Staff Pick: 'The Lifespan of a Fact'

In 2003, John D’Agata wrote an essay on suicides in Las Vegas. He threaded his themes—glitz, futility, and despair—through the story of sixteen-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from The Stratosphere Hotel in 2002. The essay is lilting and lyric. D’Agata is a master craftsman when it comes to images, using desertscapes and spinach dip, graffiti and children’s trophies, to imbue his prose with despondency.

But Harper’s, where the essay was supposed to appear, wouldn’t publish it: Too many factual inconsistencies. The Believer picked it up next, but wouldn’t run the essay until its intern, Jim Fingal, had combed through the text. Fingal was to mark every potential inaccuracy and discuss his concerns with D’Agata.

The result of this assignment is The Lifespan of a Fact, a cultivated rendering of the vicious back-and-forth between D’Agata and Fingal over how the essay should operate. Lifespan, published in 2012, is printed in bicolor: red ink for disputed claims, black for confirmed ones. Each page contains a blown-up paragraph from the edited essay. Surrounding it, in smaller font, are Fingal’s commentary and D’Agata’s responses to it: witty, exacting, and fierce, both sides occasionally sliding into pejoratives.

Fingal finds fault with almost every paragraph. D’Agata has changed names, numbers, and timelines, flipped cardinal directions, and invented scenes. Some of the revisions verge on the unethical. “This will become the de facto story of what happened to Levi,” Fingal criticizes, “and so every detail you choose...will become significant…suck it up and do the work to get it right.”

D’Agata fires back: artifice is what art is all about! So he changes the name of a nail salon to get his sentence rhythms right. What reader will know the difference, or care? Historically, the essay has been a form for experimentation, its subjective authority based on perception and storytelling rather than verifiable data. Expressing a felt “Truth about Las Vegas” (it is a sad place to live) is more important than cataloguing the precise details of a boy’s death. “I am seeking a truth here,” writes D’Agata, “not necessarily accuracy.”

For most, D’Agata’s argument fell flat. Almost all of the major reviews—The New York Times, The LA Review of Books, Slate, The New Yorker—declared Fingal the obvious victor, a champion for newsroom accuracy, protecting readers from being misled.

I read The Lifespan of a Fact for a research course in Columbia University’s Nonfiction MFA program. It was a quick, funny read, a nerdy pleasure for someone who loves the behind-the-scenes workings of writing.

For simplicity’s sake, I often tell family and friends that I’m getting a journalism degree. “Creative nonfiction” is hard to explain; it sounds frilly compared to hard-hitting news pegs. And yet, the “creative” part is something I believe in—that stories told aesthetically last longer, that beauty can illuminate truth (both nitty-gritty facts and D’Agata’s more spiritual definition).

Still, though I wish I could play devil’s advocate for D’Agata, his shtick didn’t work for me, either. It’s the job of the writer to make the facts sound good. If you need one beat instead of two, don’t swap pink for purple: choose salmon or fuschia.

That said, a Rumpus review of Lifespan, written by an Iowa MFA student, resonated with me. It argues that brushing D’Agata aside as a lazy liar doesn’t allow for engagement with Lifespan’s legitimate, fascinating question: how do “artists and researchers, and culture as a whole, contemplate and justify what truth means in nonfiction”?

In the wake of the election, Lifespan’s driving query assumes fresh urgency. In a world where "post-truth" is Oxford’s Word of the Year, a conundrum presents itself to us practitioners of “creative nonfiction”: how will we write about a Trump presidency? Will we continue to use our anecdotes, our senses and imaginations and memories? In terms of emotional poignancy and call-to-action efficacy, subjective narratives might go further than statistics. But are these methods too dangerous? Is dry, surgical reportage more important now than ever? The Lifespan of a Fact brings these questions to life. It is well worth a read as we enter 2017.

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Katherine Lucky is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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