In 2005, The Believer magazine paired a fact-checker with a contributing writer working on a piece. Seven years later some version of their epic, contentious back and forth—first about facts, then about the genre of non-fiction and finally about the nature of truth itself—is a book. Earlier this year, essayist John D’Agata and erstwhile fact-checker Jim Fingal spoke with Brooke about The Lifespan of a Fact.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now a fact checker’s nightmare, and also maybe his revenge. In 2002, writer John D’Agata was volunteering at a suicide help line in Las Vegas when a teenager named Levi Presley jumped to his death from the roof of the Stratosphere Hotel. D’Agata became convinced that he’d talked to Presley before his death. It turned out he hadn’t, but it did prompt him to explore the question of why Presley took his life and why Las Vegas has the nation’s highest suicide rate.
The Believer magazine agreed to publish D’Agata’s piece, despite his warning that the essay - more of a meditation, really - wasn’t altogether factual. No problem. The Believer assigned John D’Agata fact checker Jim Fingal, and what began as an argument between them over nitpicking became an epic debate over the nature of literary truth.
A version of that dialogue was superimposed on D’Agata’s original article in a book called “The Lifespan of a Fact.” The exchange you’re about to hear, which we first aired earlier this year, begins with the fact checker reading this “Note to Self” about D’Agata.
JIM FINGAL: In other words, he’s manipulating what this guy actually said in order to create a literary effect, which apparently is allowed among writers of John’s non-journalistic literary genre, for which he apparently writes all the rules.
JOHN D’AGATA: I’m not sure how I can this so that you understand, Jim, because it doesn’t to be getting across to you, but one more time for the record, I am not a journalist. I’m an essayist. And this is a genre that has existed for a few thousand years. Ever heard of Cicero? So these rules that I’m working under are not mine but rather were established by writers who recognized the difference between the hard research of journalism and the kind of inquiry of mind that characterizes the essay. And yes, I did it for literary effect, which is also something that essayists do and that journalists don’t, or aren’t supposed to.
JIM FINGAL: Since I have five more sections to go, maybe you could help me out, as I’m still a little foggy on the rules.
Basically, it sounds like you’re saying that an essayist can write things with arbitrary truth value and make quotations up out of whole cloth that are attributed to real people who live in the real world. Is that right? And, if so, isn’t that what people call fiction?
JOHN D’AGATA: Have I changed the meaning of anything here, Jim? No, I’ve just streamlined this quote in order to help things move along a little better and to create a bit of resonance with neighboring paragraphs. It’s what writers do.
JIM FINGAL: Okay. So now I understand. The rules are there are no rules, just as long as you make it pretty.
JOHN D’AGATA: That’s a bull [BEEP] interpretation of what I just said.
JIM FINGAL: I thought you were the great defender of people’s right to interpret.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, you seem to have two classes of facts that you’re checking. One is simple information, as in how many seconds did it take for Levi Presley to hit the ground. John says nine seconds. You found out it was eight seconds. What made that one second so important?
JIM FINGAL: It’s the job of the editor or whoever is gonna publish this to determine what are the tolerance levels for fudging or, or streamlining. The fact checker’s job is to call out even the most insignificant things as incorrect if, indeed, that’s what they are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John?
JOHN D’AGATA: The idea that Levi’s body had taken nine seconds to fall from the top of the tower was actually something I received from his parents, and this was long before I had gained access to the coroner’s report, which revealed that it was eight seconds. And so, I started researching what nine means in our culture and in cultures across the world. And so, by the time I met the coroner and found out that I was off by a second, the essay had already started structuring itself around nine.
Within the essay itself, I actually acknowledge that I got that wrong. And after that moment, the essay – at least I intend for it to fall out of that journalistic mode – and, and it’s signaled by a pretty loud quote from T.S. Eliot, which is that sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The knowledge resided more in the number 9. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. To look nine ways is to squint. To be dressed to the nines is to be looking great. To be on Cloud 9 is to be feeling high. All these citations of the word “nine,” they resonated. To remove them would sacrifice knowledge for information? Jim, did you buy that?
