Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: "The Lifespan of a Fact"

Warning: if you're anything at all like me, reading The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal (Knopf, 2012) is very likely to cause a major spike in your blood pressure.

This slim book presents an essay by D'Agata (published in the January 2010 issue of The Believer as "What Happens There"), alongside a series of emails between D'Agata and Fingal, who was assigned to fact-check the article prior to publication. The article concerns the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino on 13 July 2002.

From literally the very first clause, Fingal found difficulties. D'Agata's scene-setting first paragraph contained at least eight statements that either couldn't be proven or were factually inaccurate, so Fingal began emailing D'Agata to try and make corrections. And things quickly turned ugly. D'Agata's responses to Fingal's (entirely fair) questions ranged from the snide to the sarcastic to the downright nasty. The author repeatedly maintained that he was perfectly justified in changing facts to suit his purposes for any reason whatsoever: switching the name of a bar from the Boston Saloon to the Bucket of Blood because the latter "is more interesting"; switching another suicide by jumping on the day of Presley's death to one by hanging because "I wanted Levi's death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique." You get the idea. This goes on for 123 pages, with Fingal probing for the facts, and D'Agata arguing that he could, and did, change them whenever he felt like it.

One exchange, from the last section of the piece, should give the flavor. Fingal asks D'Agata where he got information on the specific parking space Presley used the night of his death:

D'Agata: "Your nitpicking is absurd and its ruining this essay. So, as I've said, I'm not participating. Good luck."

Fingal: "In other words, you're taking your ball and going home. Very mature. 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."

D'Agata: "Yeah, I'm the immature one."

One can hardly blame Fingal for getting a bit snarky; I'm amazed at how long he held back.

The main thrust of D'Agata's argument throughout is that he's writing an "essay," not "journalism." This, he maintains, gives him the right to pretty much do whatever he wants. I'm not buyin' it. If you want to write an essay and smooth out some rough spots by changing a few facts here and there, you ought to tell your reader that up front. That's no big deal; easily done, and it hurts no one. D'Agata would disagree, but who's surprised at that?

The book is not enjoyable to read: it's stressful, and unpleasant, to see the abuse DAgata flings at Fingal, and to see the ridiculous excuses he comes up with for the factual misstatements he includes in the piece. That said, it's also a really fascinating look inside the fact-checking process, and I know I certainly won't read certain pieces of writing the same way again. Being published as it was right around the whole Mike Daisey kerfuffle, the book has a certain timeliness to it; I hope that it's widely read.

There are, however, some real missed opportunities. The book doesn't include any contextualization of the situation at all: mentioned only in passing (on the back cover) was that D'Agata's essay had previously been rejected by the magazine (Harper's) that originally commissioned the piece. Just a few of Fingal's interactions with editors about his exchanges with D'Agata are included, so it's difficult to get an overall sense of the process. Most notably, though, the book concludes at the end of the original draft text of the essay ... we don't get a chance to see what happened next in order to get the piece through to publishable form (presumably a whole lot of back-and-forthing with editors, I imagine). The Lifespan of a Fact doesn't include the final text of the essay as published - for that I ordered up a copy of the magazine where it appeared, because I really wanted to see how the battle ended up playing out.

As it turns out, much to my happiness, many (but not all) of Fingal's substantive issues with various elements of the essay are clarified or corrected in the final version. A couple amusing (or not) exceptions I found are cases where both Fingal and D'Agata agree that D'Agata had made a mistake, but the errors remain in the article. And D'Agata's penchant for changing the names of businesses was allowed to stand, as were a few other liberties and several outright factual misstatements.

I certainly came away from this book with a great appreciation for the fact-checkers of the world ...

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