THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT
By John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
Norton. 123 pp. Paperback, $17.95
Reporters and fact checkers disagree about the accuracy of articles every day. Seldom, however, do the disputes last beyond deadline — and very few last seven years.
Such was the case with John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. In 2003, D’Agata penned a piece for the Believer about a young man’s suicide in Las Vegas. When Fingal, then an intern at the magazine, was assigned to fact check, he found that D’Agata had fudged a number of details — from how many teenagers kill themselves in Nevada each year to how long it would take for a body to fall from the top of the Stratosphere casino. D’Agata objected to most changes, and an epic argument began that lasted until the piece was published in 2010. “The Lifespan of a Fact” offers D’Agata’s work alongside his and Fingal’s heated discussion of what truth is and when it matters.
“This is an essay, so journalistic rules don’t belong here,” writes D’Agata, who says he altered numbers and names for “rhythm” or to appeal to “readers who care about interesting sentences and the metaphorical effect that the accumulation of those sentences achieve.” He concludes: “It shouldn’t need a fact-checker.”
Fingal replies: “I applaud anyone’s search for The Truth, The Artistic Truth, or any other kind of Truth that you can finagle this argument to be about, but when you change the factual qualities of a thing to suit your own artistic interests, you’re creating something that never existed.”
Debates about truth in nonfiction are older than the cases of James Frey and Stephen Glass: Edmund Morris invented a character (himself) in his Ronald Reagan biography, “Dutch,” and Truman Capote concocted a comforting last scene for “In Cold Blood.” D’Agata and Fingal contribute to the discussion with the format of their book, in which they argue their positions in alternating typefaces. Although D’Agata’s essay can get lost amid the commentary, it’s fascinating (at least for anyone who works in a newsroom) to watch a fraught back-and-forth about the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas evolve into a treatise about the nature of reality.