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.

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Jim Fingal and John D'Agata

“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.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor, co-host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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.)

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.”

In the end, this stuff matters. Trusting a writer matters. When I met Tim O’Brien, 20 years ago this month, I was 16, just like Levi Presley. I’d been freshly dumped by my girlfriend. Milwaukee has no building as spectacular as the 1,149-foot-tall Stratosphere Hotel tower in Vegas, which Levi Presley jumped from, but I’d come up with a good alternative—the Hoan Bridge, best known as the bridge that was half-finished when the Nazis drove over its edge in The Blues Brothers, 30 years ago, back in 1982. I wasn’t really considering suicide, but I did think a lot about how bad that would make my ex-girlfriend feel.

“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.

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In a glib flourish toward the end of “What Happens There,” D’Agata acknowledges some of his manipulations of the facts. He admits that Levi probably fell for eight seconds, not nine. He says that he didn’t, as he’d previously claimed, talk to Levi on the phone the night he died. But he doesn’t own up to the scores of other errors, misquotes, and misrepresentations that pepper his essay; instead he writes, as if reprimanding us for foolishly believing him: “If I point to something like significance there is the possibility that nothing real is there.” In D’Agata’s work it reads like a cheat, not like art, not like life, not like story-truth. I can’t imagine 16-year-old me approaching John D’Agata and asking him for help. I don’t trust him.

Yet what is the difference between what D’Agata does and what O’Brien did? What is the difference between D’Agata’s elimination of brackets in a quote on Page 57 because, he says, “brackets are ugly,” and what I do every time I “edit and condense” a Q&A? The time a fact-checker saved me from litigation it wasn’t actually because I’d inaccurately described a subject’s bankruptcy; I made that example up because the mistake I made is far too embarrassing to reveal here. “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information,” D’Agata wrote in “What Happens There.” “Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.” The lines appear near the end of the two men’s argument, and all Fingal can write in response is, “Touché.”

If a good fact-checker, like Jim Fingal, went through my essay, he’d flag 32 falsehoods,* all inaccuracies of the sort that D’Agata argues for keeping in “What Happens There.” In writing this piece, I never met John D’Agata or Jim Fingal, but massaged quotes from other sources, giving the impression I did. The Things They Carried was actually published in 1990. In 1992 I was 17, not 16, not the age of Levi Presley, and though my girlfriend had dumped me I wasn’t considering suicide at all. That thing with the ice in the trees definitely happened several times while I was in high school, though I can’t remember whether it happened in February of ‘92. I remember what Tim O’Brien wore but I don’t remember what I said to him.

Whether you will be delighted or disgusted by The Lifespan of a Fact depends on what kind of reader you are. Are my misquotes, misrepresentations, and lies OK because, though I’ve never met John D’Agata or Jim Fingal, after reading this enraging, fascinating, singular book, I feel as though I know them? Is this review a clever trick or a cheat, a critique or an appreciation? Is it a work of art or am I a lying sack of shit? Are those the only options?

The book’s unexpected, touching conclusion coincides with the end of D’Agata’s essay and the end of Levi’s life. The section is fiercely powerful, despite the fact that Fingal is picking it apart in real time in the margins. Did Levi Presley deserve better than this? Maybe so. Or maybe these maddening questions are the tribute due a boy who takes his own life without telling anyone why. Proceeds from the book go, according to an afterword, to a scholarship in Levi’s name at the Tae Kwon Do dojo run by Levi’s best friend. I hope that’s true.

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To see the 32 falsehoods embedded in this essay, read the "Facts Are Stupid" fact-check.*

Correction, Feb. 16, 2012: This piece initially claimed to have 30 falsehoods. Actually, it has 32. 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.)

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