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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely unique, and very good.
As usual, a negative reviewer is being disingenuous.

"los casas" is clearly a fan of John D'Agata (check out the comments to his review, where he recommends a D'Agata book) and because D'Agata comes off as a tool and liar in this book, los casas doesn't want you to read it.

In truth, Lifespan of a Fact is a wonderful, unique book. For anyone at all...
Published on February 29, 2012 by Bookety book

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading - eyeopening - thought-provoking
I've been in the writing business for 30 years and been fact checked, but never have had such an inside look at either how fact checkers proceed or how flimsy a hold on reality some other writers have. From that point of view, this unusual book is definitely worth reading.

D'Agata repeatedly claims that he is not writing "nonfiction" but rather an "essay."...
Published 22 months ago by Experienced seminar leader


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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely unique, and very good., February 29, 2012
By 
This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
As usual, a negative reviewer is being disingenuous.

"los casas" is clearly a fan of John D'Agata (check out the comments to his review, where he recommends a D'Agata book) and because D'Agata comes off as a tool and liar in this book, los casas doesn't want you to read it.

In truth, Lifespan of a Fact is a wonderful, unique book. For anyone at all interested in "non-fiction" and the material you read in feature articles, this is an astounding, warts-and-all look at how it happens. Jim Fingal does a yeoman's effort to get the story right and D'Agata seems to want to undermine him at every turn. Some of their exchanges are simply hilarious. Even the ones that are just troubling are instructive. D'Agata is a writer not to be trusted, and Fingal calls him out on it again and again.

But what is best about this book is that it is unlike almost anything else you'll read. I don't know how it was ever published, given how it portrays the sausage-make process of fact checking. But I'm very glad it was.

This book is absolutely one of a kind and ought to be required reading for anyone wanting to write nonfiction.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Contrived, Phony, Pretentious, & Wildly Entertaining, March 8, 2012
This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
The pre-publication hype about Lifespan of a Fact prepared me for a smackdown between the heroic fact-checker demanding truth and the artist who values his creative process above mere facts.

Who doesn't value truth, especially in nonfiction? But once I began reading the book, it didn't take long to start seeing essayist D'Agata's side of the story.

It also didn't take too long to start to suspect that the entire book was a set-up.

Co-author Jim Fingal introduces himself as an intern for the magazine that D'Agata has submitted an article to. He has been assigned to fact check the article and takes issue with the first few lines of the essay and D'Agata responds (it is ostensibly an e-mail correspondence) that he doesn't think a fact checker is necessary for his type of writing. Fingal checks with the editor (who remains unnamed) who seems exasperated with Fingal and tells Fingal to correspond with D'Agata directly. The rest of the dialogue is therefore between a supposedly young, inexperienced fact checker and the established writer.

Fingal picks at the essay word by word, and the fact checking quickly becomes a parody, an outrageous exaggeration. At one point, he even fact checks his own comments. He's also oddly sarcastic for an intern who claims to be new at his job. We are also to believe that he didn't read the entire article before he started fact-checking it. Once you read to the end of the article, some of what seem discrepancies are explained. I wondered why D'Agata continued to respond to him after Fingal became excruciatingly nitpicky and snarky. Or why D'Agata didn't contact the editor directly.

But they do continue the exchange, which we are told lasted seven years. For a hundred strangely-formatted pages, the two go back and forth, getting nowhere, at times resorting to playground retorts. "It's called art, [duckhead]." Near the end of the book, the two get into a lengthy conversation about the nature of art and truth. Then they return to slogging it out detail by detail, fact by fact, to the end of the article and the book.

It seems this entire so-called correspondence is another of D'Agata's fictions. It smacks of college dorm conversations about Philosophy 101. It's clever and entertaining, but ultimately, contrived and pretentious. Yes, we get it -- at what point does Truth become Truthiness? When is a Fact an Opinion? Acknowledging the slipperiness of some facts doesn't absolve the writer of either trying to be truthful when writing nonfiction, or at least giving his audience a warning that he intends to create Art or some Greater Truth rather than just the facts.

