Facts Are Stupid: The Fact-Check

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 14 2012 5:39 PM

Facts Are Stupid: The Fact-Check

Thirty-two falsehoods in Dan Kois’ essay “Facts Are Stupid,” a review of The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.

Thirty-two falsehoods in Dan Kois’ essay “Facts Are Stupid,” a review of The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal.*

That book was published 20 years ago this month, [The Things They Carried was actually published in 1990.]

in February of 1992 I met Tim O’Brien at a reading at the Milwaukee Art Museum, [I think I actually met O’Brien in 1991, but I’m not sure.]

Advertisement

It was so cold that day that water blown off the lake encased rows of trees by the shore in ice, [This happened frequently but I have no idea whether it happened the day of O’Brien’s reading.]

depressed and 16 years old, that’s how I felt [I was 17 in 1992, although if I met O’Brien in 1991 I was 16. But I was most depressed when I was 17.]

I’d read the book already, [I had not read the book before the reading.]

and its effect on me was to inspire a devotional trust in its author. He’d been so clear in the book about what was real and what might not be, and why some things were real and some things were not, that I felt I could tell him anything. [This was the effect the book eventually had on me, but obviously that was not the case in 1991 (or whenever this was).]

“I don’t know what to do,” I blurted out. [I don’t remember what I said to O’Brien.]

"D'Agata lives in Iowa City, where he teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. [D'Agata teaches at the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa, not the Iowa Writers' Workshop.]

“I’m not really interested in writing the kind of nonfiction that’s popular these days,” he said, looking down at the papers in front of him, almost shyly. [I streamlined this quote, which came from a YouTube video, not a personal interview.]

D’Agata’s voice, when I heard it, was softer than I might have expected. [Again, I suggest I talked directly to him, but I did not.]

He calls Fingal an asshole and taunts him about the size of his penis, [He doesn’t really taunt him about the size of his penis—he writes, “Wow, Jim, your penis must be so much bigger than mine.” Which is a taunt, but about something else.]

“You feel misled by my essay,” he said, [He actually writes this to Jim in the book; I’ve appropriated the quote as if we had a conversation.]

“I accept that. You feel that it’s inappropriate for me to have done this. While I feel that it’s a necessary part of my job to do this.” [The quote is from the book, not a conversation. I also altered this quote to make it read a little better.]

“By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art—a truer experience for the reader—than if I stuck to the facts.” [I altered this quote from the book to make it read a little better.]

“Stop demanding to be spoon-fed like a baby. Figure out how to deal with art that you disagree with without throwing a fucking temper tantrum.” [I altered this quote to make it read a little better. Again, it’s from the book, not from a conversation.]

It’s an attitude many writers of creative nonfiction sympathize with, and endorse. [I didn’t interview any writers of creative nonfiction, but this is almost certainly true.]

Fingal looks the part of hero—he’s big and muscular, with broad shoulders, a beard, and a deeply serious expression. [I present this as if I met him, but I’m just going off his author photo.]

He’s now a software designer in Massachusetts but still has strong feelings about the role of accuracy in writing. [I’m sure he does, although I never confirmed it. Otherwise, why would he have participated in this book?]

“A writer’s presenting these things as facts,” he said. “I, the hypothetical reader, am putting my trust in him to give me the straight dope. What gives him the right to introduce bullshit as fact?” [I altered this quote to make it a bit sharper. Also, it’s from the book, not from a conversation.]

D’Agata’s response, when he heard Fingal’s question? “It’s called art, dickhead.” [This is from the book, not from a conversation.]

not just from potential litigation, as when I incorrectly referred to a subject’s bankruptcy, [This is untrue. I don’t want to reveal the actual mistakes I’ve made that fact-checkers saved me from.]

“Mary McCarthy, Orwell, Thoreau, Cicero,” he said, ticking off the examples on his fingers. [D’Agata names these writers, among others, in the book, but not in conversation, so was not ticking off examples on his fingers.]

(a distance is 4 miles, not 3; a driver turns left to get to a hotel, not right) [These are not actual errors from the book. These are the kinds of errors D’Agata makes, though.]

“You’re threading Levi’s life through a needle you made.” [I altered this quote to make it read a little better.]

When I met Tim O’Brien, 20 years ago this month, [I think I actually met O’Brien in 1991, but I’m not sure.]

I was 16, just like Levi Presley. [I was 17 in 1992.]

I’d been freshly dumped by my girlfriend [My girlfriend dumped me in 1991.]

and was idly considering suicide. [I wasn’t really considering suicide.]

the Hoan Bridge, [If I were to commit suicide in Milwaukee, I would never have done it from the Hoan Bridge. I’m afraid of heights.]

when the Nazis drove over its edge in The Blues Brothers, 30 years ago, back in 1982. [The Blues Brothers was released in 1980.]

“I don’t know what to do,” I blurted as I shook Tim O’Brien’s hand. “Just keep writing,” he said. And so I did. [This conversation is a fabrication.]

Correction, Feb. 16, 2012: This article initially listed 30 falsehoods. D'Agata teaches at the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa, not the Iowa Writers' Workshop. And the essay as it appears in the book is slightly different from the one that appeared in the magazine. (Return.) 

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.