June 11, 2012

BOOKS: The Lifespan of a Fact, John D'Agata & Jim Fingal (2012)

The background: In 2003, Harper's rejected an essay D'Agata had written about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager, on the grounds that there were too many factual inaccuracies. He later sold the essay to The Believer, which assigned Fingal as fact-checker for the piece; the fact-checking process took several years, and The Believer finally published a version of the essay in 2010. (During that time, D'Agata worked parts of the essay into his book About a Mountain.) Now, here's D'Agata's original version of the essay, annotated at great length by his conversations, discussions, and arguments with Fingal over the factual details of the piece.

And a wild batch of conversations those are, too. D'Agata refuses to call what he writes "nonfiction," insisting that the fiction/nonfiction divide is a false binary imposed by the publishing industry. He insists that he writes "essays," and traces the word "essay" back to its French meaning -- "attempt." His writing, he insists, is an attempt to make sense of what has happened, to impose meaning on it, and that meaning is neither dependent on nor particularly interested in the specific factual details.

Fingal takes the purist's stance: If you're going to say these things happened, then by god, they'd better have happened. There are times when he comes across as being nitpicky for the sake of being nitpicky, such as when he complains that a fleet of delivery vans which D'Agata describes as purple are actually pink. D'Agata counters that the difference between purple and pink is pretty slim, that the two beats of "purple" made the sentence flow better, and that the readers would neither notice the difference nor care if they did.

But there are larger inaccuracies and questions where D'Agata is on significantly shakier ground. Did X actually say the things that X is quoted as saying? Does X actually exist?

All of this would be interesting enough, but things get even more complicated if you venture outside the book to read the interviews in which D'Agata and Fingal acknowledge that the dialogue presented here is not, as we are told, the dialogue that occurred during the Believer fact-checking process. It is their reconstruction of that dialogue, edited and organized for narrative and dramatic effect.

In other words, it bears precisely the same relationship to the reality of their process as D'Agata's essay does to the reality of Levi Presley's suicide. And in agreeing to participate in this reconstructed version of reality, Fingal is conceding the argument, accepting D'Agata's view that the facts are less important than the emotional impact one can gain from manipulating them. D'Agata and Fingal argue that truth is less important than what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness." The difference is that Colbert has always understood that "truthiness" is a joke, not a legitimate approach to reporting real events.

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