Essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal co-wrote a book called The Lifespan of a Fact. I have read every review about the book since. It seems that Lifespan isn’t being reviewed, but instead a status quo is being swiftly and aggressively defended. While (aside from David Ulin’s considered assessment in the Los Angeles Times) they left me with no understanding of the book itself, here are some terms that I’ve read to describe Mr. D’Agata as both a writer and a person:
Sneak. Bully. Disingenuous. A wolf in journalist’s clothing. Exasperating. Flimsy. Hack. A dirty fighter. Facile. Lazy. Preening. Pretentious. Outrageous. Grandstanding. Hollow. Harmful.
These are cherry-picked gems from mature and objective publications like Salon, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. On the same Sunday, the Times saw fit to use the front page of the Book Review and coveted space in the Magazine on D’Agata, a puzzling treatment of a paperback-only release from a writer that—as the reviewers take great joy in pointing out—isn’t well heard of outside of academia. These are journalists reviewing a work whose author (one of its authors, that is) questions some of the tenets that they’ve been taught to hold sacred.
The result? We get review titles like, “The Art of Fact Checking.” That one was from The New Yorker’s “Book Bench” blog. Does it make me pretentious to point out that fact-checking is not an art? It has been, from its inception, a litigious activity. It takes talent and intelligence and incredible drive, but still fact-checkers are part paralegal, part private eye. Yet the reviewer, a New Yorker staff fact checker, has something to prove, and so a review becomes a pout.
I don’t mean to attack fact-checking or those who do it. Neither, incidentally, did D’Agata make such a general claim, something that reviewers may have noticed if they read the text. I was a fact-checker before I was lost to the seedy underworld of the essay. I landed one of those New York magazine internships for the over-educated and under-paid. I took my work very seriously, and I am still proud of it. But that doesn’t mean that I was always serving a greater good or forcing writers to be less lazy, a claim many have thrown at D’Agata.
I can’t help but think of the columns that I’d get in from that magazine’s big shots and how they would occasionally have paragraphs laying out a passionate political argument and containing, as a command: [INSERT STRONGEST NUMBER HERE]. More than once, I asked a hardcore journalist for their source, and they gave me their own book, claiming to have no memory of how they verified the fact the first time around. The editors would end up ruling that, as long is it was printed once, it could be again. Then there was my own itsy first by-line. I wrote a blurb about voter registration and cited a number that ACORN had provided me. The fact-checker did their due-diligence. The fact was confirmed and ran. A week later, ACORN admitted that they inflated the number. The article, once accurate and verified, was suddenly wrong.
I’m not saying that these anecdotes prove fact-checking is irrelevant or that nothing means anything, or that proof, itself, is a lie bought and sold by the frightened middle class with their white picket fences. What these exchanges revealed to me is how fascinating a conversation can come up when this issue is pushed; when fact-checkers (as often happens) go to battle with writers and sometimes editors; when people bring competing goals and backgrounds and perspectives to a piece of writing that examines the real world.
D’Agata cites Cicero and St. Augustine as essayists who moved dubiously through facts while still contemplating and representing reality. Such a nod to history seems to be offensive and untrustworthy to major news outlets, so let’s get hipper. When Truman Capote went back and forth with the New Yorker over the verifiability of In Cold Blood, his editors and fact-checkers weren’t dumb squares, nor he a liar. They were negotiating the grey area of reality as it’s filtered through what an observer wants to present. Though some are still opposed to Capote’s methods, that doesn’t mean his book is somehow less beautiful or sinister or invalid. Or what of Gay Talese’s claim that the magazine piece is no longer artful because of the reliance on a tape recorder? He has said that recording is a legal tool, not a creative one, which creates quotes that, “Don’t get at what people mean, but rather what’s coming out of their mouths.” Or what about David Foster Wallace? Plenty of tributes have pointed out that he created stock, straw men characters, inflated and conflated scenes, and generally Wallace-ized his essays.
Yes, some of the liberties that D’Agata flaunts (“thirty-four strip clubs has a nicer rhythm than thirty-one”) push farther than these examples. I don’t agree with everything D’Agata says. I think a lot of it is intensified for comic effect. But he is investigating the same, ever-sliding middle ground. He and Fingal publicize, dramatize, and ultimately satirize the endless argument. That’s what is being missed in the hysterical and furious treatment of this book.
Lifespan isn’t John D’Agata telling you to agree with him. It isn’t a screed. It is about the value and frustration within a debate about truth. The layout of the book is as affecting and unique as any I’ve seen. We see the text in the center, then swirls of conversation around it, paragraphs and paragraphs of impassioned arguments fencing in a single sentence. Through the use of color – black meaning proven fact, red meaning unverified – we watch the machinations of a sentence that can be right and wrong at once, a piece gaining, losing, and changing meaning in front of our eyes. Through these framing exchanges, each author makes himself incredibly vulnerable. D’Agata’s character on the page is shrill at times and certainly defensive. You can sense embarrassment at places, as well as the joy of taking shots at a cocky subordinate. Fingal – yes, he has a personality and a perspective in the book, too – fluctuates between sincerity and the stubborn-young-dude need to feel right. They dramatize themselves the way that Hunter S. Thompson did and Joan Didion still does.
The sad thing is that a push for a conversation seems to be an exercise in futility. Some of D’Agata’s geeky students and admirers (myself quite obviously included) will defend this work in publications that the Times and Salon, as well as many of their readers, will never look at. Meanwhile those major publications seem content running character assassinations not just of one artist, but of a challenging way of thinking. A quick gander at the comment section of any of these reviews reveals a long list of people who never have read D’Agata, will never read Lifespan, and remain confident that they know the books intended purpose – a brainwashing from a liar. What’s worse, as was evidenced in AWP panels with blurbs like, “How to write beautiful and 100% true nonfiction” (imagine the fun a fact-checker would have with that claim), other writers see the need to fall in line with attacks on a book whose spine they’ve never cracked. Their message to the masses – He’s a liar; I’m not. It’s that simple.
For those who care so deeply about accuracy, that impression is absurdly and irresponsibly wrong. The book is a two-sided argument. It’s an invitation inside the way artists and researchers, and culture as a whole, contemplate and justify what truth means in nonfiction. I’m not saying you should agree with John D’Agata. That’s not the point. But why not be open? Experience it. Don’t write off an uncomfortable conversation. Engage in it.