The Lifespan of a Silly Argument

I’m reading this New York Times review of The Lifespan of a Fact, an unusual book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. On each page of the book is a paragraph of an essay D’Agata wrote about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager; surrounding the paragraph are the queries about the piece by Fingal, a fact-checker for The Believer magazine (which planned to run the piece), and also D’Agata’s responses to Fingal about the fact-checking.

I have not read the book yet, but from the review and other pieces I have read about it online, the problem here appears to be that in regards to the essay, Fingal was under the impression that the piece was non-fiction (probably because The Believer apparently does not accept fiction), and therefore the facts within it had to be, you know, non-fictitious. Whereas D’Agata appears to have argued, essentially, that facts were stupid things, that that their individual truth value was not as important as an overall “Truth” that he was aiming for, and the the essay form in itself was being deprived of resonance due to a slavish insistence on factual correctness. D’Agata and Fingal sparred on these matters for five years before the actual essay was published in The Believer in 2010. Five years.

My thoughts on the five years thing are these:

1. If I were Fingal, eventually — which is to say after about maybe a month — I would have told The Believer that the author was being a complete dick about the fact-checking process, resigned from fact-checking the article, and told my editors that they should under no circumstances print the essay as non-fiction because significant portions of it were simply made up.

2. If I were the editors of The Believer, I would have paid D’Agata a kill fee and washed my hands of the whole mess.

3. If I were D’Agata — well, I wouldn’t be D’Agata, not to put too fine a point on it. If I have a contract for a non-fiction article or book, I do feel obliged to live up to the terms of the contract and write something that is not significantly fictitious, the facts of which can be verified by me or others. Call it professional courtesy. D’Agata may have been under the impression that The Believer was okay with his non-non-fiction, but that impression probably should have changed in the light of evidence to the contrary, namely, The Believer assigning a fact checker to the piece.

At that point, the rational thing would have been either to co-operate with the fact-checker in an efficient fashion or to withdraw the piece and find a more congenial market. D’Agata did neither, apparently, choosing to entrench and make the piece his own literary Verdun. I guess it beats Scrabble.

I find it flummoxing that none of the parties — D’Agata, Fingal or The Believer — did the rational actions available to each of them at certain critical points in the process, choosing to instead to embark on a five-year exercise in — what, exactly? The essay (or the excerpt above which I linked to) is perfectly readable but, stylistically or otherwise, not worth falling on one’s sword for. That D’Agata and Fingal went around and around for five years on the thing suggests to be that either the two men lack the personal support systems that would allow people in their lives to tell them just to let the thing go, or (rather more likely to me) that early on the two men realized their argument might be salable performance art, and the editors of The Believer either signed off on it or shrugged and said “whatever, get it to us when you’re done.”

Again, I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak directly to D’Agata’s theory of the essay, but on the surface I don’t find the idea that an essay can be something other than strictly non-fiction to be  at all controversial. I think it’s perfectly fine to use facts or real-world events as a jumping off point for something that goes fantastical from that point forward, dipping back into reality if and when required by the author’s own vision. If D’Agata does indeed want to plant a flag on that hill, I would tell him to go ahead and do it and have fun and report back to us when he’s done. Just don’t let that essay masquerade around as non-fiction, because it’s not. When you make things up, or intentionally take artistic license on facts, then you’re writing fiction.

And honestly I’m a little confused why this is an issue at all. Look: D’Agata wrote a fictional essay, based on a real event. That’s all he did. I’m not sure why everyone involved chose to make such a production about it, other than the idea that making a production about it was the actual point of the whole exercise. In which case I expect the sequel to be a screenwriter and a historian arguing about what it means that the screenwriter’s gladiator screenplay is rearranging the real-world timeline and fudging historical details for the sake of dramatic convenience. That’ll be a fun one, I’m sure.

56 thoughts on “The Lifespan of a Silly Argument

  1. They did a bit about this on “On The Media” this morning…

    D’Agata argued, in all seriousness, that he should have to change the fall time from the top of the tower from the incorrect 9 seconds, to the correct 8 seconds because he’d already looked up all these saying with the number nine in them, and there weren’t as many good ones for the number 8.

