Doubling Down: an interview with John D’Agata and Jim Fingal

Weston Cutter
February 23, 2012
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I’ve spent plenty of time and energy here already praising The Lifespan of a Fact, the strange and mesmerizing book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, and tempting as it is to keep shouting about the thing, I’ll back off and let the authors speak about the thing, the process, and what they discovered and how they changed in the process of getting this thing to life. Code for clarity: the original questions are italicized, John D’Agata is JD, and Jim Fingal is JLF. Questions have been interspersed merely for joy, not any clever or aesthetic reason.

Did either of you have any fears or reservations about letting your voices, and the sometimes serious snarkiness and righteousness in the emails, come through in this book? I’d like to note that while it sure seems like a ballsy move to me, it’s also the move that ends up making the book feel so much, like such a thing to give a damn about, exactly because the stakes are made so stark + clear.

JLF: Well, I think before answering that, I must clarify that you should consider the “Jim” and “John” of the essay to be characters enacting a parallel process / discussion from the one John and I actually had during the factchecking process. What we did — taking the relatively dry factchecking document and dramatizing it a bit — might be seen as a parallel gesture to what John does in his original essay, albeit one that (at least from Jim’s point of view) is ambivalent about its own form.

That said, we did go back and forth a lot about how raw the exchange should be, since I at least didn’t want the work to be dismissed or not taken seriously if it got too snarky or sophomoric. I think we struck a nice balance though, and ended up with something that probably does resemble some of the inner questions and reactions we had to each other during the process.

JD: The short answer is no, because we both knowingly amped up the hostility of our comments.  I think of the form of the exchange between Jim and me as an exaggerated farce.  At its core is a real argument, a debate that we really had and that continued throughout our real-life fact-checking process.  But at some point during that process we also decided to do a book about the process, at which point we revisited the basic scaffolding of our discussions and turned the volume up on how we discussed these issues.  Why did we do this?  Because as fascinating as Jim and I are, we are also pretty mild-mannered guys, and we knew that most readers would probably not be fascinated by two dudes having a sober discussion about the very nerdy issue of veracity in nonfiction.  Even though I occasionally would sling some heartache Jim’s way during the fact-checking process, I was never as assholey as the writer’s persona is in the book.  But it’s that writer’s snarkiness—and the fact-checker’s eventual willingness to bite back—that makes the book kind of funny, I think.  So we were trying to find a way to make a serious but rather dry issue (veracity) feel relevant and entertaining (dick jokes).

And at what point did either of you even realize there was a book there? And if it wasn’t you: what did you think the exchanges were? This is a weird question. I guess here’s the thing: now it’s obviously this cool book, and it’s great, but this is a long window of work on a single essay. I guess maybe: how did you keep going on this for so long if it was *not* a book?

JLF: The original factchecking process with the Believer took about ~6 months to a year of part-time work (I was an unpaid intern working on multiple projects and with a part-time job), after which we looked at the artifact that was produced out of it and realized that it was compelling in its own right, and raised a lot of questions that we thought were interesting.  The rest of the “7 years” were really the conversation that arose out of that decision, as we elaborated on the material and started having/composing the out-and-out debate that we never really were able to have within the confines of the pseudo-professional relationship we had during the stint at the magazine.

JD: My original essay for the Believer was about 20 pages long in manuscript.  After Jim completed his fact-checking, he produced a document detailing the inaccuracies in the essay for our editor at the magazine, Heidi Julavits.  I had some sense of what Jim had discovered during his fact-checking because I was receiving periodic queries from him.  But I really didn’t have a full sense of what Jim was up to until I asked Heidi if I could see this document that Jim had produced.  It was over 100 pages long.  A hundred pages!  In response to just 20 pages of text.  It was horrifying, humiliating, and also a pretty glorious piece of work.  I mean, as embarrassed as I was by what Jim had revealed, I was dazzled by his thoroughness and precision.  He was as obsessed with nailing down the facts in the essay as I was with rhythm and imagery and whatnot.  And I think everyone recognized how awesome this thing was that Jim had produced.  But I didn’t really think about doing a book until Heidi, the editor, suggested that the Believer try running my woefully inaccurate essay along with links to Jim’s document that detailed those inaccuracies as well as the proper facts.  That idea at the magazine eventually evaporated, but I held on to it because I thought it was brilliant.  So at some point I wrote to Jim and asked if he’d be interested in trying to combine our two texts into a book.  He said yeah.  I said cool.  And then we met at my home in Iowa City to sketch out how we might accomplish this.

