Missing the Point

Weston Cutter
February 16, 2012
Comments 6

I’ll admit at the outset to some frustration.

I like John D’Agata’s work quite a lot. I liked Halls of Fame, I really liked About a Mountain, I think the two anthologies he’s edited are among the most crucial + necessary doorstoppers in any serious reader’s collection. I interviewed the man about Mountain two years back when it came out. I like the writers he champions.

I also really, really like The Lifespan of a Fact, the most interesting book to have been released in the last twelve months and a book which I’m really sorry to see has generated a smallish thrum of consideration and conversation, almost all of which is hugely off the mark. Laura Miller jumped up and down on D’Agata and Fingal in Salon, as does Hannah Goldfield at the New Yorker’s Book Bench, and then, in a race for the coveted most-pointlessly-clever crown, Dan Kois in today’s Slate crafts a three page whatever of the book with his own errors in it (how meta! how clever!).

First, let’s get the book cleanly on the stainless steel of the operating table and cut it open: John D’Agata, in the early aughts, was commissioned to write an essay on the suicide of Levi Presley, an essay commissioned by the fantastic John Jeremiah Sullivan when he was at Harper’s (for the record: I’m not 100% sure that’s what was commissioned—maybe it was just about suicide in Vegas). For its factual inaccuracies, the piece was rejected by Harper’s, and the Believer picked it up in ’03, and then, for the next seven years, D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the fact checker there, went back and forth about the essay, though saying back and forth is a hugely kind way of putting it: Fingal and D’Agata were having a series of conversations at a number of levels in the process of fact-checking Lifespan, and the most obviously compelling conversation they were having was the funny, bitchy one—the one in which D’Agata calls Fingal a dickhead, and in which Fingal’s dripping sarcasm regarding D’Agata’s unreliability makes for countless snickers, and the one in which the following exchange—maybe the best passage of this conversation—happens on page 42:

My mom was beading jewelry to make some extra cash.” Since he won’t give me his mother’s contact information, I can’t confirm this, nor whether or not she really has a cat, and a need for “some extra cash.” Though she must be quite the artist to be able to sell her handicrafts for extra cash.

John: Tread very carefully, asshole.

(The layout of the book, by the by, is gorgeous: in the center of each page is the text of D’Agata’s essay, and on the left and right [and commonly above and below] the central text are notes in either red or black—red if it’s a disputation of facts, black if it’s a fact correctly checking out. The back-and-forth between Jim and John follows the disputed facts.)

So that’s one of the conversations going down in Lifespan, and, honestly, it’s satisfying enough a conversation to read the book just for this, the back forth between author and fact checker (in the same way it’s funny to read the notes between Wallace and Pietsch regarding Infinite Jest). I laughed aloud regularly. Frustratingly, this conversation is dominating how people are talking about the book—as if D’Agata’s intransigence or Fingal’s over-the-topness about factual accuracy (does the color of the brick surrounding the hotel the young man threw himself from really really matter?) ultimately has anything to do with the serious questions the book’s trying to get us to consider.


The essay that was finally published in the Believer was called “What Happens There,” and in it the reader is led by D’Agata through the suicide of Levi Presley. Stress led: this is ther other big conversation going down in Lifespan, and this one’s got D’Agata attempting to talk to the reader and walk him or her through the way we build stories, the way we slot the day’s info into our intelligence and attempt to make meaning. The essay has as much to do with how it undoes notions of certainty and the convenience of things adding up as it has to do with Levi Presley’s suicide: D’Agata attempts, at the beginning, with some innacurate data, to create a framework through which he’d like the reader to understand the context of suicide in Las Vegas, or at least this particular suicide. What the reader understands by essay’s end, however, is that D’Agata himself hasn’t been able to, with satisfaction, build a framework to completely understand the why of this young man’s suicide, or of suicides in Vegas in general, and that there are events and things that resist our attempts to apprehend them fully, no matter how much we attempt to find facts to make everything align. “What Happens There,” is lucid and beautiful and weird, and it’ll likely creep you out a little bit at the end because it’ll undercut aspects of how you chose to believe in the story you just read—D’Agata’s ultimately attempting (I’d submit) to mess with notions of how we build satisfying narrative edifices through a built narrative edifice that’s got intentional flaws. (Strangely, interestingly, some of what D’Agata does in the essay aligns with some of the stuff that Kahneman was doing in Thinking, Fast and Slow: attempting to show how terribly willing we are to let narrative align in false but deeply satisfying ways, ways in which we can understand, and what that impulse can lead to.)