A few years ago I enjoyed D'Agata's About a Mountain, the book that grew out of the article in question. But I thought I was learning something when I read it, about Yucca Mountain and about nuclear waste and imploding Vegas casinos and the Nevada water supply. I was foolish enough to believe the "facts" set out in the book. Turns out I was being improved with Art and Greater Truths. Oops.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking...readers should have been in on the gag, but that is the gag, March 31, 2012
This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
There are two ways to review this book: at face value, taking the book at its word; or once you know the entire backstory.

The book has an unconventional structure, with John D'Agata's essay on the page, surrounded by his "conversation" with fact-checker Jim Fingal. Read the essay from start-to-finish first.

Then, once you read the conversation, you will see the factual 'errors' throughout the essay, about a teenager who died after jumping off the Las Vegas Stratosphere tower. These errors would not have jumped out to you before. D'Agata's original narrative is full of detail, description, interviews and quotes, so it seems completely accurate and credible.

In fact, as Fingal discovers, D'Agata has taken numerous liberties with the facts - changing "pink" to "purple" because he wanted the extra "beat" that purple provides. Or by "punching up" various quotes. D'Agata doesn't explicitly change the factual meaning, but he mixes, matches and changes to serve his literary purposes.

Fingal, apparently offended, does yeoman's work to break down every inaccuracy no matter how seemingly insignificant. So if D'Agata says "he walked on a red brick driveway," Fingal checks and says, "the driveway was brown."

At first, a reader might be taken aback by these factual liberties - after all, the original essay was considered nonfiction.

But, D'Agata's position (I wouldn't call it a defense, because he doesn't accept the opposing argument) is that as an 'essayist' he owes the reader an artistic experience, not 100 percent factual accuracy. That his job is to the story, not as a journalist, and that "nonfiction" as a category is a fairly new concept, while "essays" (defined as "an attempt") have been around for hundreds of years.

At that point, his choices become more interesting - the extra syllable in "purple" does help how the narrative sounds on the page. The quotes he changes do read more interestingly. Does it matter that they are not 100 percent true? Isn't the story still being told?

Fingal's fact-checks often seem overblown as well - he will say something should have been "3.5 instead of 3," or that various driving directions are somewhat unlikely. He's right - but what does it matter? His reliance on 100 percent accuracy begins to seem absurd, especially when his wordy or clunky suggestions are compared to D'Agata's sparer prose.

I think the book does what the authors wanted - it raises questions about "nonfiction" and "accuracy" and "art." At first, I was fairly offended by D'Agata's fictional choices, but as I kept reading I began to see the value of what he was doing, and began to tire of Fingal's nitpicking on every specific detail (which is Fingal's point, though).

D'Agata makes a clear distinction between what he's doing and newspaper journalism - where he would also demand reliance on the facts. It's only this creative essay art form, that he thinks liberties are allowed - and necessary.

Then, there's the second way to look at the book...

It's presented as an organic dialogue between the two writers, but much of it was recreated or deliberately written for this book. So the book's entire conceit is a fictional construct. The sometimes aggressive give-and-take between D'Agata and Fingal is not a true dialogue (I have to say I suspected this early on, and when I researched it more, my suspicions were confirmed - I wish I'd read the whole book before doing that. Sorry for the spoiler!).

This is no problem as far as D'Agata goes - it fits perfectly into his artistic expression. But it makes Fingal a hypocrite, because it renders his entire factual defense as a moot point.

That's all very well and good - the conversation is still interesting, but it would have been better if they'd tipped their hand at least a little, to let the reader in on the gag....but that IS the gag, obviously. I began the book questioning D'Agata, but now it's Fingal who I have less regard for.

But...that aside, this is an interesting and thought-provoking book. This raises a lot of questions about ESSAYS versus NONFICTION and what is what. No one could ever excuse a reporter making up or changing facts - but by D'Agata's "essayist as artist" example, an essayist owes the reader a good story, and good artistic experience - period.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Honest, Brave & Absolutely Hilarious, October 16, 2012
This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
I think it'd be hard to read this and not find it absolutely hilarious. I was actually prepared to hate the book after reading all the comments on it, but just a few pages in I found myself laughing out loud (really out loud, not text-messaging out loud!) and suddenly realized that the book was legitimately funny. It's also beautifully designed-unlike anything else you've probably read!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprising Thing about Truth, March 2, 2013
This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
I don't tend to believe that altering facts for the sake of narrative beauty is a good idea in nonfiction or even any genre, but I find myself forced to admit that The Lifespan of a Fact is, amazingly, a fascinating work, even to those with little sympathy for the author's case. When I first heard about this project, I couldn't see what D'Agata was hoping to gain from its publication, since he could only come off badly (as he has, unfailingly, in almost every review). In reality, however, the book is far more interesting than the insidery debate that its back cover promises, and D'Agata has some surprising tricks up his sleeve.