  2. What is really sobering about all this, John, is that he got written up (twice) in the Times today–the magazine too–and interviewed on NPR, all so Norton would have a shot at selling, what, 10,000 books?

    Wouldn’t some of that airtime be better spent introducing people to Redshirts?

    The number of mass media outlets willing to talk about books keeps diminishing, the fight for that space is thus increasing, and here you see it wasted in duplication. And, ps, the book didn’t even crack the top 1000 on Amazon today, a slow Sunday.

    Sigh. Hype isn’t what it used to be.

  3. Entirely possible but, based on my reading of the book, it seems more like he sincerely believes that he’s entitled as an artist to futz around with factual details to give his essay more “resonance.” In that context, it’s worth noting that the essay had already been rejected by another magazine for its inaccuracies before D’Agata took it to The Believer.

    VERY early in, Fingal asks his (unnamed) editor about a particularly glaring falsehood, and is told “Just note it. Move on. We’ll deal with it. I can’t referee every problem you have with the piece. John’s a different kind of writer, so you are going to encounter some irregularities in the project. Just keep your report as thorough as possible and we’ll comb through it all later.” And that’s pretty much the last we hear from the Believer.

    Whether Fingal should have thrown in the towel is a good question, but I’m glad he stuck with it — if nothing else, what HE writes about the suicide that inspired D’Agata’s essay, in trying to establish what if anything in D’Agata’s essay is accurate, is much more powerful than what the Believer published.

  4. Trolling? Eh, maybe. Or just too lazy or prone to yarn-spinning to tell a story utilizing verifiable facts.
    But if I am reading something which is advertised as non-fiction, I’d like to be assured that the content is factual, even to details. And that speculations are clearly labeled as such.
    I write historical fiction, myself – and I am very careful to note (usually in the afterward and historical notes in my books) where I have indulged in speculation, exaggeration, and flat-out made up incidents and details. But then, I am old-fashioned that way.

  5. sgodin:

    “Wouldn’t some of that airtime be better spent introducing people to Redshirts?”

    Well, I would agree with that, of course, although Redshirts isn’t out until June. There’s time for the NYT and NPR to rectify their errors.

    Celia Hayes:

    Yes, I think people find it interesting (particularly in an afterward) to know how a fictional story veers from the history as we know it.

    Ron Hogan:

    “it seems more like he sincerely believes that he’s entitled as an artist to futz around with factual details to give his essay more ‘resonance.’”

    Leaving aside the issue of whether D’Agata’s execution of this theory lends credence to his position, I have no real problem with that. I’m just not sure why everyone involved didn’t just acknowledge it was fiction based on fact, and work from that point. Again, I don’t know the details of D’Agata’s theory of art, but it does seem like he’s trying to appropriate the term “non-fiction” to get the advantages of the label, without having to do the actual work the label requires.

  6. As an editor, I have a morbid curiosity in how this whole dreary process unfolded (and the NYT essays did nothing to abate my interest).

    But as an editor, I find myself thoroughly unwilling to reward anyone involved with this fiasco by giving them so much as a thin dime . . . especially not The Believer, who seem to have responded to most of their own fact-checker’s red flags by saying, “Meh, whatever.”

    So, unless my local library chooses to add this to their catalog (and from a brief perusal of their shelves, I don’t think they’re likely to shove aside any bodice-rippers or laughably named “True Crime Fiction” to make the room), I’ll have to wait until W.W. Norton remainders off the excess and it shows up at my local Half Price Books.

  7. but it does seem like he’s trying to appropriate the term “non-fiction” to get the advantages of the label, without having to do the actual work the label requires

    That does seem to be supported by the jaw-dropping quotes from D’Agata in the review. I’d go a step further and suggest that perhaps D’Agata simply didn’t have the talent or vision to take a real event and transform it into a moving, believable piece of fiction; much easier to simply let reality to do the work, and patch up places where it was not conveniently “artistic” enough.

