What ‘Lifespan of a Fact’ teaches us about the limits of creative nonfiction

The Lifespan of a Fact” has raised important questions in recent weeks about the nature of truth in creative nonfiction and the limits of literary license.

In the book, which has been gaining widespread attention, fact-checker Jim Fingal questions details that author John D’Agata has written about the death of Las Vegas teenager Levi Presley. Parts of the book are based on facts, but much of it is re-imagined. As D’Agata has said, “being precise would be less dramatic.”

The book — and its publisher’s promotion of it — has created confusion among reviewers about what is and isn’t true. As my colleague Craig Silverman recently learned, some reviewers weren’t aware that the book is more fiction than fact. This poses a verification problem; if reviewers are misled, then their reviews could subsequently misinform the public.

In a live chat today, we talked with Silverman and Reuter’s Jack Shafer about the issues surrounding the book. (Here’s Shafer’s piece comparing D’Agata and Truman Capote.) Specifically, we looked at what happens when authors blend fiction and nonfiction, and what this means for reviewers and readers.

You can replay the chat here …

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Roberts/100003621027380 Chris Roberts

    Much to my amazement, the hack interviewers, pundits and all around verbose bottom feeders seem to have forgotten one important bit of information: Truman Capote, pioneer of the hybrid genre, described “In Cold Blood” as, “reportage-fiction.” Check it out and bow your heads collectively.

    John D’Agata is no Truman Capote. Suicide as a story has many possibilities, but D’Agata presented a bland, prototype victim that seemed to need additional buildings/props to make the story/sentence flow. Levi Presley, the self-murderer, had to be the *one and only self-killer that day.* Really? It’s not necessary.

    Why? Suicide is a light affair because it is entered into lightly. The one-thousand questions asked by those left behind are without weight because it matters nothing to Death. Death, a singular death, is a trifle. Suicide as method is inconsequential and endlessly leads to the next man waiting in self-murderous solitude.

    I will deal with D’Agata’s personality very little and only to say that he is a post-poseur meaning it once was the position of pet-gopher-wannabe inside a literary circle, but even this sniveling title is now gone to D’Agata.

    D’Agata is the consummate fraud for lying and equally so for believing he is an artist of any sort. A billboard has more veracity and it just goes to show how low, how little “The Believer” is by printing D’Agata’s story. Oh, the book, “The Lifespan of a Fact” is laid out oddly, a gimmick, the back and forth gets old after page forty and the whole project is forced, hackneyed and D’Agata’s writing is that of a cheap word jack.

    Chris Roberts