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Cool Story, Bro: The Provocations of John D’Agata

By posted at 12:00 pm on March 27, 2012 9

cover Towards the end of The Lifespan of a Fact, a book which presents itself as the transcript of a long-running email exchange over the fact-checking of an essay for The Believer, Jim Fingal (the checker) asks John D’Agata (the checked) what exactly he thinks gives him the authority to introduce falsehoods into a work of non-fiction. D’Agata’s reply – “It’s called art, dickhead” – doesn’t represent him at his most thoughtful or eloquent, but it does roughly capture the spirit of his cultural enterprise. For some time now, D’Agata has been making the case for literary non-fiction’s claim to an artistic status equal to that of the novel or poetry, and for recognizing the right of essayists and memoirists to manipulate and distort the truth as the needs of their work demand. Reading this, in other words, you can’t help thinking that it’s not just Fingal he’s calling a dickhead for his inability to accept that literary non-fiction isn’t the same thing as journalism. John D’Agata, you suspect, is calling us all dickheads.

Certainly, by the time I got to this point in the book, I was identifying so strongly with Fingal that D’Agata might as well have been talking directly to me. From the outset, the young Believer intern has been getting a startling amount of flack for merely doing his job (although “merely” is probably a misleading adverb here, given the monomaniacal focus and intensity with which he carries out the fact-checking process). D’Agata’s essay, an oblique and stylized work of reportage about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager named Levi Presley, has already been rejected for factual inaccuracies by the editor at Harper’s who commissioned it, and so when it arrives on Fingal’s desk at The Believer, it comes with a health warning, albeit one that’s far too mild.

Fingal’s first email to D’Agata queries a claim in the essay’s opening sentence about the number of licensed strip clubs in Vegas. The essay says thirty-four, whereas the notes D’Agata has passed on to the magazine say thirty-one (as do a number of more reliable sources). D’Agata’s tone is peevish, defensive, and condescending from the beginning.

Hi, Jim, I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the “article,” as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker; at least that was my understanding with the editor I’ve been working with. I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful.

When Fingal gently presses him on where he got the number thirty-four from, D’Agata’s answer sets the tone for the rest of the exchange: “Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ so I changed it.” With admirable restraint, Fingal thanks D’Agata for his time and mentions that he’ll “probably be checking back with you later on.” This is a technically accurate prediction, if one that is marked by a significant degree of understatement: the battle of fact-checking attrition that followed, we are told, would last longer than the Second World War. (The jacket copy maintains that the exchange lasted seven years, but, as with a good deal else about this book, we’d be well advised to treat that claim with circumspection.)

The Lifespan of a Fact dramatizes a clash of sensibilities – a conflict between an aesthete for whom the rhythm of a number is more important than its accuracy and an empiricist for whom facts are, whether we like it or not, facts. A lot of D’Agata’s adjustments to the actual do seem, in themselves, fairly harmless. For much of the book, the conflict between the checker and the checked reads as a conflict between two equal and opposite forces of fastidiousness: fastidiousness about fact, and fastidiousness about art. When D’Agata mentions a “small idle fleet of purple dog-grooming vans,” Fingal pulls him up on the color, pointing out that, in the notes he has provided, the vans are identified as pink. D’Agata’s rationale for the change is, again, purely aesthetic: “I needed the two beats in ‘purple,’ so I changed the color. Again I don’t think it’s that big a deal.” There’s a sense in which he’s right, of course; who cares whether the vans were pink or purple? D’Agata continually accuses Fingal of being excessively fussy, and he’s undoubtedly got a point – even though excessive fussiness is the exact failing you would want in a fact-checker.

But he himself is guilty of a more insidious form of fussiness. If a writer sees a pink van and changes it to purple because he “needs” an extra beat in the sentence, is that something we should forgive, or admire? And what else is he likely to need that things as they are fail to provide for him? (Quite a lot, as it turns out.) It’s not the unreliability itself that’s troubling about this so much as what lies behind it: an aesthetic over-scrupulousness, amounting to a dissatisfaction with the awkward dimensions of reality. Okay, sure: it’s called art. I get it. But I also can’t help thinking of James Joyce who, when he was writing what was arguably the 20th Century’s greatest work of literature, tormented his brother Stanislaus with letters from wherever he happened to be in continental Europe, requesting that he measure, say, the precise amount of time it took to get from Sandymount Strand to the National Library on foot. Joyce’s unwillingness to compromise in his fidelity to reality was his way of refusing to compromise his art. (It’s grossly unfair, of course, to compare any writer to Joyce, but if a guy was ever asking for it, it’s John D’Agata.)