Here’s D’Agata on page 111: “But I’m not a politician, Jim. Nor am I [a] reporter. And I’m also not the reader’s boyfriend or daddy or therapist or priest or yoga instructor, nor anyone from whom they should be seeking a trustworthy relationship. Just because there are some parts of our culture in which we need to demand honestly and expect reliable intentions doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for us to expect that from every experience we have in the world.”

That, reader, is the big conversation in Lifespan, and this is the conversation no review seems to be attempting to talk about, not really. Sure: the easy gloss on that is that D’Agata’s seemingly interested in getting his work under the umbrella of nonfiction without having to do the attendant work nonfiction demands. If that is where your interest lies­—in whether or not D’Agata fuzzed facts—Lifespan has little for you: he did fuzz facts. If the binary of accuracy is what you’re interested, save your book dollars.

However (of course), that’s not even close to the point of this book. The point of the book is that there’s something sad about the supposedly clear and obvious deep black line between fiction and non, and there’s something sad about the fact that we’re willing to throw the baby of great and insightful stories away because of the bathwater of bent facts. Please note: I’m not saying facts don’t matter—I’d be deeply crestfallen were I to find McPhee’d been lying all these years, cutting corners. But D’Agata’s also not *ever*, in any way, trying to say that facts should be altered for convenience in the way the big fact-benders (Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Frey Frey Frey) have done. He alters facts in Lifespan for a narrative purpose, one which comes clear at the end once the reader’s gone along with D’Agata in attempting to find an incredibly neat and dovetailingly satisfying and having it fall apart at the end. Stories resist our attempts to organize them, he seems to be saying, by book’s end.

Check the comments, by the way, in the reviews posted about this book—folks are *livid*, and of course it makes a certain amount of sense, given the way coverage of this book’s been framed: how hard is it to, without much info, get up in arms about another damn writer effing with facts? But, again: this book is not in existence to allow opinionated fire-breathers to throw down about how any piece of writing with even one non-fact in it has to be fiction, or how D’Agata’s just another Frey-ish truth-bender. This book is trying to reckon with a genre of writing which in the last 50 years we’ve decided means, above all else, ABSOLUTE UNDYING FOREVER AND EVER FIDELITY TO FACTUAL ACCURACY (even considering—especially considering—’perfect’ factual accuracy being a halmark of nonfiction and essaying is a recent-ish development).

Look: agree or disagree with D’Agata, it’s fine either way. There’s certainly plenty of great nonfiction in which no fact’s been (knowingly) fudged. However: The Lifespan of a Fact is, if you’re reading it well and correctly, among the best reads of the year, and maybe the most humane book you’ll be reading in who knows how long (for all the snippy back-and-forth, Jim and John show an admirable decency in continuing to [mostly] respectfully show up and try to hash out what is, ultimately, an issue smart and reasonable people will have wildly different ideas regarding). Last: there’s nowhere near enough mention, in this review, of Jim Fingal. I have never been a fact checker, and would surely suck at it. I have no idea if Fingal is, as he claims, very good at his job (one’s probably smart to take his word, though), but he’s absolutely crucial in this book: he’s gutsy, stands up to D’Agata, and, through his dedication ultimately makes D’Agata’s claim make a sort of sense they wouldn’t were they presented on their own, unchallenged and contextless.

Read this book as soon as possible. Ignore the off-base reviews: find out about the great conversation that’s really happening in here.