  8. “Fiction” and “Nonfiction” are the labels for two of the many basins of attraction in the chaotic dynamics of the space of all possible trajectories of the evolution of narratives.

  9. I was aghast when I read the same excerpt you did. D’Agata’s positions, as presented on the page, seem to be to be borderline sociopathic. I guess my reaction isn’t typical since this seems to be the position presented by all the news outlets that defend opinion pieces as a place where factual assertions don’t have to be accurate. “That’s opinion, not news,” they say. As if facts are less fact-y in different places.

    I’m with Andrew Hackard. I’m not rewarding this junk with my money. I vaguely resent having rewarded them with my time and a page view.

  10. I think part of the problem is that, except in cases of obvious satire, there is an implicit assumption that an outward looking essay, that is to say one referencing events outside of the authors navel, is non-fiction. Such an assumption might be naive and possibly unfair, but I’m fairly sure it’s the norm.

    I do think this book can probably be lumped in the performance art category though.

  11. D’Agata and Fingal did a paired reading at Prairie Lights book store earlier this week, at which they made it clear that the performance art/trolling aspect is true. The book is a constructed piece–they said something like, “made to appear as a series of emails”–based on the extremes of the positions they respectively found themselves in while working on the Believer piece. The way they described it at the reading, D’Agata turned in an essay, and Fingal turned in a much, much longer report on the factual errors in the piece, and those two documents were adapted into the book. What I took away from the reading was that the book is more an attempt to change (D’Agata) or defend (Fingal) the definition of Non-Fiction, than it is a factual story of what happened with the fact-checking process for The Believer. Fingal and D’Agata are, now, friends.

  12. Celia Hayes: I am very careful to note (usually in the afterward and historical notes in my books) where I have indulged in speculation, exaggeration, and flat-out made up incidents and details. But then, I am old-fashioned that way.

    As a reader of historical fiction, I greatly appreciate that sort of attention to detail; I think it suggests a certain level of trust in the intelligence of the audience. Perhaps I am also old-fashioned that way.

  13. D’Agata has claimed he’s not trying to write nonfiction (the style is called the “lyric essay”), but he’s not even rigorous about that defense—near the end of this radio interview, he starts in on how nonfiction (his word) should, as a genre, allow for more flexibility and accommodation of, uh, things that are fictional. His other big argument seems to be that when he changes facts, it’s to generate a more powerful artistic experience for the reader, to “destabilize” their understanding (again, his words). He says in the radio interview that “we need to be tricked” to get the full benefit of a work of art.

    Breathtakingly arrogant stuff, not least because it’s also so hackneyed and pedestrian—the sort of thing that leads one to suspect he’s spent most of his career locked up in expensive academic creative writing programs, lecturing credulous undergrads.

  14. There is a way to do this well, even in nonfiction. Take Erik Larson’s book “The Devil in the White City.” It’s clear that some sections of the book describe what Larson imagines to have happened. But he doesn’t claim some kind of artistic license, and he doesn’t screw around with the actual facts (as far as I could tell) to make a better story. He documents what there is to document and explains why he thinks certain events are likely to have taken place that can’t be documented. He includes scenes and people’s thoughts and reactions that he can’t have known, but in the context of the whole work, it’s possible to determine when he is taking off from his sources into speculation and that the speculation is based on research as well as understanding of human nature that seemed (to me) sound. Everything that’s in quotes can be, and is, documented. The book isn’t as well footnoted as a work of scholarly history, but it’s plenty well footnoted for what it is: a work of popular historical non-fiction. Parts of the book would fit the definition of fiction; the book as a whole is not fiction, however.

  15. Hhhmmm…does the fact that we’re commenting on your comments give this piece more attention than it ever deserved? Even looking at the photo in the Times, D’Agato comes off as a defensive dick.

    And, I love the quote, “I wanted his death to be more unique”. In his world does, ‘unique’ have degrees of…uniqueness?

