Slate writer deliberately inserts untruths in review of ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’

The newly-released book “The Lifespan of a Fact” has benefited from some decent publicity. An excerpt of the book appeared in Harper’s, and there have been interesting articles in The New Yorker and Salon, among other places.

The book consists of a transcript of a years-long correspondence between author John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, an intern at “The Believer” assigned to fact check D’Agata’s essay. The book also reprints the passages being checked.

I haven’t read the book, but the reviews and excerpt I’ve seen paint D’Agata as an antagonistic jerk who manipulates facts and quotes to serve what he believes is the greater artistic purpose of his essay, the greater truth he is trying to tell. The essay is meant to be non-fiction and to tell the story of a real person.

Here’s one D’Agata line from the book that seems to be quoted in most book reviews:

It’s called art, dickhead.

As a side note, a New Yorker fact checker once told me that the best and most talented writers are often the most cooperative with the checking process.

One of the most notable takes on the book was published today in Slate. (Hat tip to Daniel Lippman for sending me the link.) Writer Dan Kois offers an interesting perspective on the book and the concept of accuracy in literary non-fiction. But more than that, he employed a unique approach to his reporting.

Like D’Agata, he massaged and manipulated facts to suit his needs. Here’s his disclosure near the end of the piece:

If a good fact-checker, like Jim Fingal, went through my essay, he’d flag 31 falsehoods,* all inaccuracies of the sort that D’Agata argues for keeping in “What Happens There.” In writing this piece, I never met John D’Agata or Jim Fingal, but massaged quotes from other sources, giving the impression I did

Whether you will be delighted or disgusted by The Lifespan of a Fact depends on what kind of reader you are. Are my misquotes, misrepresentations, and lies OK because, though I’ve never met John D’Agata or Jim Fingal, after reading this enraging, fascinating, singular book, I feel as though I know them? Is this review a clever trick or a cheat, a critique or an appreciation? Is it a work of art or am I a lying sack of shit? Are those the only options?

As you ponder those questions, take note of this fact: Kois actually intended to include 30, not 31, falsehoods. While taking time to consciously flub the facts, he made an accidental error, which required the addition of this correction:

Correction, Feb. 15, 2012: This piece initially claimed to have 30 falsehoods. Actually, it has 31. John D’Agata teaches at the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa, not the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Really, though, it’s no surprise to discover it’s hard to keep things straight when you’re spending time and effort to screw with the facts.

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  • Billy Budd

    This debate is old news in creative nonfiction circles. But the tragedy is, you don’t need to make it up. Reality is a constant insult to our meager imaginations.