‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ blends fiction with nonfiction to explore nature of truth

“The Lifespan of a Fact” has been reviewed in a variety of reputable publications and is generating a lot of attention and discussion. The Atlantic wrote last week that the book “has managed one of those periodic book release PR juggernauts that writers privately fantasize about.”

This is all the more remarkable given that on its face “Lifespan” appeals to a small section of the population. Here’s the first sentence in the book’s description on the publisher’s website: “An innovative essayist and his fact-checker do battle about the use of truth and the definition of nonfiction.”

“The Da Vinci Code” this is not.

The essayist is John D’Agata and the checker is Jim Fingal. They were paired up when the latter was assigned to check a D’Agata essay for The Believer. That takes us to the most remarkable part of the book’s pitch.

“What resulted from that assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction,” according to the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.

Seven years! There’s your hook.

Keeping with that narrative, the book’s text consists of the back and forth between the two men, juxtaposed with the section of the essay they’re debating/checking.

My previous post about the book was based on reading several reviews and an excerpt in Harper’s. I have still not read the book. Of course, it’s hardly surprising I sided more with Fingal, the checker, in my post. In particular I felt an affinity for Fingal because reviews of the book highlighted how rude and insulting D’Agata was towards him. It’s easy to disdain someone who treats those in a lesser position — Fingal was an intern — with contempt and disrespect. At one point in the book, D’Agata calls Fingal a dickhead.

Wait, that previous sentence is inaccurate.

Let me rephrase it: At one point in the book, the D’Agata character calls the Fingal character a dickhead.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone.

Less than factual

Contrary to the impression created by the promotional material, and the way it has subsequently been characterized in reviews and my initial post, “The Lifespan of a Fact” isn’t, you know, factual. D’Agata never called Fingal a dickhead, to cite but one example.

Here are the facts. Parts of the book are based on real fact checking emails/conversations, but most of the text was reimagined and recreated by Fingal and D’Agata. Those “seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions”? The vast majority of that time was spent arguing, negotiating and revising in character to produce this book. The actual checking process for D’Agata’s Believer essay lasted about a year, maybe less, according to Fingal in this interview. The two approached the book not as a faithful reproduction of the checking process, but as a work that would use the checking framework as the narrative device to engage in a discussion about the nature of truth in nonfiction.

I didn’t realize any of this until a story about the book appeared in The Daily Beast. It included an interview with the authors. Here’s what D’Agata told Daily Beast writer Josh Dzieza (who also interviewed me for his piece):

We absolutely re-created an argument that didn’t really take place the way it’s described

And this from Fingal:

I must clarify that you should consider the “Jim” and “John” of the essay to be characters enacting a parallel process / discussion from the one John and I actually had during the factchecking process. What we did — taking the relatively dry factchecking document and dramatizing it a bit — might be seen as a parallel gesture to what John does in his original essay.

Fingal also used those exact words in an interview with The Kenyon Review.

Now, compare what the authors say with the promotional blub on the publisher’s website:

How negotiable is a fact in nonfiction? In 2003, an essay by John D’Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies. That essay — which eventually became the foundation of D’Agata’s critically acclaimed About a Mountain — was accepted by another magazine, The Believer, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. What resulted from that assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.

This book reproduces D’Agata’s essay, along with D’Agata and Fingal’s extensive correspondence …

A slippery bit of salesmanship, if you ask me. Can you accurately call the process of writing the book “correspondence”? Clearly, that’s meant to suggest the exchanges in the book represent actual, well, correspondence from the checking of the essay. Not two guys writing a book together.

Even worse, the publisher told New York Times reviewer Jennifer McDonald that the book’s text could be considered a “reproduction” of the checking process/discussion. That misleading information resulted in yet another review that doesn’t offer the reader an accurate picture of the book’s process/content. (Lois Beckett read the Times Review and wrote a post titled, “The New York Times Book Review Gets Punk’d.”)

