"It’s called art, dickhead.” So proclaims John D’Agata, a creative writing professor at the University of Iowa, in an email to Jim Fingal, an intern at the Believer magazine assigned to fact-check D’Agata’s article, “What Happens There,” ostensibly a work of nonfiction about a teenager who leaped to his death in Las Vegas in 2002. Their correspondence over the fact-checking of “What Happens There” has now been turned into a book that lays out, sentence by sentence and fact by fact, Fingal’s objections and D’Agata’s often obscene objections to those objections.
If the fact-checking of a 15-page magazine article seems like a strange subject for a book, it is. Having spent exactly one day as a fact-checker (filling in for a sick colleague), I feel qualified to report that it is a tedious and thankless task—I had to watch long segments of a Diane Sawyer special on Jackie Kennedy, among other things—but for Fingal, the task is something else altogether.
Over the course of seven years (!) of fact-checking, he discovers that D’Agata possesses a seething disdain for facts, shunting them aside in favor of what he calls “art” (and what most people call “making stuff up”). Now, D’Agata is not Stephen Glass, a journalist creating people and places and events out of whole cloth and, when caught, lying ever more elaborately to cover it up. In his treatment of the actual suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, D’Agata does create people and places and events out of whole cloth—and at no point does he try to cover it up. He admits it freely, as soon as Fingal notices some obvious falsehoods in the first sentence of the piece:
[T]he “article,” as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker. . . . I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful.
Indeed, in D’Agata’s telling, he’s actually made improvements over ho-hum reality and has done so in service of a higher purpose, conveying a deeper truth to which only he, as an artist, has access. Thus, he improves reality by changing the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas from 31 to 34, the number of people who died from heart attacks the same day Levi killed himself from eight to four, and the name of a bar from Boston Saloon to Bucket of Blood. And that’s just in the first sentence.
His justifications for some of these changes are as inane as the changes themselves. Of the strip club discrepancy, he insists that “the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better . . . so I changed it.” He alters the name of a school from the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Visual and Performing Arts to the “Las Vegas Academy of International Studies and Performing and Visual Arts” because “it has a comma in it; that’s ridiculous.” Later on, he presents a myth about the creation of karate as a factual account of the creation of Tae Kwon Do because “as long as that story is believed by somebody, then I consider it a legitimate potential history.” He falsely claims that Levi’s death was the only one from jumping in Las Vegas on that day because he “wanted [Levi’s] death to be more unique.”
As the fact-checking proceeds, D’Agata grows more frustrated and abrasive, hurling all manner of profanity in Fingal’s direction and refusing to change a single word of his manuscript. At first, Fingal combs over the countless misquotes and altered names and embellished bits of history dutifully and with good cheer, emailing D’Agata the discrepancies he has found and questioning his tenuous claims of artistic license. Their back-and-forth evolves from simple quibbling over dates and geography to a wide-ranging (read: dull) discussion of journalistic ethics, the purpose of writing, and the limitations of nonfiction as genre. It is an interesting case study in the egotistic puffery of preening academics. (At one point D’Agata locates himself in the tradition of Cicero, Herodotus, St. Augustine, and Orwell.)
But as the process wears on (and it does wear on the reader), Fingal’s checks become increasingly pedantic and suspect themselves. In response to D’Agata’s claim that more people die in Las Vegas from “a few types of cancer” than from suicide, Fingal takes issue with the phrasing:
“A few types of cancer” is just too ambiguous. It could either mean a few different biological forms of cancer, or related forms of cancer found in different parts of the body.
He then lists more than a dozen different types of cancer, in incomprehensible medical nomenclature, that, taken alone, don’t account for more deaths than suicide in Las Vegas. To which D’Agata responds, “I really don’t think that readers would be upset if they found out that I lumped Supratentorial Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumors and Childhood Medulloblastoma together under the category of ‘a few types of cancer.’ ” Further, after (quite reasonably) questioning the veracity of an interview for which D’Agata has provided no notes, Fingal (quite unreasonably) writes a few hundred words on the flawed logic of the source’s opinion about the role of suicide in society, delving into arcane linguistic arguments and citing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (whatever that is).
All of which leaves you wondering: Why? Why is Fingal checking this stuff? Why, after seven years of fact-checking, is he popping off about issues tangential to the subject at hand? Why did he and the Believer and D’Agata spend seven years on this crap in the first place? It all seems, much like D’Agata’s article, totally contrived. And of course, it is.
Yes, that’s the kicker, the clever twist in this melodrama of the mundane. D’Agata’s piece was originally commissioned by Harper’s, which rejected it outright because it was so obviously and intentionally embellished. So the Believer grabbed it, and somebody had the great idea to turn the process of its fact-checking into a book. According to Fingal, the correspondence is mostly made up: The fact-checking, though “real” in a technical sense, was done for the express purpose of publication, of producing (in the words of the publisher) “a brilliant and eye-opening meditation on the relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy.’ ”
So while The Lifespan of a Fact purports to ask and explore myriad literary and philosophical questions, it ultimately ends up settling a different type of question entirely. Yes, creative writing professors and interns do have too much time on their hands.
Zack Munson is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.