    I have to agree with Don and Dan about sociopathic and performance art. He appears to me to be solipsistic. I am reminded of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. To this day you can go to the book page on Amazon and they state, quite plainly, “A nonfiction book should adhere to the facts as the author knows them.” Pretty straightforward.

    There are far, far too many great books out there for me to have any desire to give this book/essay any additional attention after I type the final period of this sentence.

  16. @E. J. wrote: “What I took away from the reading was that the book is more an attempt to change (D’Agata) or defend (Fingal) the definition of Non-Fiction, than it is a factual story of what happened with the fact-checking process for The Believer.”

    So Fingal is trying to defend the definition of non-fiction by doing so in a work that purports to be non-fiction but itself is non-factual and plays fast and loose with the actual events?

  17. I have no real problem with presenting not-quite-fact as a “nonfiction novel”, as Truman Capote did with In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer did with The Executioner’s song. I have more trouble with Augusten Burroughs offering the largely made-up Running With Scissors as a memoir, but at least it’s his so-called life. But callous disregard of fact in what’s presented as a factual article is waaay over the line.

  18. @BW: Yep. The uneven playing field is kind of emphasized on the cover, where D’Agata gets credit as “Author” whereas Jim is a “Fact-checker.”

  19. But Fingal is colluding in the troll, so his defense of non-fiction starts to ring a bit hollow. He’s basicaly the straight man in a comedy routine, not a passionate defender of non-fiction, judging by their doing readings together and admitting it’s a troll (excuse me … performance art).

  20. @BW: I don’t necessarily disagree with that. Or rather, I think that could be the case, but I could also see him accepting participation in the kind of book D’Agata wanted to make for other reasons. I talked to him briefly at a bar later that night, and my impression was that he does actually believe the stance he takes in the book. But yes, this book being marketed as non-fiction seems to skew the whole exchange to me, too.

  21. “Yes, I think people find it interesting (particularly in an afterward) to know how a fictional story veers from the history as we know it.”
    Heck, most readers of historical fiction these days practically demand it as MTimonen noted – especially if the author is going way out there with a version of events. It’s just considered fair play, to let readers know what you based your account on, and why.
    I have another reason for being pretty exacting about this; I’ve specialized in writing about the 19th century frontier, and incorporating people and incidents which really happened in my books. I have met and talked with many descendents of people I wrote about, so yes – I’d better be pretty darned accurate. I’ve done talks at historical societies,also, and they’re prepared to fact-check down to the sub-atomic level – so, yes, I’d better be prepared to defend how I have done a story.

  22. It’s also possible that Fingal didn’t have the professional support system to allow him to let it go.

    I see that a lot at the massive corporation I work for. It is very common for someone to deliberately put forth a ‘truthy’ idea, and then build upon it until it becomes the norm. For example, I know a group that has been empire building based on a half-truth (that it is not possible to restructure security on the application I work on). This team goes in, records an audit violation based on this half-truth, and removes access from various developers, thereby forcing those developers to go through the empire-builders for any work to be done. This has been going on for two years. If at any point any of the users had come to my team and said, “Is this true?” we’d have debunked it immediately: It’s not that it’s impossible, we just don’t want to. Instead, they accept a second hand account from an untrustworthy source and cede all control.

    After years of dealing with this sort of thing, I have come to the conclusion that it is because people are terrified of pushing back. Many would rather not even know the truth, so that they can’t be accountable for telling the emperor he has no clothes. Often, I can’t even blame them because if the person pushing this ‘higher truth’ is high enough on the totem pole, you could lose your job for speaking up. I’d rather not work there than be in that position, so I spend half my career cleaning up stuff like this – deliberate misunderstandings, creative interpretations of the truth, and just plain trolling.

    I agree with you a million percent about the proper way this should have been handled. But for me, this is a study on how it looks to work in corporate America – a bunch of bullshit that you are forced to treat as if it were legitimate. For years.

  23. D’Agata and Fingal did a paired reading at Prairie Lights book store earlier this week, at which they made it clear that the performance art/trolling aspect is true.

