Infuriating Essayist John D’Agata Defends His Right To Fudge the Truth in The Lifespan of a Fact

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 15 2012 7:00 AM

Facts Are Stupid

An essayist and his fact-checker go to battle over the line between true and false.

(Continued from Page 1)
The Lifespan of a Fact

In my reading, I came to view Fingal as the hero of the book, desperately trying to protect the truth from a writer who didn’t simply disregard accuracy but was openly contemptuous of it. Fingal looks the part of hero—he’s big and muscular, with broad shoulders, a beard, and a deeply serious expression. Then a Believer intern, he’s now a software designer in Massachusetts but still has strong feelings about the role of accuracy in writing. “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?”

D’Agata’s response, when he heard Fingal’s question? “It’s called art, dickhead.”

My sympathy for Fingal has something to do with D’Agata’s abrasive nature but quite a bit more to do with how much I’ve benefited from the work of fact-checkers. They’ve saved my ass on many occasions—not just from potential litigation, as when I incorrectly referred to a subject’s bankruptcy, but from the abject mortification I feel when I get a fact wrong and that inaccuracy makes its way into print. (I once torpedoed my chances of writing regularly for the City section of the New York Times because a mistake panicked me so much that I begged for the correction to include the weaselly phrase “Because of an editing error ...” The editor didn’t say anything about it, but he also never asked me to write for him again.)

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But D’Agata doesn’t believe he’s playing by those rules. He’s an essayist, not a nonfiction writer, and works in the tradition of greats who, he asserts, also fudged facts for effect. “Mary McCarthy, Orwell, Thoreau, Cicero,” he said, ticking off the examples on his fingers. I’d be more inclined to accept that, maybe, if so many of the changes that Fingal proposes—and D’Agata steadfastly, almost comically, rejects—weren’t simple matters of fact (a distance is 4 miles, not 3; a driver turns left to get to a hotel, not right) that would not, as D’Agata protests, “ruin it.”

And perhaps I’d be more enthusiastic about D’Agata’s right to artistic license if the essay that he defends to his last breath weren’t filled with the kind of portentous magazine writing that can sound insightful and elegant (if occasionally overheated) but that seems utterly hollow when you’re faced with the layers upon layers of falsehoods that went into creating a specific effect. In the book, the argument between D’Agata and Fingal comes to a head when D’Agata writes that Tae Kwon Do—the martial art that Levi Presley studied before his suicide—was invented by an ancient Indian prince who

thrust long silver needles into the bodies of his slaves, systematically mapping their most vulnerable parts. Gradually, throughout his life, the prince learned that some thrusts could cause unbearable pain, that others caused paralysis, and that sometimes with the right thrust the prince could kill a slave.

 Powerful stuff, especially when D’Agata writes later about sitting with Levi’s coach in the dojo, assembling trophies:

I learned that Tai Kwon Do only has nine levels—there is white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, and brown, and then a whole separate series of advanced black belts, each with its own complexity of reticulated levels, nine tiers of nine grades in nine stages without end—because Korean culture does not believe we can be perfect.

Then someone said “Hmm” as he finished up another trophy.

I think it’s because it’s thought that Levi fell for nine seconds.

But what is the purpose of a section like that, of the artfulness with which D’Agata presents these facts and coincidences and resonances, if it turns out that an ancient Indian prince didn’t invent Tae Kwon Do? D’Agata pulled that off a “Geocities-esque website.” Tae Kwon Do was created in the 1950s. And there are 11 colored levels of Tae Kwon Do, not nine. And who says that “Korean culture” doesn’t believe in perfection? And anyway, D’Agata just got finished telling us that Tae Kwon Do was invented by an Indian prince, not a Korean one. And when Levi jumped off that building, he fell for eight seconds, not nine. Not to mention that the only evidence D’Agata can present that this conversation even happened is the word “TROPHIES!” in his notes.

“You’re inventing significance,” Fingal writes to him in Lifespan. “It’s not like you’re interpreting empirical data and prophetically unveiling to us a meaning that was hiding there all along. You’re threading Levi’s life through a needle you made.”

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