I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about John D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact for about a week and a half now, but it’s gotten so much attention that I don’t have anything new to add. I keep running into articles that articulate my feelings towards the book very neatly. Still, I remain disappointed, and really need to try to work some things out about this despite the redundancy of it all. I was fairly excited to read this book when I first heard about it. I really enjoyed The Lost Origins of the Essay precisely for the generous definition it gave to the form. It’s always struck me as a fallacy, this obsession we have in American culture with Truth and the way it manifests in our entertainment and our art. Sure, certain revelations of falsification are deplorable–any false Holocaust memoir, for instance, or the Love and Consequences kerfuffle–but for the most part I feel (or, perhaps, always thought that I felt) that we should all just recognize that Absolute Truth is an impossible expectation given the utter subjectivity of human experience and stop devoting so much anxiety to it already. I hate the term “creative nonfiction” but if we need to invent new subgenres to comfort ourselves on this matter then fine, whatever, let’s do that. Here stands my quick summary of my default opinion on the matter of veracity in nonfiction.
To his credit, D’Agata has challenged my preexisting notions, though probably not in the way he intended given that I would have been more willing to make his argument before I read his book. More on this in a moment. First, a summary–as if you don’t already know!–of the project and a bitter mulling over one of my main problems with it.
The Lifespan of a Fact originally existed as a roughly 5,000 word essay, titled “If a Boy Jumps Off a Building in Vegas Does He Make a Sound?”, originally intended for publication in Harper’s, offered next to the Atlantic, and finally reaching print in the Believer. As the title suggests, it is D’Agata’s attempt at a literary autopsy of a teenager’s death and an interrogation of the taboos, the cultural silences, that surround the issue of suicide; also as suggested by the title it is stylistically a very typical piece for Harper’s: it’s got the goal of raising social awareness about some issue (though it isn’t as aggressive or successful as many articles in this magazine or others), attempted through a familiar stylistic mixture of apparently factual reportage–interviews, statistics (there’s a staggering lot of numbers in “Boy” for such a short piece)–and personal reflection, culminating in a dramatic finale that’s meant to end on a haunting note and stick in your head. I read the essay cold before I read Lifespan but it isn’t really necessary: I’ve read this essay before, you’ve read this essay before. It’s fine, sometimes moving, but not particularly beautiful and too short to delve deeply into any of its issues.
It’s fine, a perfectly serviceable note in a typical Harper’s lineup, but for one problem: many of its facts, both small and large, are either consciously massaged into a version of the truth more amenable to D’Agata or flat out invented. Hence its troubled publishing history, and its eventual resurrection as Lifespan: the Believer’s acceptance of it was conditional on its close interrogation by a thorough intern/fact-checker. The Lifespan of a Fact contains the excruciatingly detailed findings of the diligent fact-checker as well as the occasional correspondence between author and intern discussing and arguing about the validity of D’Agata’s changes and the necessity, or lack thereof, of hard fact in nonfiction. It is billed and presented as a conversation, which naturally invites the reader to join in and take a stance on this very interesting topic. Obviously I was excited to read the book–who would not be?
My interest turned to disappointment when, shortly after publication I believe, D’Agata admitted readily that the conversation between the two authors was “largely invented for the sake of the book,” with personalities amplified on both sides for added drama. Even most of the fact checking was done later for the book’s publication rather than the essay’s (NPR). I suppose I’m one of the simple, shallow readers that D’Agata scorns, because this knowledge immediately raised my dander. I only picked the book up, in the end, because the library had it on shelf (such a rarity that I always take it as fate) and I was morbidly curious. Let my clarify my ire: it’s not a childish tantrum over merely being lied to. It’s a sense of insult over not being trusted as a reader to objectively consider the facts and make my own conclusions. The entire project is specious; the book purports to be an intellectual inquiry between two opposing opinions, but in fact it is a secret tract. (And, yes, I consider it “secret” even though the true nature of the text is easy enough to find online because I do recognize that not every reader has my tendency to obsessively google every book immediately upon completion.) On one hand it is a dirty trick that suggests that D’Agata has more in common with his (unpleasant, asshattish) “persona” than he might like us to believe. But it also suggests that his argument is actually very weak, if he must employ such tactics to make it rather than let it stand on its own against participitatory reading and discussion; it seems like an attempt to shut down any opposition (“HAha, you liked that!? We made it up! My point is proven! Art trumps reality!”) before it’s given a chance to speak. I am actually a little surprised that the book has generated as much interesting commentary as it has. It probably does not deserve it.
