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The Lifespan of a Fact Paperback – February 27, 2012

3.7 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“...[H]ere is the genius of this little book, for as it progresses, D'Agata and Fingal turn everything around on us, until even our most basic assumptions are left unclear. Who says writers owe readers anything? Or that genre, such as it is, is a valid lens through which to consider literary work? ...[T]he book is "an enactment of the experience of trying to find meaning"― a vivid and reflective meditation on the nature of nonfiction as literary art.” (David L. Ulin - L.A. Times)

“A fascinating and dramatic power struggle over the intriguing question of what nonfiction should, or can, be.” (Lydia Davis)

“Very à propos in our era of spruced-up autobiography and fabricated reporting, this is a whip-smart, mordantly funny, thought-provoking rumination on journalistic responsibility and literary license.” (Publishers Weekly)

“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.” (Maggie Nelson)

...The Lifespan of a Fact... is less a book than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants, over questions of truth, belief, history, myth, memory and forgetting.” (Jennifer McDonald - New York Times Book Review)

“A riveting essay delving into the arcane yet entertaining debate within the writing community over the relationship between truth and accuracy when writing creative nonfiction....” (Kirkus Reviews)

“...Thus begins the alternately absorbing and infuriating exercise that is the book The Lifespan of a Fact, a Talmudically arranged account of the conflict between Jim Fingal, zealous checker, and John D’Agata, nonfiction fabulist, which began in 2005 and resulted in this collaboration.” (Gideon Lewis-Kraus - New York Times Magazine)

“If you like compelling, emotional stories set in wild, business-friendly locales, this book delivers.” (Daniel Roberts - Fortune Magazine)

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.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (February 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393340732
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393340730
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,863 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: 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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Format: 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.
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Format: 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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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