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The Lifespan of a Fact (truth, fact-checking, and art)

February 26, 2012

Tags: fact-checking, truth

Online you can follow a virtual debate about truth vs. facts: In the Details: "The Lifespan of a Fact" by John DíAgata and Jim Fingal. Jennifer B. McDonald's review, in the NY Times Book Review (2-26-12), starts: "This book review would be so much easier to write were we to play by John DíAgataís rules. So letís try it. (1) This is not a book review; itís an essay. (2) Iím not a critic; Iím an artist. (3) Nothing I say can be used against me..."

In the book The Lifespan of a Fact , John D'Agata, an essayist, claims he can play with the facts in the name of art (the essay). If nothing else, this book has inspired unorthodox reviews -- among them, Facts Are Stupid. An essayist and his fact-checker go to battle over the line between true and false (Dan Kois, Slate, 2-15-12). Slate followed up with Facts Are Stupid: The Fact-Check (listing 32 falsehoods in the review, a la D'Agata).

D'Agata's earlier book, About a Mountain, is about Yucca Mountain, north of Las Vegas, in which the U.S. government wanted to bury the waste from the country's spent nuclear fuel. He blends his reporting and storytelling about Yucca Mountain with other stories about what happened in the summer of 2002, when he helped move his mother to a Las Vegas suburb.

Charles Bock in American Wasteland (NY Times Book Review 2-26-2010), wrote that "the result is an engrossing story and an often impressive piece of reporting." Bock wrote that he would read anything D'Agata wrote, he's such a good writer, but... "Unfortunately, thereís a problem.
"At the heart of a crucial section, DíAgata writes, 'There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.' But the accompanying endnote reads: 'I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.'"

It's not the first time factual truths were changed in the name of art and good storytelling.


  1. February 27, 2012 8:24 PM EST
    More on the same subject: The Fact-Checker Versus the Fabulist (Gideon Lewis-Kraus, 2-21-12) and Writer vs. Fact-Checker: This Time, Itís Personal (The 6th Floor blog, Eavesdropping on the Times Magazine 2-22-12) D'Agata teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa Creative Writing Program.
    - PM
  2. March 10, 2012 11:35 AM EST
    I have written about this issue on my own blog, and, guiltily, less tolerantly than you. As you note, About a Mountain "blends his reporting and storytelling," and there's a lot of reporting, giving the impression that it is factual, and it mostly is. But he does weird things that are unnecessary in my view, as if to make a point. But I don't get the point, unfortunately. Maybe because I was a reporter. I am not a stickler, since his admitted composite characters and events in the service of good storytelling don't bother me. Some things do.
    - Richard Gilbert
  3. March 12, 2012 1:38 PM EDT
    An interesting follow-up piece: What Do Fact-Checkers and Anesthesiologists Have in Common? (David Zweig, The Atlantic, 3-1-12). Understanding why some people choose professions where accomplishments go unheralded. Here's a sample: "IN A CULTURE that favors sensation, the fact checker is an anomaly, perhaps even anathema. He is the brakes on editors and writers racing toward deadline intent on dazzling readers at the expense of edifying them. He is the schoolmarm tsk tsking. He is the public defender for the unrepresented, the downtrodden, the forgottenóthe facts." An excellent description of this important position follows, and more broadly is linked with other "Invisibles," who get public notice generally only when things go wrong: anesthesiologists ("they share the same fastidiousness, inner pride of their work, and joy of behind-the-scenes power"), piano tuners (imagine good concerts without them, but do they take a bow?), and graphic designers ("great design often shouldn't call attention to itself").
    - Pat McNees