John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, co-authors of 'The Lifespan of a Fact,' on why fact-checking isn't so important
It seemed only appropriate that John D’Agata and his former fact checker Jim Fingal were seated between two bookshelves labeled ‘memoir’ and ‘ideas’ last night at McNally Jackson Books. Their new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, attempts to straddle the same line.
If you even want to call it a book. Part graphic-art piece and part-edited transcript, D’Agata and Fingal have been confusing many a straight-laced journalist with their new work. New York Times reviewer Jennifer McDonald put it this way: “This book review would be so much easier to write were we to play by John D’Agata’s rules. So let’s try it. (1) This is not a book review; it’s an essay. (2) I’m not a critic; I’m an artist. (3) Nothing I say can be used against me by the subjects of this essay, nor may anyone hold me to account re facts, truth or any contract I have supposedly entered into with you, the reader.”
Suffice it to say: The Lifespan of a Fact is a partly fictionalized, partly-true account of the correspondence between its two authors back in 2003, when Fingal was assigned to fact-check an essay of D’Agata’s for The Believer. Their exchanges—sometimes funny, sometimes furious—offer a discourse on the importance of fact in nonfiction writing. It's always been a topic of concern for writers, editors, and researchers, not least at the present moment, as shown in the case of Mike Daisey. He fabricated parts of a report on working conditions at Foxconn for a "This American Life" episode in January and then defended his blending of fact and fiction, claiming his piece used a "combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.”
Fingal opened the McNally Jackson reading with the first query he sent to D’Agata. “I’m new to this, so bear with me,” Fingal read. “I’ve discovered a small discrepancy between the numbers of strip clubs you say there are in Las Vegas and the number that’s given in your supported documents. I’m wondering how you determined there were 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas when the source you quoted says there are 31.”
“I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication," D’Agata read in reply, "because the 'article,' as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker. I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful.”
And therein lies the central conflict of The Lifespan of a Fact, which actually reads more like a manuscript proof than a book. D’Agata’s essay appears in small font at the center of every page, but it is the authors’ correspondence in the margins that’s really center-stage. And just in case this all isn’t meta enough for you, D’Agata and Fingal admit much of their exchange as printed is fabricated.
“When I was an intern, I wasn’t really challenging him, and he wasn’t calling me names,” Fingal said. “Putting this book together allowed us to actually argue about what we’d spent so much dealing with, what we were truly feeling in our hearts at the time.”
Fingal’s feelings, as a fact-checker, were relatively simple: facts, and their accuracy, matter to nonfiction. D’Agata’s central argument is more controversial: what matters most is portraying a central truth and feeling to the reader.
“The central question in this essay isn’t Did Levi Preston kill himself or not?” D’Agata said in conversation after the reading. “It’s Why is this happening in Las Vegas, and why are more people killing themselves in Las Vegas more than anywhere else in the country? I knew I couldn’t get close to answering that question by listing the number of strip clubs.”
D’Agata changed that number, it turns out, because he thought it made the sentence syntax flow more smoothly. Such an approach can make even the most literary of journalists get uncomfortable, even angry, and the audience last night was no exception.
“John, you consider yourself an essayist, whatever that means,” said one self-identified journalist in the audience. “And that’s fine. But you can’t bring those rules over when you do a journalistic piece. You might be a great kickboxer, but if you’re boxing, you can’t kick people. You should be able to take the facts and make art out of it. But you’re putting the cart in front of the horse by making the facts adjust to your vision.”
“I don’t call this a journalistic piece, and never have,” D’Agata replied calmly. “It feels, it smells, and it quacks like journalism. But there’s a moment in the essay that announces, I think loudly, that No, that journalistic mood isn’t going to work for us. [I then paraphrase] a quote by T.S. Eliot that says 'sometimes, we replace knowledge in pursuit of information.'"
As for Fingal, today he works as a software designer, not a fact-checker. Not surprisingly, his stance on the importance of fact seems to have relaxed as a result.
“There’s a conflation between nonfiction and journalism, which narrows the field of possibilities,” said Fingal. “Journalism serves a critical function for democracy, so the code of ethics around it is important. The problem is its standards migrate over to other forms of writing, like memoir.”
“I’m not reading your memoir because I care about your life,” D’Agata added. “I’m not reading for the particulars of your life—I’m reading for your insights on those particulars. I’m looking to have a metaphorical experience as a reader.”
Another audience member asked D’Agata whether he thought there was a moralistic attitude to how readers approach nonfiction.
“Yes. No one goes after fiction writers for not using their imaginations enough when they base their stories in the real world. But when I turn on my imagination, I have somehow destroyed a moral contract with a reader,” D’Agata said. “It’s never a sober conversation. For some reason it’s immediately a screaming match, where someone is accused of destroying Western Civilization.”