Van paint jobs and strip club statistics are one thing; the facts about a teenage boy’s suicide are another, and there’s something unsettling – even slightly creepy – about the way in which D’Agata insists on changing details about Levi Presley’s death. The coroner’s report, for instance, states that when Presley threw himself off the top of the Stratosphere Hotel, he fell for a total of eight seconds before hitting the concrete below. D’Agata increases this to nine seconds, because his lyric mysticism requires him to have the number nine running through the essay. And the problem here, of course, is one that we wouldn’t be faced with if this were a work of fiction: a writer changing the facts of a real tragedy because those facts, with their awkward shapes, don’t fit snugly into his aesthetic framework. Which is to say that we’re teetering on the edge of an extremely slippery slope, with a very heavy burden in our arms, and it’s a long way to the bottom. If D’Agata were to write a lyric essay about, let’s say, Auschwitz, would he claim the right to change “Zyklon B” to “Zyklon W” because he needed those extra two beats in a sentence? (I’m well aware that if bringing Joyce into this is unfair, bringing the Holocaust in is unforgivable. But I also think this is the kind of conversation D’Agata wants us to have. So if we’re going to talk, let’s talk.)

cover John D’Agata is a gifted writer. About a Mountain, the book that evolved out of the essay for The Believer, is an object lesson in the possibilities of its genre, and a proof of D’Agata’s own claim that literary non-fiction is as much an art form as poetry or fiction. He occasionally errs on the side of grandiosity, but there’s no doubt that the book is a strange and moving piece of work. A good deal of its power, though, is the result of what might be referred to as a poetry of fact. He fills his work with striking figures and startling fragments of information, building an imposing, stylized structure of significance out of the particular. Despite D’Agata’s claims to the contrary, the work in general loses a non-trivial amount of its power when the reader is given cause to disbelieve these specifics. I haven’t re-read About a Mountain since finishing The Lifespan of a Fact, but I suspect that it might be a different experience, and a diminished one. The poetry of fact is inevitably less poetic when the facts turn out to be counterfeit.

There’s a tightly compressed irony to all this, of course, and to the significant media controversy this book has caused. D’Agata deliberately exposes his own fakery here (although that is presumably not a word to which he’d grant any legitimacy in a discussion of art, even “non-fiction” art). In that sense, he’s dictating the terms of the controversy he has provoked. That’s one of many obvious differences between D’Agata and the haplessly duplicitous likes of, say, Mike Daisey (for whom I might have had slightly more respect if he’d responded to the controversy over the fabrications in his This American Life story with “It’s called self-promotion, dickheads.”) Surprisingly few reviews have mentioned the fact that The Lifespan of a Fact is, itself, a heavily fictionalized version of the emails that were actually sent during the fact-checking process. The “real” D’Agata is almost certainly nowhere near as irritating a person as the character he presents here. The fact that he’s willing to cast himself as the villain of the piece – or, at any rate, by far the less likable of the two interlocutors – indicates the seriousness of his commitment to his side of the debate, and to bringing that debate to a broader cultural arena.

Whether you agree with his insistence upon his right to manipulate facts, you have to agree that he has succeeded in provoking a cultural conversation on the topic. I found myself taking issue with a lot of D’Agata’s arguments, but the ones I was most uncomfortable with were the ones that I couldn’t easily discount. At one point, for instance, Fingal suggests that “people are going to get upset when someone wins them over with a powerful argument, and then reveals that they employed fraudulent evidence to do so.” It’s a solid point, and one whose truth has been firmly established in the last few weeks, not just by the Daisey affair, but also by the whole grim farce around the Kony 2012 campaign. And yet D’Agata’s answer is difficult to dismiss:

What we’re dancing around here is the idea of a moral responsibility in nonfiction. And that’s why this sort of conversation always gets me peeved – and why the conversation also always ends up in circles – because the moment we start judging a form of art in terms of its “moral value” is the moment we stop talking about art.

There is, of course, a faint but unmistakable whiff of sophistry off this stuff. It’s hugely problematic to present a piece of writing as non-fiction (“literary” or otherwise), and then to cry foul when it’s criticized for coming up short of that measure. Holding such writing to a standard of truth is not the same thing as manhandling it out of the pantheon of art and hustling it into the press tent. But at the same time, the point can’t entirely be shrugged off. The work D’Agata does is vastly different to the kind of thing Mike Daisey and the Invisible Children people tripped themselves up over. If you consider literary non-fiction art – and there are no good reasons not to – then this question of moral responsibility is not an easy one to bracket off.

It would be negligent on my part not to point out that the book itself – as distinct from the argument it has succeeded in provoking – is, mostly, a bore. For roughly its first hundred pages, it’s a tedious back-and-forth over endless minutiae, punctuated by the occasional amusingly juvenile outburst from the “D’Agata” character. There’s very little entertainment or enlightenment to be had in following Fingal’s line-by-line stress testing of a piece of writing. The book’s intellectual substance is almost all contained in its last thirty pages or so. Judged purely as a self-contained text, therefore, it’s not up to much. But to say that it’s mostly boring is to miss the point, a bit like saying that a Molotov cocktail is mostly boring because it’s just a bottle of petrol with an old rag stuffed into it. The point of this book, in other words, is not the experience of reading it, but the cultural debate that has flared up around it. D’Agata has got himself a little singed in the process of igniting that debate, but that may have been part of the plan.





