“Story-truth,” Tim O’Brien wrote, “is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” He wrote that in a story called “Good Form,” in his collection The Things They Carried, a hybrid of memoir and fiction that was a touchstone for a generation of writers looking for new ways to tell stories. That book was published 20 years ago this month, and in February of 1992 I met Tim O’Brien at a reading at the Milwaukee Art Museum on the shore of Lake Michigan. It was so cold that day that water blown off the lake encased rows of trees by the shore in ice, and, depressed and 16 years old, that’s how I felt—as if a thin shell covered me, dulling the outside world, chilling me to the bone.
I’d read the book already, 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. He was wearing a sport coat and a Red Sox hat just like the one in his author photo, and, giving me a warm smile, he shook my hand.
“I don’t know what to do,” I blurted out.
* * *
The essayist John D’Agata makes an O’Brienesque claim about the difference between story-truth and happening-truth in his new book The Lifespan of a Fact (Norton). “If a mirror were a sufficient means of handling human experience,” he writes, “I doubt that our species would have invented literature.” D’Agata spent seven years arguing with his fact-checker at the Believer, Jim Fingal, over an essay about a Las Vegas teen who leapt to his death from the tallest tower on the Strip. Lifespan dramatizes that debate. In the center of each page is a paragraph or so from that essay, “What Happens There,” as it actually appeared in the magazine in 2010; surrounding it in red and black are fact-checking notes from Fingal, and D’Agata’s dismissive replies.
Both the writer and the fact-checker get more outraged as the book goes on, but it’s D’Agata’s voice—caustic, angry, sarcastic, and self-righteous—that dominates. I was curious: Is John D’Agata as much of a jerk as this book makes him out to be?
D’Agata lives in Iowa City, where he teaches at 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. D’Agata’s voice, when I heard it, was softer than I might have expected. In Lifespan, he calls Fingal an asshole and taunts him about the size of his penis, in between making passionate arguments for the role that inaccuracy—intentional and unintentional—has in the making of art.
I wonder how any reader can take D’Agata seriously when “What Happens There,” the essay being checked in Lifespan, is rife with inaccuracies, altered quotes, half-remembered events, and outright falsehoods. “You feel misled by my essay,” he said. “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. 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.”
Readers who demand verifiable truth in nonfiction—who were upset about James Frey, for example—are unsophisticated and ignorant, D’Agata said, and he wants to change that. “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.” It’s an attitude many writers of creative nonfiction sympathize with, and endorse. The most acclaimed collection of magazine pieces to be published in the last year features both carefully researched works of scholarship and a narrative whose hero is a complete fabrication. Indeed, here at Slate we’ve been known to publish amazing pieces that intentionally mislead the reader to make a specific point. We’ve also published at least one article that was nothing but out-and-out lies, much to our embarrassment. What’s the line between the two?
D’Agata’s co-author, fact-checker Jim Fingal, thinks the line is clear. He spends Lifespan fighting D’Agata about questionable statements both tiny (is the brick at the base of the tower red or brown?) and enormous (did D’Agata, manning a Las Vegas suicide hotline, really talk to the boy, Levi Presley, the night he died?), but D’Agata finds his queries a waste of time. When Fingal challenges D’Agata’s false claim that a quiz Presley took three years before his death was “the last pop quiz he took in school.” D’Agata pushes back nonetheless: “Really, Jim, you’re worrying about very stupid shit.” “Unfortunately,” Fingal responds archly, “I don’t get to decide which facts are stupid. I have to check all of them.”