- 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: 40 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #217,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Lifespan of a Fact 1st Edition
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“...[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
“Very a 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 fascinating and dramatic power struggle over the intriguing question of what nonfiction should, or can, be.”
- Lydia Davis
“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.
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The current book explores the factual basis of an article that appeared in The Believer, and tells one strand of the story that became About a Mountain. The book starts with a note from the editor. "I've got a fun assignment for somebody. We just received a new piece from John D'Agata that needs to be fact-checked, thoroughly. Apparently he's taken some liberties, which he's admitted to, but I want to know to what extent."
The remainder of the book consists of a sentence or two in the center of each page. In a double column arranged around the sentences Jim Fingal, the fact checker assigned to this article, lists each "fact" and whether it could be verified. Facts that he can verify are printed in black, with the source of his verification. Those that can not be substantiated are printed in red, with an explanation of the problem or question. For some of these red unsubstantiated "facts" D'Agata provides a response, which sometimes leads to a dialog, sometimes to a juvenile yelling match. "John: All right, that was a mistake. Jim: Score." "John: Wow, Jim, your p...s [Amazon required change] must be so much bigger than mine."
The point of this short book is that something can be true without being factual, or that something can be a fact without being verifiable. An essay or debate on this subject could be very interesting, but this book isn't. Mr. Fingal is a particularly neurotic fact-checker. If something is given as 3 to 5 he complains that the actual figure is 3.3 to 5, and then gives the citation for the correct number. And in the rare instance when the author actually has the factual information correct, we must wade through that verifying citation also. Utterly boring.
The only mildly thought-provoking sections are when the author's fact can not be verified, or is shown to be wrong, and John thoughtfully responds. Most of his responses are merely showing his annoyance at the fact-checker. So maybe 10% of the book contains even a grain of interest. And frankly, I found that 10% somewhat shocking (and the other 90% boring).
John (sorry for the familiarity, but the book is nothing but "John & Jim") makes it clear from the start that he isn't a journalist, and he therefore has no obligation to document what he writes. "This is an essay, so journalistic rules don't belong here." He feels it inhibits interviews to take notes or use a recorder, so Jim is unable to verify most statements allegedly made to John and quoted in the article. And when he is able to source the quotes, he often (usually) finds that the quotes are wrong. When John bothers to respond he explains the inaccuracy by saying his information fits better into the language, context, story of the article. "Jim: It would ruin it to make it more accurate? John: Yup." "John: Nope. 'At the base' is sharper-sounding and more precise. Jim: But it's inaccurate. How can it be more precise?" "John: I punched up his statement, but I think the basic gist is the same. Jim: 'Punched up'?"
At one point John attempts to instruct Jim on the finer points of the essay as developed over centuries, "established by writers who recognized a difference between the hard research of journalism and the kind inquiry of mind that characterizes the essay." I have no quibble with that distinction, but for the reader, there are many sign-posts to alert her to whether what is being read is intended to be factual, journalistic. If the reader is told of the method various groups tend to use to commit suicide, followed by the statement "and teens to cut themselves", this reads like a fact. It isn't. John made it up. If we are given the name and job title of an individual followed by a quote from that person, it is reasonable to expect that all of this is true. Nope. Often at least one isn't true, repeatedly all are made up.
Why tell me it cost a billion dollars, it took 9 seconds and was purple? Why layer thousands of "facts" into a story and then say that because you call it an essay there are no rules? So what makes it nonfiction is solely that you have experienced, researched certain events and are clear as to the inherent truth of the situation? And this inherent truth, though factually unverifiable and often wrong, gives you the license to simply make it all up, because you are an essayist?
"Jim: I mean, what exactly gives you the authority to introduce half-backed legend as fact and sidestep questions of facticity? John: It's called art, d...head [Amazon again]. Jim: That's your excuse for everything."
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.
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!
Most recent customer reviews
Without it, I would not have considered whether essayists need to tell the truth or bend it.Read more