Misgivings aplenty, I did read it. Fingal’s persona is fairly easy to sympathize with if just because D’Agata’s is so self-satisfied and condescending, but it’s pretty clear that the “gotcha” trap is located in his character: he’s painted as myopically obsessed with even the most trivial of facts, unable to shrug off small adjustments as probably-unimportant. I think that the expected reader-response is eye-rolling because, honestly, who cares if certain vans are pink or purple? They’re not dissimilar colors, and they both start with P, after all. (Though I don’t quite buy D’Agata’s stock response, that certain changes increase the aesthetic value of his sentences; he’s a strong enough writer but rarely blows me away on a sentence level.) This is a set-up for what D’Agata obviously hopes will be a recognition of a common bias applied towards fact in nonfiction, this idea that there’s a hierarchy of necessary truths, that some facts matter while others don’t. I found a confirmation for this in the NPR spotlight, where D’Agata says, “I don’t think it’s OK for us to say, ‘In your memoir about growing up and liking pie, it’s completely OK to alter the facts, but when you’re dealing with huge issues like suicide or nuclear waste or whatever, it’s not OK.’ I mean, the subject in this essay is amped up to get us to pay attention.” That’s his party line, and it’s a big part of what the meta-manipulation of his book is setting out to prove.
This crux is the thing I’ve thought about the most. Because I completely disagree. I do not think all facts are, indeed, equal in importance; there is a hierarchy of necessary fact in both nonfiction and certain kinds of fiction, and it’s an impossibly messy and subjective issue. I, for instance, was very bothered by his fabrication of details in the boy’s suicide, particularly the artistic tampering with the time it took for the fall. This is absolutely a subjective sensitivity of mine: my family, both sides, has been haunted by what seems to me like a higher than average tendency towards suicide for generations. It’s not for lack of trying that it is not the leading cause of death among us. It’s easy enough for me to imagine a story like this written about my cousin who died a little over a year ago and the thought is upsetting–and I have nowhere near the emotional trauma of her husband, son, or parents. D’Agata wants the emotional and social impact of the essay’s claim to truth without any of the practical considerations or interpersonally ethical ramifications. I am sure he’d consider it simpleminded of me for just feeling (but not being able to coherently explain at this point) why it seems horribly wrong to distort details of a stranger’s tragic death for the sake of a not-spectacular magazine “social problem” magazine article.
D’Agata’s faith in the higher purpose of art, in his sense of himself as a very serious artist speaking to a larger truth, justifies any changes he sees fit to make. I don’t agree, but I wonder: would I feel differently if his essay were better, or if my particular connection to his subject matter were less personal? It’s possible, which troubles me. I’ve never been interested in learning about factual inaccuracies in David Foster Wallace–the sheer delight and intelligence, the strength of that wonderful voice, is more than enough to compensate for any massaged facts. The thought disturbs me a bit, and I can’t get it out of my head; the issue probably just is a messy, subjective, case-by-case problem, but I wish I could come up with an ethics of nonfiction for myself. Because I am convinced that there are cases, many of them, where it would be wrong to distort facts–mostly to do with the intent of the work and whether or not it involves people who may not, for whatever reason, be able to speak for themselves. For clarification, I keep thinking of some of the nonfiction books that I often sell with my personal stamp of approval and fervid recommendation. I really don’t care whether Annie Dillard is 100% true to exact objective fact–it wouldn’t change the intent or impact of the book if she recounted an incorrect number of beavers at Tinker Creek so long as she captures something beautiful and abstractly true about her personal experience and about humans and nature in a more abstract sense. That’s a situation where D’Agata’s philosophy is absolutely apt. But I would be devastated–betrayed, perhaps–were I to discover any fact massaging in Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the chronicle of a tragic cultural clash over one child’s medical treatment; part of what makes that book so powerful is the balance that it strikes between human empathy and journalistic integrity. An author like Fadiman, or perhaps Rebecca Skloot, is writing for a greater truth than aesthetics or the communication of a personal experience–as, it seemed to me, D’Agata was in his original essay–and a faithfulness to fact can only increase the importance of such works. As Hannah Goldfield, a fact checker for the New Yorker, said on their blog, “The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of ‘Truth’ or a true ‘idea’—is preposterous. A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack. If I’ve learned one thing at this job, it’s that facts can be quite astonishing.”
I’m glad this is a discussion that’s taking place even if this particular spur is not particularly worthwhile. I look forward to reading more essays about the issue that are less driven by agenda than D’Agata’s offering. In addition to the ones I’ve already linked, here are some of the responses to his book that I particularly enjoyed: Lucas Man at The Rumpus; Lee Gutkind, a colleague of D’Agata’s as editor of nonfiction anthologies, at the LA Review of Books and Ander Monson at the same; Max Ross at Open Letters Monthly; and Matthew Cheney, who proposes the diabolocally perfect dream of a Werner Herzog documentary on Lifespan, at Strange Horizons.