The truth is often ugly, and not in a profound way. It suffers from a thousand minor blemishes: people mumble and speak in non sequiturs, events don’t fit into a neat narrative, minor details raise more questions than they answer. The truth is “messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd,” wrote Janet Malcolm in The Crime of Sheila McGough, later comparing accurate narratives to a shapeless housecoat. “The truth does not make a good story; that’s why we have art.”
Journalists are allowed a certain amount of leeway in cleaning up quotations, but reasonable people can disagree about just how much. Taking out the uhhs and umms is one thing, but what about correcting grammar, or editing a rambling speech to make it pithier? Malcolm, of course, was sued for and acquitted of libel after combining quotations made months apart and changing the setting in which they were said.
Essayist John D’Agata goes further than any journalist would be comfortable with. He not only combines quotations, he combines the people who said them to form composite characters. He doesn’t just compress the chronology of his research, he changes the dates of events to heighten the drama of his story. But then D’Agata insists he’s not a journalist, not even a nonfiction writer. He’s an essayist, a distinct genre that he says historically has a looser relationship to facts. The problem is that no one else recognizes this category. For many, an essay or report or article are interchangeable; if it isn’t labeled “fiction,” readers assume it’s telling the truth.
More pressingly for D’Agata, no matter how much he rails against naive readers who feel deceived by James Frey, his work still has to pass through the fact-checking department. This, the new book The Lifespan of a Fact makes clear, can be an epic trial. The book consists of the increasingly heated exchange between D’Agata and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, as he tries to verify the accuracy of D’Agata’s essay about a teen who leaped to his death in Las Vegas. Fingal diligently points out inaccuracies, both large—such as the boy’s time of death—and small—whether the hills outside Vegas at a certain time of day are brown or orange. D’Agata bats down both types of objection, insisting that facts can be fudged for the sake of aesthetic beauty and higher truth. Or in D’Agata’s words, “I am seeking a truth here, but not necessarily accuracy.” Also: “It’s called art, dickhead.”
D’Agata has argued this point elsewhere, everywhere. In the introduction to the anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, he describes the book as “the beginning of an alternative to nonfiction, the beginning of a form that’s not propelled by information, but one compelled instead by individual expression—by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt.” He wants to discard the term “nonfiction” entirely, which he says became too strongly associated with journalism in the 1950s and with that genre’s demands for factual accuracy. Instead, he proposes “essay,” harking back to Montaigne’s “essai,” meaning “an attempt, a trial, a testing.” The essay’s purpose, D’Agata says, is to “track the development of consciousness on the page,” and toward that end statistics can be tweaked, dates changed, quotations altered.
It is, to say the least, a controversial view. The furor that ensues when fiction is discovered in an ostensibly nonfictional work is arguably greater than that which results from plagiarism. There are lawsuits, 60 Minutes exposés, public apologies, further lawsuits—class-action ones—and disgrace. If the operative word with plagiarism is theft, a legal term, in these cases it’s the more moral betrayal.
“We absolutely re-created an argument that didn’t really take place the way it’s described,” says D’Agata.
The tortured path of D’Agata’s essay is itself an example of how gingerly such genre flouting is handled. In 2003, Harper’s rejected D’Agata’s essay about a suicide in Las Vegas because of its factual inaccuracies. D’Agata later integrated that essay into his excellent book on the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository, About a Mountain. Despite the fact that D’Agata attached copious endnotes to About a Mountain describing his changes, he was condemned in The New York Times for altering the date of the boy’s suicide. The original essay passed to The Believer, and the job of checking it fell to Jim Fingal, an intern. Their correspondence became The Lifespan of a Fact, the third incarnation of the essay. A fourth incarnation, an excerpt of Lifespan, eventually made its way back into the pages of Harper’s, almost nine years after the original essay was rejected, with the disclaimer that it was “based on” the fact-checking process.
That disclaimer was necessary because Lifespan is not Fingal and D’Agata’s actual correspondence. Far from it. “We absolutely re-created an argument that didn’t really take place the way it’s described,” says D’Agata.