Did you end up appreciating the back-and-forth of the book? This might be an insanely dumb question to ask, but there’s something about this particular back-and-forth, and the form it takes, that seems among the very best suited to let you try to articulate some of the things you’re doing with your work. Is that fair? You and Jim get, through conversation, at these huge issues at the heart of what you’re doing with essays, yet it seems overwhelmingly unfun through parts of the book—you saying you’re done with the process, Jim’s snark (questioning your mom’s arts/crafts), etc. And I guess we can swing for the fences a bit here: do you feel like, through this book, you’ve clearly articulated something about essays and essaying that you haven’t been able to elsewhere?

JD: I can answer the fences question, which is “almost yes.”  I think the gist of the argument in the book is about as clear as I’ve been able to be about my thoughts concerning this issue, even though the point of view that’s expressed in the book is certainly more strident than I am on the particulars.  That doesn’t really matter though.  I believe in his claim that no one—not readers, critics, other writers, or cultural institutions—has the right to say what can or can’t be done in an art form, no matter the medium.  So even if I don’t believe in the specifics of what he chooses to fight over, I’m with him.  I defend his right to fudge whatever he wants, because I want the right to do whatever I need to in order to create the best possible reading experience.

I do think there are limitations to this book, though, as far as that reading process goes.  For instance, even though this debate we’re having is a bit of a reconstructed performance, we were nevertheless still limited by the conceit of the book.  So the longer our individual diatribes got, the less believable they started to feel, less naturally possible in an realistic exchange.  So we had to find a balance and compensate some clarity for the sake of the narrative.

I think of the anthologies I’ve done as a forum for some of these issues too, but strangely enough the anthologies are even more limited formally than Lifespan is, because the introductions in the anthologies need to maintain an argument over a few hundred pages, in between dozens of other essays, and across a projected three volumes.  So there’s only so much freestyling that one can do in that structure.

The book’s packaged/designed to offer something like a revelation on your part—this wrestling that you and John’ve been doing for seven years and 100+ pages (one can only imagine what was cut—was there much cut?) gives way to this new reckoning on your part with the fact of Levi’s death, and that neither art nor facts were going to really do anything in the face of that. My apologies if that’s too quick+dirty a read. I guess my question is: is that shift or reveal at the end real? This seems weird to ask, but it really is because of the way the thing’s presented. There seems to be this real reckoning, on your part, at story’s end, and I’m curious how much of that was real, and felt, and because of the exchange with John.

JLF: The moment of doubt that happens at the end of the book, while not literally and temporally happening at the end of our exchange, was a real thing I went through during the factchecking process. I was spending hundreds of hours factchecking this piece, producing a document that I thought was basically destined to live in a filing cabinet somewhere, and the feeling that I was at least uncovering some truths about the world and the essay helped keep me going through that process. The realization at some point that a lot of the ground that the factchecking was based on was ultimately shaky was somewhat vertigo-inducing and caused me to really question the purpose of what I was doing. The New Yorker was right that it was something of a “Nihilistic Sigh.” I don’t think it should be read as a capitulation, the final word on my position, or yielding to John’s points; rather more of a depiction of an internal struggle / quick zoom-out from looking at the text at a micro level to try to get a glimpse at what is actually being discussed, and a dramaticized epistemological question about how much one can in fact factcheck something.

