Imagine if the kind of documentary films that avow a complex relationship to the truth were fact-checked. Imagine if F For Fake or My Winnipeg had to square the poetic truth they achieve with factual accuracy, with pop-up bubbles noting any potential inexactitudes or disputes. It’d be a ludicrous, absurd project. And it’d miss the point. But it happens all the time in print. Non-fiction writers who aren’t, strictly speaking, journalists—essayists, memoirists, New Journalists, etc.—are habitually subjected to the rigors of fact-checking, asked to verify that their impressions of a given subject can be somehow substantiated. Monotonous as it may seem, the process is necessary. And often cruel.
This process forms the core of The Lifespan Of A Fact, a 123-page annotated essay co-written by “John D’Agata, author,” and “Jim Fingal, fact checker.” Harper’s rejected the original essay, D’Agata’s “What Happens There,” due to factual discrepancies. D’Agata later took the piece—a colorful exploration of despair in Las Vegas, orbiting around the suicide of a 16-year-old resident—to The Believer, where it was subjected to the severities of Fingal’s meticulous check. The final book covers their correspondence concerning the piece.
Fingal begins cordially enough, with the kind of halfway-sycophantic pleasantries that tend to define the fact-checker/writer rapport. (He even throws in some smiley-face emoticons for good measure.) But D’Agata’s resistance—“The ‘article,’ as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker”—sees Fingal pushing back even harder. Before long, civility curdles into antagonism, mockery, and outright disdain.
The positions of both men seem simple enough. D’Agata thinks that, as a non-fiction writer (he prefers the term “essayist”), he has the artistic license to dress up a few (or many) facts in order to give what he believes to be an accurate sense of character and environment, to drive at all those deeper truths. At first, Fingal’s intentions seem just as plain—he’s a fact-checker, and his job is to check the piece, regardless of the author’s protestations of “poetry.” But an ideological schism forms between the two, with Fingal expressing the belief that D’Agata is pulling off a fundamental disservice to his readers. If you’re going to fudge, or flat-out fake, the details, why call the results something other than fiction? Doesn’t the author have a duty to the historical record, especially with a piece that might be establishing that record? Well, maybe.
Lifespan Of A Fact might seem slight or gimmicky. After all, who would want to read something as ostensibly boring as an e-mail exchange between a writer (sorry, essayist) and his fact-checker? But like the best writing (fiction or non), Lifespan Of A Fact guns for the bigger questions, offering no easy answers. What starts as lively (and extremely funny) banter between two stubborn men develops into a dynamic dialogue about the nature of writing, art, and the distinction between “truth” and “accuracy.” More than anything, the book pushes readers to consider not just the possibilities of art, but also its boundaries. It’s as concerned with what we can get away with as whether we should.