6 thoughts on “Missing the Point

  1. I’m not quite sure what “genre” of writing you suggest means “ABSOLUTE UNDYING FOREVER AND EVER FIDELITY TO FACTUAL ACCURACY.” If the genre you’re refering to is “nonfiction” — well, that’s not a genre: it’s a form. More importantly, it’s a description. If something is “nonfiction,” it happened. Yes, yes, yes, journalists distort and selectively emphasive and create ambiguity, in thousands of very clever ways, whether it’s tarring a subject with one damning quote out of a thousand hours of banal conversation or cloaking evils in techical language, all of which seeks to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. Debates about at what point fact is magicaly transfigured into nonfact have raged for millenia and remain a treasured topic of journalism professors to this very day. (I’m not sure where you got the idea that expectation that nonfiction should be accurate is a recent development, but I’d love to hear.) I’m taking from your capitalization blitz that you find something stodgy and close-minded about this definition, like factual accuracy is Neoclassicim and D’Agata is Manet and everyone’s outraged because he’s fucking up our pretty portraiture. But that’s not it, because nonfiction isn’t a style and violating its properties isn’t some artistic gesture: it’s lying.

    When you say something happened — as is implied when you call your work “nonfiction” — and it didn’t, you’re lying. Yes, you can make an argument about there’s being a “greater truth” to your lie or claim that there’s justification for lying. But, it’s still lying. I’m not sure I understand the distinction you make between lying motivated by aesthetic concerns and lying motivated by sloth, or why one is better than the other. I’m actually pretty sure James Frey did lie for a “narrative purpose.” His narrative purpose may have been less worthy than D’Agata’s but, in the end, I’m sure his story was much improved. I’m also not sure what “Stories resist our attempts to organize them,” means or what it has to do with D’Agata’s project. If you mean that’s truth is slippery and hard to pin down and that most narrative forms necessarily obscure as much truth as they reveal, sometimes much more — damn right. But I’m still not hearing from a defense of why it’s OK to call something “nonfiction” when it didn’t happen. If you want to invent a third form between nonfiction to describe what D’Agata does, one that can be applied to works that are kind of true — “fact-y” writing, maybe? — go ahead. But just as I can’t accurately call a black person white or a Jew a Gentile — doing so would raise all sorts of fascinating questions about identity and labeling and aesthetics, but it would still be wrong — I can’t call a project in which the author proudly proclaims that he made shit up to be nonfiction. (And, yes, I know Joseph Mitchell and Truman Capote piped things. A pox on their houses, too.)

    Perhaps the reason I react so strongly to this is D’Agata is, in a small but important way, eroding the idea of nonfiction. When you call some nonfiction that isn’t — well, that way lies dragons. The word loses its meaning and suddenly the demon is out of the box and all sorts of other things can safely be called nonfiction that aren’t. In the sort term, we ‘d only have to worry about this in a literary context. How many years (months?) before some MFA student is caught piping his memoir and cites D’Agata in his defense? That’s bad enough, but you permit enough of this sort of thing and evntually it seeps into the culture. WMDs in Iraq? Nonfiction. 90% of Planned Parenthood being devoted to abortions? Nonfiction. Cable news is bad enough: I don’t need the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to give them an ideological succor. Call me an alarmist and a tradition-bound dinosaur, but, where possible, I like big, double-yellow line between fiction and nonfiction.

    And this comes from someone who counts himself a fan of D’Agata’s writing. Knowing he fudged it doesn’t make reading About A Mountain less pleasurable. I just file it in the half of my shelf reserved for novels.

  2. “as if D’Agata’s intransigence or Fingal’s over-the-topness about factual accuracy … ultimately has anything to do with the serious questions the book’s trying to get us to consider.”

    I find your whole essay very informative, and I welcome it as a corrective to the wild arguments that have taken hold of the conversation about it. However, your comment above I halfway disagree with, or, instead, I would place the blame on the authors or on the publisher. D’Agata certainly knows that whenever a (significant-enough) book challenges the limits of factual veracity, it causes a big stir, so he can’t claim that people are reading the book wrong. I suspect that he knowingly (impishly) exacerbated the whole issue in order to cause this very stir, and that he or somebody at the press intended this very controversy that we’re seeing, in order to sell more books. I cannot believe that they all went into this blindly and are now surprised that people are making a big deal about it. Somebody intended this because they knew it’d sell books. Also, I suspect that D’Agata really wanted to get his ideas into a lot of people’s heads, at the very least to mess with them.

  3. I couldn’t disagree with you more about Kois’s review–which help sell this book. Cleverness aside, there are earnest, solid, complex questions about being a reader (of this book and others) there.

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