Now, I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with the book’s concept, how the authors wrote it, or the way they have conducted themselves in interviews. They can write whatever they want, however they want, and I find the concept and topic of the book appealing.

The problem is their publisher is pushing a misleading narrative — seven years! – that results in reviewers writing inaccurate or misleading reviews about the book that in turn could mislead the public.

I asked Norton Vice President and Director of Publicity Elizabeth Riley to explain how the company chose to position the book for marketing, and whether it was concerning that reviewers were getting it wrong. Her reply:

Though Jim Fingal and John D’Agata may have been playful in interviewing, our understanding of the project has been and continues to be that their correspondence began as a dialogue between essayist and fact-checker at the Believer, resulting in a multi-year dialogue/meditation between them on the nature of literary nonfiction.

We’ve published the book as the essay accompanied by that dialogue, and think the promotional materials reflect that understanding.

That seems at least slightly at odds with the authors explaining that they took on exaggerated characters to create the book. More puzzling is the comment that Fingal and D’Agata “may have been playful in interviewing” when they admit publicly, repeatedly, that the book doesn’t reprint actual correspondence.

Fingal told me by email that he and D’Agata made a point of “being up-front about [the facts of the book] whenever anyone asked us.”

The reality is that had Times reviewer asked Fingal, rather than the publisher, about the factual nature of the book’s text, she would have received a different response.

That’s a problem.

I asked Fingal if he and D’Agata considered putting a disclaimer on the book, and this is what he said:

I don’t think we ever really discussed putting a disclaimer on the book. Much of the text itself revolves around the question of whether such a disclaimer is needed in literature, and for what sort of writing; I guess you could say that not including such a disclaimer on the book itself, but being up-front about it whenever anyone asked us was our way of having the form of the text mirror it’s content, in order to give the reader have the potential to experience first-hand the sort of text that is debated about within the text.

He and Riley both also made the point that the book is classified as “Literature/Essays,” a categorization that appears in the catalogue and on the book itself.

Reviewers react

The confusion and conflicting messages could all be chalked up as a bit of meta playfulness that fits the book perfectly, if it weren’t for the fact that there are quite a few inaccurate or at the very least ambiguous reviews.

I contacted several people who reviewed “Lifespan” and heard back from four of them. Three were not aware that the book is more fiction than fact, though some had their suspicions.

One reviewer, Daniel Roberts at Fortune, who wrote this review, knew the book was not always factual.

“I’d say everyone is well aware that the exchanges in the book are not exactly as they occurred originally,” he said by email. “They very clearly embellished and ratcheted up the humor in their exchanges to make the book funnier, more ballsy, and more inflammatory.”

I asked him how he knew the book was embellished.

“I didn’t speak to the authors, nor would I say the promotional materials make it clear at all,” he said. “I knew that the exchanges weren’t exactly as they occurred originally because a) it was obvious by context, b) other reviews and discussions had surfaced before we ran our review, and c) D’Agata has a real history of these sort of literary tricks … I honestly don’t think the ‘revelation’ of their exchanges being tinkered with for the book is any sort of epiphany at all, but something that’s clear, no secret.”

Roberts deserves credit for doing his homework about D’Agata’s approach. He also echoes a point made by Fingal that there are ample clues in the book to tell any close reader that the exchanges are not faithful reproductions of an original exchange.

“The book does not explicitly call out a disclaimer, though there are certainly some things within the text that should cause a reader to question it themselves,” Fingal said, “(the fact that all the factchecking seems to happen chronologically from start to finish, the extreme / farcical nature of the exchange, the fact that most of the time it reads more like a conversation than an email thread, violations of the ‘john can only respond to the factchecking when he’s queried’ convention, the fact that the ‘author’ throughout the whole book loudly rejects the notion that things be factually accurate).”

Of course, you have to buy/read the book to discover all of that that.

Matthew Tiffany reviewed the book for the Star Tribune and I emailed him to ask if he knew the book wasn’t factual.