It's true that D'Agata's original essay, which centers on the suicide of a teenager named Levi Presley, who jumped from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas on July 13, 2002, has a lot of problems. While the essay is expertly crafted, its familiar beats--the lists of curious information, the eye for incongruous detail--are artfully arranged to cover up the fact that the author doesn't have much to say about Levi's death. Yet the book that D'Agata has constructed around it is exactly what the essay tried and failed to be: a hybrid form, a centaur, that challenges and rewards the attentive reader. And the differences here are revealing. The original article was disguised as a piece of journalism, but the book comes to us explicitly as something new: its ambitions are visible at a glance, and it clearly lays out its own rules and constraints, even as it quietly undermines them.

The first twist is that Fingal, the factchecker, who has generally been portrayed as a calm voice of reason, often comes off as equally unhinged. Fingal's notes, along with D'Agata's responses, are printed in Talmudic fashion around the text of the original essay, and even early on, many of the concerns raised by Fingal (over whether the mountains around Las Vegas are "brownish" rather than "black," for instance) are manifestly unreasonable. When he expresses doubt over whether or not D'Agata's mother really owns a cat, it's hard not to sympathize with the author's response: "Tread very carefully, ***hole." And even if one thinks that Fingal is simply doing his job, it's hard to square this with the book's extraordinary closing section, in which Fingal questions the accuracy of the coroner's report, of news accounts, and even of the testimony of Levi's own parents. In the end, he's factchecking the world itself, which can only lead to madness.

Which leads to an even greater surprise, which is that while the book sheds predictably little light on the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, it's curiously moving on the subject of Levi Presley's suicide. Levi is a shadowy figure in the original article, but he's there, unforgettably, in the notes, which obsessively unpack the few known details of his short, sad life. (The notes have also been carefully restructured to unfold in parallel to the essay, so that the most heated exchange on the nature of nonfiction coincides perfectly with the article's climax, as the subject heads inexorably to his own death.) Near the end, when the density of the commentary crowds all but a line or two of the essay off the page, the effect is to hasten Levi helplessly toward his destruction. Finally, the notes spill past the text altogether, leaving a gap in the center, a hole in the world caused by Levi's absence. The result is an inspired, affecting work of art. And as hard as that is to believe, it's true.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading - eyeopening - thought-provoking, October 11, 2012
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This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
I've been in the writing business for 30 years and been fact checked, but never have had such an inside look at either how fact checkers proceed or how flimsy a hold on reality some other writers have. From that point of view, this unusual book is definitely worth reading.

D'Agata repeatedly claims that he is not writing "nonfiction" but rather an "essay." The problem with this claim arises because the content of his piece, full of specific details, begs to be taken as truthful, except for a few spots where even the dedicated fact checker throws in the towel.

I have heard of people dropping details to keep a story line going without distractions, and I do believe there's a good rationale for that in a personal essay. However, I have never heard another writer claim that they have the right to change a detail so the words will have the right cadence. In this type of writing about other people and historical events, that is simply wrong.

Aspiring writers will, I hope, take away the lesson that D'Agata is sloppy and egotistical, putting his own desire to be admired as a writer above fidelity to the truth. Readers deserve more!
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fact? Fiction? Who Cares?, February 21, 2012
By 
Anastasia Beaverhausen (Where the Beavers Live) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
"The Lifespan of a Fact" is an amazing, absorbing document that covers years of correspondence between author John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, the fact checker assigned to his story, "What Happens There."

D'Agata considers himself an essayist, and not a journalist, and resents Fingal's editorial meddling with his "art" (a story about a boy's suicide in Las Vegas and the way suicides are brushed under the rug in the City of Sin). Both D'Agata and Fingal make good, reasoned points in their various defenses of their stances on "truth." Their email correspondence is frequently tense, and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious. Sometimes, I sided with D'Agata; other times, I found myself agreeing with Fingal. And sometimes I just shook my head at both of them!

