Now a Broadway Play.
An innovative essayist and his fact-checker do battle about the use of truth and the definition of nonfiction.
How negotiable is a fact? In 2003, after publishing his book of experimental essays, Halls of Fame, John D’Agata was approached by Harper’s magazine to write an essay for them, one that was eventually rejected due to disagreements related to its fact checking. 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, and beyond the essay’s eventual publication in the magazine, was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.
This book includes an early draft of D’Agata’s essay, along with D’Agata and Fingal’s extensive discussion around the text. What emerges is a brilliant and eye-opening meditation on the relationship between “truth” and “accuracy” and a penetrating conversation about whether it is appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other.
|Publisher:||Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||6.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
John D’Agata is the author of About a Mountain, Halls of Fame, and editor of The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives.
Jim Fingal is now a software engineer and writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
What People are Saying About This
A fascinating and dramatic power struggle over the intriguing question of what nonfiction should, or can, be.
A singularly important meditation on fact and fiction, the imagination and life, fidelity and freedom. Provocative, maddening, and compulsively readable, The Lifespan of a Fact pulses through a forest of detail to illuminate high-stakes, age-old questions about art and ethics—questions to which the book (blessedly!) provides no easy answers.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The recent hullabaloo over Mike Daisey¿s twisting of certain facts in his one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, has brought to attention an old debate over duties of authorship and essentially considering the rules for what is considered fiction vs. non fiction? Do people who shun the title of journalist in their work yet publish pieces surrounding true events have obligations to their audience who, given the fact that they¿re clearly not reading fiction, purport such articles to be taken at face value as plain fact? At the center of the debate is an argument over integrity: is it better to stay factually honest or go for bridging a larger emotional response sure to capture a larger audience? Do certain authors get a pass just because human rights are involved?Daisey, for all intents and purposes, doesn¿t appear to be in it for the money. From his many interviews he legitimately seems concerned with shedding light on the conditions plaguing workers at China¿s Foxconn facility (where many Apple products are built by human hands). It¿s just that the most damning details - child employees as young as 12; workers whose repetitive job action led to medical defects - didn¿t actually happen. At least, Mike Daisey didn¿t see them happen. Though Daisey was quick to offer a retraction in his theater show he offered a very familiar caveat: that he isn¿t a journalist and thus thought he was exempt from the rules of reporting explicit fact. That the untrue horrors he wrote about was able to engage a larger audience via empathy. Like one-time Oprah guest and book club flub James Frey anything he publishes now has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it. But what really hurts are the Foxconn workers, some of whom probably have horrific conditions that perhaps Daisey never got to see. Curiously enough, this all happened around the same time in February as the release of the book-zine The Lifespan of a Fact by John D¿Agata and Jim Fingal. Fingal, a fact checker at a magazine looking to publish an article from D¿Agata about a Las Vegas teen suicide (an article that was eventually expanded into a book), began to cull through D¿Agata¿s article with a fine-tooth comb, picking at every factoid from witnesses interviewed by the police to street directions to the type of brick lining the driveway of the Stratosphere hotel where a young teenager plummeted to his death in 2003. The book is structured in two parts that are printed parallel to each other. A box in the middle of each page contains D¿Agata¿s article, with surrounding text of back-and-forth conversation between Fingal, his boss, and D¿Agata, who react to each claim (whether false or true). As is made clear right away, D¿Agata is none too pleased with Fingal¿s micro-fact checking skills and assures the young factchecker that the rules don¿t technically apply to him, that his status as non-journalist (essayist, in his words) helps in his rewriting history to suit his literary pursuits. There are several instances where D¿Agata excuses his manipulation of historical truth in pursuit of sentences that sound better when read aloud. Why say he fell for 8 seconds when the number 9 rolls off the tongue better?The banter between Fingal and D¿Agata turn downright nasty in some parts, introspective in others, and comes to a boiling point near the end where each side lays out his case before the judge (readers, in this case). And who is ultimately right in the debate? In the case of accuracy vs. emotional truth D¿Agata may be able to get away with his devices by justifying his intentions near the book¿s end where he readily admits some blurring of the truth. But is he right when stating his intentions for pushing the boundaries of what the essay has come to signify in writerly pursuits? Or is he just bs¿ing his way out of explaining what¿s really at play here, messing with audience expectation?
A fun dialogue over the fact-checking process of an essay purposefully riddled with factual inaccuracies. The two characters in the dialogue take rather cartoonish positions---D'Agata is a bullshitting aesthete; Fingal the Javert of journalistic fact---and their arguments, presented by example, are engaging. If D'Agata's prose were indeed aesthetically pleasing, and if I hadn't read this shortly after listening to the Mike Daisey stories on This American Life, I might have had more sympathy for D'Agata's main thrust. But things being as they are, he comes off as a pretentious prick. Still, recommended reading.