The book’s jacket says that what “resulted” from Fingal’s assignment was “seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions.” That’s technically true, but most of those arguments, negotiations, and revisions surrounded writing Lifespan, not checking the original essay. Fingal spent a year checking the essay, and when he finished, D’Agata proposed turning it into a book. The two worked off their memories, and Fingal’s 100-some pages of notes to reconstruct and embellish their arguments. “The piece itself is similar to John’s essays in that it’s based on exchanges that actually happened but streamlines and embellishes a bit to get at the core of what is being expressed,” says Fingal.
Fingal says D’Agata never called him a dickhead. D’Agata agrees, but he says the trash talk may get at an emotional truth. “Jim says I was never really a jerk to him, but I recall being a gigantic asshole.” In a similar vein, the two writers debated the nature of truth and art during the checking process, but not to the heady extent portrayed in Lifespan. “That discussion isn’t made up out of whole cloth,” says Fingal. “It’s a discussion that composing the book allowed us to have together.”
The idea that a book about fact-checking would itself be heavily embellished is of course ironic, but it gets at a recurrent element of D’Agata’s work, and another justification for his unorthodox approach. He’s drawn to cases where knowledge runs up against its limits, and his treatment of facts mirrors his subject matter. Suicide forces those left behind to question how well they can know another person. It’s this aspect of suicide that connects the boy’s death to Yucca in About a Mountain: D’Agata says that what drew him to the waste site was the idea that the government could gather more information about a single place than had ever been gathered about a single place in the history of civilization, and yet still fail to know anything with certainty. “Given these subjects it was not just OK but necessary to start taking these liberties,” says D’Agata. “I felt the subjects themselves were betraying a sort of unverifiability.”
David Shields, another writer who argues for more factual leeway in essays, makes a similar point. For him, “a crucial part of the work is to create existential doubt, intellectual vertigo.” If the essay’s purpose is to create doubt, rather than convey information, he says, then the author shouldn’t be held to the same standard as journalists. “I love the Graham Greene line that goes, "When we are not sure, we are alive," says Shields. “The work of serious essay is seriously devoted to this idea.”
But for both D’Agata and Shields the argument is more general. All essayists should be allowed such freedom. Shields cites many of the same writers as D’Agata: Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Thoreau. “The way the mind thinks, the way memory works, the way composition works, can we please abandon the childish notion that this is somehow verifiably true?” asks Shields. “It’s an act of the imagination, of art, and we need to reframe the essay as art, not as a kind of journalism, which causes so many works to get vetted as if they were an article in the paper when that’s not where their value lies.”
If D’Agata and Shields come across as strident, somewhat polemical, it’s because they’re fighting against a strong, if recent, tradition. Time magazine started fact-checking in the early 1920s, The New Yorker a few years later. By the 1950s and '60s, says Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, fact-checking became a mark of running a serious publication, in the U.S., if not elsewhere. Today, most of the magazines where essayists would hope to publish their work adhere to a strict division between fiction and nonfiction. If fact-checking departments have been cut recently, it’s for budgetary reasons rather than philosophical ones.
Where D’Agata argues for “streamlining” clunky details for the sake of a smooth reading experience, Silverman responds that errors launch readers out of the narrative. “I think it underestimates the knowledge range of his readers,” he says. “When he’s fudging something, someone will notice.” Where D’Agata argues that doubt and uncertainty are more-accurate representations of human experience, Peter Canby, head of The New Yorker’s fact-checking department, says factual rigor keeps writers engaged with reality. “I just think facts are much more interesting than the inside of a writer's head,” he says. “What I think is interesting is the interaction of someone’s imagination and prejudices with the word around them.”
Lifespan ends poignantly. Fingal checks the essay to its tragic end, but there he encounters discrepancies in ostensibly reliable sources—the testimony of the boy’s parents, the timestamp on the security camera, the coroner’s report—and is driven to ask whether establishing the boy’s precise time of death, even if it were possible, really matters. “I’d have done my job, but wouldn’t he still be dead?”
In real life, Fingal refuses to say D’Agata won the argument completely. “I came to appreciate John’s audacity in trying to reshape the way the world understands a genre,” says Fingal. But he worries about readers who come to one of his essays not knowing that it’s an “essay,” a genre that historically has a looser relationship to facts than the contemporary definition would have it. “I’m all for writers crossing genre lines,” hedges Fingal, “but it seems it’s a gray line.” D’Agata, for his part, says he’s no longer as radical as he appears in the book. Fittingly, the murky reality of their argument was hidden in order to highlight the more profound intractability of their disagreement.