And just for my own edification and stupidity: how posed and thought-through was the author photo on the book’s back? I’ve spent more time now wondering about that specific picture than I have about just about any other author photo ever. It seems loaded, as a picture.

JLF: It was taken by a friend of John’s, and selected from a few hours worth of shots. I personally liked that one the best because it seemed to depict our personae quite nicely.

This gets weird—you know I like your stuff, and I’ll happily read what you write, yet part of me wonders about some of your argument regarding essays. If this is false or stupid of me, I apologize, but here’s my question: is there a difference, at the level of artistry, between what you and John McPhee do? Because I get hit in the same pleasure centers by each of your writing, yet I think I’d honestly be pretty hurt and sad if I were to find out McPhee’d been tweaking stuff all this time. Then again: you’re clearly *not* arguing against factual accuracy, just that there can/should be more compelling metrics behind how we value and evaluate essays + other nonfiction. I’m sure this gets dicey. I guess ultimately my question has to do with the space between artistry and fact as it relates to nonfiction, and while I don’t think you’re arguing that they’re on a spectrum and have a basic inverse relationship in nonfiction, you use art as an argument *against* accuracy in the book, which makes me ask questions. I know this is hairy, and if it comes across as anything other than respectful and hugely interested, I apologize.

There is absolutely no difference between McPhee and me—other than that McPhee is about ten thousand times more talented.  The other difference of course is that McPhee often chooses one set of artistic restraints, and I often choose others.  Peter Matthiessen once said that in the way that fiction has to contend with structure (or sometimes the lack of structure) and poetry has to contend with meter (or sometimes the lack of meter), what nonfiction must contend with is the restriction of the truth.  And he’s right.  But I would argue that he’s not completely right. Because what Mattheissen also has in his toolbox are a lot more tools than that.  And ditto for McPhee.  Ditto for me, for all of us.  So far, in my own work, I’ve chosen to restrict myself with a few different tools.  In About a Mountain I played with the conventions and expectations of journalism (intentionally abandoning that approach over the course of the book) while in my first book I played intentionally with a lot mythmaking and with flamboyantly experimental formal stuff.  Those were the restraints I purposely chose to challenge myself with.  But I was the one who chose them, and that’s the point.  I decided the terms of the work.  The uproar that this books has apparently stirred up is a little perplexing because it seems to be trying to pit a triangle against a circle in an effort to fit one inside the other.  No one in this genre is a lesser writer for choosing one set of restraints over another.  Yet the screaming match that has ensued recently seems to only have room for one “winner.”  It’s ludicrous.  Why can’t we all just do our work, the way we want to, without accusing each other of being “hacks” for not writing exactly the same way?  The only judgment any of us really ought to make about one another’s work is whether or not it’s good, whether or not it affects us, whether or not we are transported by it emotionally, intellectually, or perhaps even just technically.

Just because I’m interested: what sort of software design are you at present doing? And why? And was that the obvious path for you, regardless of doing fact checking work for the Believer? If this is too far from the topic at hand and you don’t want to answer, don’t, but I’m just curious.

JLF: After college, when I went to work part-time for the Believer, I also worked part-time as a Music Analyst for a start-up (MediaUnbound) that developed software that modeled people’s taste in music and provided a platform for developing different Recommendation applications. After being an unpaid intern for the Believer for a year and a half, without a clear path to a paid position, I ended up working full time for the startup, which later got acquired. In college I studied English, and was the lit-nerd who was into computers, and now I flipped a bit to be the computer-nerd who is into literature. There’s not clear or logical progression I think, and as someone who is interested in everything and not particularly singularly focused in one thing I’ve mostly took different interesting opportunities as they’ve presented themselves — I imagine my path will continue to wind somewhere amongst different disciplines.

I’m curious how you *teach* some of this stuff—you’re at Iowa, and I’m sure you must have some systemic way of addressing how a writer should make decisions regarding fidelity to fact. I apologize if this seems again like I’m trying to get you just to say something specific and codified regarding how you approach this stuff—that’s not the intent. If you at all want to address teaching, that’d be great, but if it seems not super fertile, that’s fine, too.

