on John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact.Blackboard courtesy of Nieman Journalism Lab
A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard
John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
The Lifespan of a Fact
W.W. Norton & Company, February 2012. 128 pp.
A writer colleague, referring to a document she had written, confessed: “I totally D’Agata’d this.” I couldn’t help laughing. But her comment was unsettling because she meant that she had fudged her story, made some of it up. And I suspected that the man behind the reference, John D’Agata, co-author of the book The Lifespan of a Fact, would be pleased.
The book’s backstory begins in 2003: D’Agata had written an essay on assignment for Harper’s Magazine about a teenager who committed suicide in Las Vegas. Harper’s rejected the essay because of factual inaccuracies, so D’Agata re-sold it to another magazine, The Believer. Jim Fingal, the co-author of the book, then a 23-year-old intern, was given the opportunity to fact-check the article, and a pack of red pens to help in the effort. He probably used the entire pack — to little effect.
The necessity of fact-checking nonfiction has been discussed and disputed off and on in the publishing world over the past 40 years, usually in the wake of discoveries of inaccuracies or outright deceptions. Clifford Irving, named “Con Man of the Year” by Time Magazine in 1972, sold a fake biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes and spent more than a year in prison for fraud. Six years before the flurry of discussion that has greeted The Lifespan of a Fact, there was the great debate — and much finger-pointing — following revelations that James Frey, author of the best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces, had exaggerated or simply made up information about his traumatic life. In 2008, Margaret B. Jones’s lauded memoir, Love and Consequences, the saga of her biracial gangbanging girlhood in the 1980s in South Central Los Angeles was revealed as pure fiction and “Margaret B. Jones” to be a pseudonym for a white middle-class woman from Sherman Oaks, Margaret Seltzer. The book was trashed by Riverhead, its publisher.
And yet, remember how the US Senator James Inhofe called Michael Crichton in to testify as an expert on climate change based on his NOVEL A State of Fear? I’m not defending D’Agata. My humble opinion on this matter is that it’s simple ass-hattery. But I will re-emphasize how disturbing it is when powerful people choose to “believe” whatever facts they feel like.
Our culture’s, and perhaps especially our politics’, relationship to fact is screwed up. Incredibly screwed up.
Maybe D’Agata is just a self-conscious product of all that.
It all sucks. I think. The culture of anti-intellectualism, and his work as product thereof.
What I wonder is, is he mad about all this controversy? What the hell is he thinking…