edited by Tall) that “the lyric essay has an overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.” Allegiance to the actual: that, to me, clearly implies a loyalty to truth and accuracy, which D’Agata seems to have now abandoned.
The market for lyric essays is limited at best. Perhaps this new book’s lame idea, that art supersedes fact, is D’Agata’s foray into self-promotion and image-building in the creative writing academy. That — and not the general public — seems to be his target audience. As D’Agata tells Fingal during their debate about the importance of four versus eight heart attacks:
The readers who care about the difference between “four” and “eight” might stop trusting me. But the readers who care about interesting sentences and the metaphorical effect that the accumulation of those sentences achieve will probably forgive me.His colleagues will probably forgive him. That’s easy. They will even make jokes, as did my friend, about “doing D’Agatas” and speculate jealously about the income D’Agata will make on his book tours and through his interviews. (The royalties from the book will fund scholarships in the name of Levi Presley, the boy who committed suicide.) His classes will be popular.
But can anyone respect or trust him?
Jim: I guess I’m confused; what exactly are the benefits of using “four” versus “eight” in this sentence?This is a question that D’Agata obviously cannot answer without admitting to the emptiness of his argument.
John: I’m done talking about this.
Lee Gutkind called by Vanity Fair, “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the first and largest literary magazine to publish narrative nonfiction. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. His next book, to be published later this year by Da Capo Press, is You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!
Image: Blackboard courtesy of Nieman Journalism Lab, A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard [ http://bit.ly/wcrALN ]