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9 Responses to “Cool Story, Bro: The Provocations of John D’Agata”

  1. Seth
    at 5:46 pm on March 27, 2012

    Fifty years from now, there’ll be a fifth (or a fourth-and-a-half) genre, and it’ll be called Fudged Nonfiction or something. For now, however, seems D’Agata wants it both ways. He wants the truth-weight of nonfiction but wants the freedom of fiction. My question is: if you’re going to make some stuff up, why not just go whole-hog and drop the boring stuff for bright, loud details? Nice summarization of the central issue.

  2. John
    at 8:21 pm on March 27, 2012

    Bravo on acknowledging how boring most of the actual book is. Though I was surprised how many conversations it has spawned.

    After trying my hand at creative non-fiction, I’ve always assumed some level of the type of embellishment D’Agata champions is taking place whenever reading in the genre. Facts (vs. Truth) rarely make for good art. That’s not to say journalism or history can’t be compelling as a narrative, but can it ever reach the level of art? I’m not sure. And as long as the liberties taken don’t obscure the central facts, I’m not sure it really matters.

    Great critique.

  3. ian
    at 9:30 am on March 28, 2012

    Excellent reivew, Mark. I was immediately attracted to this book when I read the précis of it: my ardour is somewhat cooled now. I’d still like to read the other D’Agata work you refer to though.

    Very reminiscent of the controversies that have followed the death of Ryszard Kaupscinski – where, I must admit, my sympathy has tended to be with Kapuscinski rather then his critics.

  4. alex c
    at 10:43 am on March 28, 2012

    Mark, I’m glad that at least here you pointed out the great difference between what D’Agata and what Mike Daisey have each done. This is probably the most even-handed review I’ve read so far.

    One crucial point in this debate keeps coming up in all these reviews of this book, namely the limits of what constitutes literary “non-fiction”. having read About A Mountain (and not Lifespan… yet), I can’t help but take D’Agata’s side; nowhere on that book does it say it’s “non-fiction” and one quickly picks up on the distortions taking place therein (particularly if you read the notes, which begin with their own disclaimer). The poetry of it is fascinating and I don’t think it loses any of its power if one recognizes the manipulations (since they’re all pointed out right there for the reader in the first place).

    Anyway, this same infuriating inability to accept this and recognize it for its significance took place over on Dinty Moore’s blog a couple weeks ago, the great irony being that all manner of “non-fiction” writers came out to lambaste D’Agata’s playfulness with his material while neglecting to recognize the FACT that D’Agata has always admitted to such puckishness.

  5. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 1:37 pm on March 28, 2012

    Great essay. My feeling upon reading this book was that if one can’t find beauty in the facts, then one should probably stick to writing fiction. A good writer should be able to write perfect sentences about things that are true without resorting to absurd measures like changing the colour of delivery vans.

    One of the strangest aspects of the book for me was D’Agata’s interview style: it didn’t matter to him whether the words he wrote were the words his interview subject had actually said, so long as he had the “gist” of it. The arrogance of this approach is staggering to me. A responsible writer takes detailed notes or runs a tape recorder when they’re interviewing people, because they have sufficient respect for their interview subject to acknowledge that they don’t have the right to put their own words in that subject’s mouth.

  6. To Instruct and Entertain « ourmaninboston
    at 3:28 pm on March 28, 2012

    [...] But Mark O’Connell at the Millions seemed to give the book the respectful and thoughtful reading it deserved There’s a tightly compressed irony to all this, of course, and to the significant [...]

  7. Links – March 28, 2012 | zota
    at 3:26 am on March 29, 2012

    [...] The Millions : Cool Story, Bro: The Provocations of John D’Agata [...]

  8. Nathan Webster
    at 7:24 pm on March 31, 2012

    I saw this column after I had written my own take on this, using some of my creative nonfiction writing from Iraq as a parallel example.

    I noticed you used the “pink to purple” comparison as well…but I was casually accepting of it, while you were clearly not.

    Your thoughts made me rethink how I felt about it, and if I was too accepting, too quickly to that sort of factual manipulation…and that consideration, like you said, was probably D’Agata’s intention.

    My thoughts are here: http://waronterrornews.typepad.com/cgtwa/2012/04/my-creative-nonfiction-take-on-john-dagata-and-jim-fingals-lifespan-of-a-fact.html

  9. Barnstorm » Blog Archive » Wednesday Linkstorm
    at 11:38 am on October 30, 2012

    [...] from The Millions (that blog is excellent), a review of John D'Agata's book The Lifespan of a Fact. Actual thing D'Agata said when a fact checker questioned the veracity of an [...]

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