JD: It’s definitely a case-by-case issue.  And by no means do all of my students agree with my rather lefty approach to this issue.  In any given year, we have students in our program at Iowa who identify themselves as literary journalists, memoirists, lyric essayists, and everything else in between.  And none of them has a predictable opinion about facts in “nonfiction.”  However, no matter where these students fall on the “veracity” spectrum, I can guarantee that every single one of them identifies him or herself as an artist, first and foremost.  None of them see themselves as “reporters.”  They may occasionally employ reporters’ research techniques, but they’d insist that you call them an artist and that you allow them the same rights and privileges as an artist.

Actually, I take that back.  I do have one current student who is struggling with the term “artist.” He genuinely doesn’t like it. And he’s also kind of unhappy in the program, unfortunately, because I think he feels out of place and misunderstood.  So I just lied.  I apologize.

Has John’s stuff made you ultimately look differently at nonfiction? I apologize if that’s the obvious and sort of dumb question an interviewer’d have to ask you on reading this book. For what it’s worth: I’m not remotely clear about how I feel regarding the issues raised in the book—I like John’s stuff, but I think I’d be pretty messed up if I suddenly discovered, say, McPhee had been lying about the Merchant Marines, or birch bark canoes, or whatever. If this question’s too thorny just given that you were a fact checker and so can’t escape the pull of that habit while reading nonfiction, that makes total sense.

JLF: I think what it mainly made me think more about is genre in general, and the meaning and validity of the categories that our culture labels art literature. “Fiction,” “Nonfiction,” “Poetry,” “The Essay” — all of these are man-made categories that by no means were inevitable. Because they are so broad, they necessarily have fuzzy dividing lines — as one might say, “another example of the porousness of certain borders.” It’s also made me think a lot (and this is illustrated in the book) about why people get upset when you violate the implicit contract they see as existing with these categories, even if you as an artist make no claims to a given form, or even explicitly label your work with some other label. Who owns the definition of these categories? The Academy? The Media? The Critical Establishment? What happens if your definition of one of these words differs from the culturally-accepted one, or if you question or reject the authority of these loosely-defined institutions? Is it a noble act of defiance and re-appropriation to make different claims about the borders of these genres than the mainstream, or is it an act of irresponsibility if you knowingly call something by a label that you have a personal definition for / that the world will interpret in a different manner? What if, as John thinks he is about the Essay, your conception is more historically accurate, and the world’s current conception of a genre itself deviates from it’s “true” form? Are you morally obligated to call your work something different?

To me it does seem like the top-level categories that we label things with are in fact often useful, and that there is a critically important place for real-world-truth-seeking/facticity/authenticity in our writing and journalism and history-writing, but I also think the small number of generally accepted literary genres are not particularly nuanced and insufficient to describe the varieties of literary experience.

I was really, really struck by the real brief audio interview I caught with you and Jim recently—you said two things about art tricking us or fooling us, and, in so doing, present opportunities for wonder or, as you said, “terrains we hadn’t considered” (you also said something along the lines of that we have to be fooled in order to be able to wonder). The big obvious question is: do you love Lewis Hyde, and did Trickster Makes This World do a lot for you? Or, if not Hyde, what sort of art’s helped you build such a worldview of art? I feel like I know I interviewed you before, and I asked about influences and stuff, but this seems different—more specifically about stuff which ultimately *taught you* stuff in terms of theory. If that’s possible to address.

JD: I do indeed love and know Lewis Hyde.  He is the essayist’s dream.  But as far as other folks who’ve influenced me or taught me theory: I don’t really seek out theory.  I’ve never formally studied it.  My feelings and beliefs about the essay are rooted in and inspired by the history of the genre itself.  I think you can’t really read the deep history of the essay and not come out from the other side of it convinced that this is a literary form, and that it is and has always been propelled by the same motor that powers all of literature—the imagination.

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