“No, I wasn’t aware of that, and I don’t recall seeing anything in the promotional papers to that effect,” he said by email. (Note that the review headline includes “NONFICTION” as the book’s category.)

Tiffany followed up with another reply that made two good points about the way this book is being marketed and promoted:

It feels like one of two things. Either this “reconstructing and embellishing” of arguments was kept secret as a knowing ploy to gin up more publicity – because, look, it’s 2012, and nothing surpasses the Internet for picking up on someone trying to pull the wool, so they had to know (right?) that it would come to light, and articles would be written about it, and no publicity is bad publicity.

Alternately, they weren’t secretly plotting to make us their publicists, and it’s just an opportunity lost. They could have published the book as it is, been more forthcoming about the genesis of it, and then made the entire bulk of the correspondence online for people to look at and compare to the finished book. Wouldn’t that strengthen D’Agata’s argument?

Hannah Goldfield, a fact checker at The New Yorker, wrote this post about the book for the magazine’s website. She too didn’t know the full story.

“I did not know whether or not the exchanges had been recreated from memory/invented,” she said. “Neither the book nor its accompanying promotional material addressed this, and I didn’t speak to either of the authors. I did suspect, from the get-go, that at least some of it had been invented/exaggerated, but it didn’t seem worth investigating for the purposes of my blog post. It’s essentially just another instance of the same offense …”

She writes in her post that the book is “a portrait—a rather dull one, ultimately—of a young, earnest intern, and a writer who is a total jerk, or at least posturing as one for cheap effect.”

Laura Miller of Salon wrote this review, and she found out the full facts of the nature of the book after her article was published.

“I did not know the degree to which it had been ‘recreated’ until after I wrote the piece, but I assumed that it had been highly edited at the very least, since the original exchanges weren’t intended for publication and the final result is obviously an artful production,” she said.

Miller had other concerns about the book, including the fact that it offers no background or context about why D’Agata’s essay was initially rejected by one publication and then taken up by The Believer, or why the magazine put Fingal on the case. I told her other reviewers said they too didn’t initially know how the book was put together, and that the promotional materials offer no help in that regard.

“Right — you can deduce [the made up nature of the exchanges] from how ‘finished’ the book is and the fact that D’Agata and Fingal clearly collaborated on it as co-authors,” she wrote, “but you shouldn’t *have* to.”

After hearing from these reviewers, I asked Riley, the Norton vice president, to comment on the fact that high profile reviews have incorrectly described the book as nonfiction, or portrayed the process of creating the work inaccurately. Would Norton reach out to those reviewers and suggest they correct their texts? Is that part of a publisher’s responsibility?

“We believe the book is a faithful reproduction of D’Agata’s and Fingal’s correspondence related to fact checking the article,” she replied. “Based on that, we’re not sure what reviews need to be corrected.”

Actually, based on what Fingal and D’Agata have said publicly, the book is most certainly not a “faithful reproduction” of their correspondence. They created the correspondence to attain and fulfill a book contract. They embodied exaggerated characters to create said correspondence. It is by definition not a reproduction, since the book is primarily made up of text that did not exist prior to the authors embarking on a book project.

But why let the facts get in the way of some good buzz?

Update: I added the word “always” to this sentence to reflect the fact that Daniel Roberts is aware that the book is not completely fictional: “One reviewer, Daniel Roberts at Fortune, who wrote this review, knew the book was not always factual.”

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  • Martha Southgate

    At first when I read the reviews, I was defending Fingal and down on D’Agata. Now I’m down on both of them and would not read nor trust a single word either of these mendacious men write. If you’re gonna be all “meta” and mislead thousands (well hundreds–how many people are really gonna buy this book?) as well as critics who take your word for what you are doing, then you  need to make clear the not-particularly-interesting-and-hard-to-comprehend-why-you-would thing you are doing. Words fail for the kind of arrogance and self-satisfaction it takes to pull something like that (which, let me add, is neither profound nor brilliant ). There are ruder words for their kind of behavior..but I won’t use them. Sheesh. What a pair.