JIM FINGAL: You know, the fact checker is not allowed to buy those arguments in terms of what they’re doing, and that’s what causes the descent into madness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you were to have called this an impressionistic essay based on a real event, would that have eliminated the need for a fact checker at all? Is this a problem fundamentally of categories?
JOHN D’AGATA: It is a problem of categories. When I pick up a medical history, I, at least as a reader, don’t expect to have the same experience in that text as I would in someone’s memoir. I’m looking for an emotional experience in that memoir. And I really don’t care whether that writer needs to change the kind of pie that Aunt Bea was really well known for, from apple to rhubarb, because rhubarb is going to provide me with a fantastic resonant emotional experience a few pages into the book. I want that experience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so you two eventually have a battle royale over where this process has led you. And John, you give a stem-winding summation of your philosophy on page 108.
JOHN D’AGATA: “Those who embrace the idea of nonfiction are very welcome to it, and I wish them every joy in the world in that pursuit, genuinely. But please don’t hold me to parameters for making essays that I’ve had no say in establishing, that I wholly disagree with and that I believe misrepresent the true purpose of this genre. An essay is an attempt, Jim, nothing else. And fundamentally for centuries, that’s all it’s been. Even etymologically, “essay” means an attempt.
And so, as a writer of essays my interpretation of that charge is that I try, that I try to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos. That’s what I want to be held accountable for as a writer. It’s how I want to be judged.
JIM FINGAL: I don’t necessarily believe that a nonfiction essay has to strive for an objective account of an occurrence as its primary project or that the writer is ethically obligated to secure the reality of an event in cultural memory, and I’m all for the PoMo historiographic metafictional appropriation of events and personages. But there still seems to be something strange about doing this sort of thing with someone like Levi, who is just a teenager, after all, just a kid in Las Vegas, not a cultural figure or an icon whose life is for the taking and can be radically manipulated and reinterpreted.
I mean, clearly it’s not like you’re defiling his grave by propagating these inaccuracies, but it’s kind of like you’re being dishonest about where that grave is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: During the process, at any point, John, were you seeking the approval of Jim? And Jim, were you trying to convert John?
JOHN D’AGATA: You know, I – well, I’ve never told Jim this but, you know, I secretly think that Jim is about 25 feet smarter than I am, so once we got into this project and, and started debating, I did want to win but by “win” I meant I, I wanted to try to persuade him because I figured if I could do that, I might actually be right, if [LAUGHS], if someone like Jim could, could be turned.
JIM FINGAL: To the degree that I wanted to convert John, it was trying to get an agreement on the point of the reader who comes across a text like this and whether or not anyone explicitly leads them to believe it’s entirely factual, the way that they’re affected by it relies on some sense of authenticity that something actually happened, and maybe if they see a little bit of themselves in it, they feel a little bit less alone. They perhaps feel more alone when they find out that it was made up or elaborated or streamlined and, and maybe there isn’t actually someone in the world that’s like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, in your final concluding “Note to Self” you concede that the truth of anything is a very slippery commodity. Maybe the parents don’t remember, maybe the coroner’s report is wrong. And you say, “Which of these sources can we trust as the authority if they’ve all demonstrated, in one way or another, the potential of inaccurately representing what actually happened that night?” And could you pick it up from there?
JIM FINGAL: Does it even matter? I mean, even if everything that’s in question could be verified by unbiased third party witnesses and even if I could definitively determine to a fraction of a second exactly when it was that Levi left his house, when he dove off the tower at 6:01 p.m. and 53 seconds and plummeted for a total of 8 seconds onto a sidewalk of brown brick herringbone, well then, I don’t know, I’d have done my job. But wouldn’t he still be dead?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, thank you very much.
JIM FINGAL: Thank you.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Fingal is a software designer. John, thank you too.
JOHN D’AGATA: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John D’Agata teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. Their book is called “The Lifespan of a Fact.”