"The Lifespan of a Fact" is an intense, prolonged battle of the wits that should give readers much to think about, with regards to just what "nonfiction" means. In fact, if you go far enough down the rabbit hole, you may begin to wonder, as I did, how much of the supposed verbatim correspondence in "The Lifespan of a Fact" was also altered....

SIDE NOTE: It would have been nice to have the text of the final article included (it's available only in print in the January 2010 issue of "The Believer," and is not available online to my knowledge).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Just the Fact-checking?, June 25, 2012
By 
L33tminion (Somerville, MA, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
This book is an essay, a Socratic dialogue on what sort of relationship a "nonfiction" essayist should have with the "just the facts" truth, disguised as a verbatim recounting of a dialogue between such an essayist and his fact-checker. As such, the book ends up being somewhat constrained by its form. The line-by-line nature of the fact-checking makes the early part of the book quite slow, it's easy to get frustrated with Jim's nitpicking or John's seemingly-puerile refusal to consider that he might have any sort of journalistic obligation due to the way his essays are presented (even though, as John points out, the way his essays are presented (including the "nonfiction" label) is not entirely his choice).

Still, I think the pacing, though unpleasant to the reader at times, does strengthen the overall artistic and rhetorical power of the piece. And the ending is amazing!

Well worth a read, especially for those interested in the craft of writing or nonfiction essays in general.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Facts, lies and non-fiction writing., January 1, 2014
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This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
John D'Agata wrote a nonfiction story on the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager named Levi Presley. Following standard journalistic procedures, the magazine who had commissioned the story turned it over to a fact-checker named Jim Fingal.

Fingal fact-checked the piece to an inch of its life. Fingal's dedication is truly breathtaking, and close to borderline obsessive-compulsive. Fingal checked every statement made in the essay from the color of the carpets in the hotel from which Levi jumped to the time that it would have taken Levi to fall.

Where Fingal stands for the "fact" in non-fiction, D'Agata stands for art of non-fiction. D'Agata wants to engage the reader, keep the reader's interest, and, well, create art. So, were there "white palls of dust" swirling through the Las Vegas streets on the day that Levi died? It makes for a nice image, but Fingal's fact checking turns out that the weather records show only a "gentle breeze" that day. Fingal's response was that "it makes for drama." (p. 24.)

This is the story of the interaction between D'Agata and Fingal. The layout of the book fits the back and forth and forth style of the argument between the two. The text of D'Agata's essay is printed in the center of the page with Fingal and D'Agata's debate presented in a "gloss" format around the main text.

If you like debate, and/or the back and forth of a intellect and wit, the book makes a great vehicle for dipping into. It is like eavesdropping on a clever, non-obscene, intelligent facebook argument that you have absolutely no stake in. Since I like that kind of thing, I found the book entertaining.

The interest of the book is not really in the particular topics being argued about. A reader who expects to sit down and read this book from beginning to end will be lost and disappointed. Rather the book is ultimately a "meta" argument about how important facts are to a non-fiction story. Is it only the core facts that matter or is a non-fiction story or must a non-fiction story be entirely non-fiction?

I tend to think of myself as a fact absolutist, but this essay made me pause. Does it matter that there may not have been "swirling palls of dust" in the street? It does make for a better image and memorable. On the other hand, if I'd been there and remembered the day, I might be tempted to disbelieve the whole thing based on the inaccuracy with respect to small things.

Ultimately, the relationship between Fingal and D'Agata seemed to become a matter of personality. Fingal clearly felt that D'Agata's repeated excuse about not taking notes, or other apparent dodges, were simply a way of covering up the fact that he was "making s*** up." D'Agata, for his part, clearly felt that Fingal had gone over the edge into a condition better treated with drugs. Nonetheless, the discussion remained cordial....sharp but cordial.

This is a fascinating book that forces one to think about facts, truth and the "art" of non-fiction writing.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You're wrong and I'm right., May 30, 2012
By 
Scram J (Oakland, CA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Lifespan of a Fact (Paperback)
This could be the best testy email exchanges ever committed to bound paper. There's something Nabokovian to the twisting of truth as revealed by footnotes.
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The Lifespan of a Fact
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata (Paperback - February 27, 2012)
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