    I guess ‘co-author of a published book reviewed by the NYT’ is a pretty tempting lure.

    What puzzles me is, what was The Believer thinking?

  24. D’Agata’s essay has an even longer history than the five year saga at The Believer. It was rejected by Harper’s because of its factual inaccuracies, but he still included parts of the essay in his book about Yucca Mountain’s nuclear waste depository, About A Mountain.

  25. I must be old-fashioned–if I’m reading an essay I assume it’s non-fiction. And this “I’m an artist” attitude gets old real fast–this isn’t the 80s when anyone or anything could make that claim. At least be clear up front. I like what John Rechy wrote at the beginning of his memoir “About My Life and the Kept Woman”::

    This is not what happened; it is what is remembered.
    It’s sequence is the sequence of recollection.

  26. Interesting to see this post. I was just reading about this (first in the NYT Magazine and then the NYT Review of Books.

    At first I was sympathetic towards D’Agata but soon I thought, wow he is being a real – well petulant individual to be nice. Mr Fingal seems to be a resolute hard working young man and becomes the one to admire. He should have been able to go to the publisher and received help

    Facts are, well facts. As an author who has written three books, all non-fiction, well non-fiction kinds of sums it up doesn’t it? It is is labeled as fiction great, all bets are off, from the trans-light velocities of a future universe spanning star-ship to someones penis size.

    If it is non-fiction then we have to check facts and be accurate, conclusions and hypotheses are different, facts aren’t

  27. 1. This is a prime example of post-modern thinking, in which attention is focused on the form rather than the content. So artworks make references to themselves as art (I remember one art critic praising the artist’s audacity of reversing the picture on display, showing us the back of the painting, because it forces us to focus on the fact that, well, it’s a frame). This type of meta-ness is very important, because it saves the creator the problem of actually creating anything, like a story (which is the realm of bourgeois, slope-foreheaded troglodytes such as sci-fi authors and romance writers).

    2. These two clowns decided to parlay this conflict into a Mutt-and-Jeff act to sell books. Mutt confesses that once they decided to do that, ” … we both knowingly amped up the hostility of our comments. I think of the form of the exchange between Jim and me as an exaggerated farce. … At some point during that process we also decided to do a book about the process … and turned the volume up on how we discussed these issues. …. we knew that most readers would probably not be fascinated by two dudes having a sober discussion about the very nerdy issue of veracity in nonfiction.”

    3. However, this argument is very, very important because people generally have no problem allowing fiction into their non-fiction if it serves our purpose. How many times have we seen someone get called on the facts, and replay, “the facts might be wrong, but the narrative’s right.”

  28. I won’t have any reason to read the book in question (too many other books to take up available reading time). I just hope, for those who do, that it’s more entertaining than Piers Anthony’s grudge book against editors, the annotated “But What of Earth?” I ran across a copy at a used bookstore years ago and, as a copyeditor in a different part of publishing, thought it might be interesting and educational. I don’t think I ever got more than a few pages into it. Anthony might have been in the right in everything he believed about his book, but man was he ever a dick about it. And tedious.

  29. From the description of the whole argument given in the article, I wound up thinking “if Mr D’Agata wanted to work for News Corporation, why didn’t he just send them a flippin’ resume?” Maybe that’s what the book is going to wind up being, in his case – proof of his willingness to champion to the death the use of spin, politicised interpretation, and flat out untruths in what should be factual reporting.

    [Disclaimer: I'm Australian, so I've been living with Mr Murdoch's view of how the world should be for a lot longer than most. It's led me to be just the weenshiest bit cynical about their actual contact with the notion of "truth" over the years.]

    Being broke and on the dole, I shall save my book-buying money for more relevant items (such as the new Charles Stross which is due out some time this year, or my next batch of textbooks). Self-indulgent post-modern posturing has never been particularly interesting as far as I’m concerned. That the two auteurs (or however they style themselves) were willing and able to carry on an argument over one particular essay for five years straight argues the pair of them need to find themselves some new hobbies.

  30. I live in Iowa City and have found the whole thing rather amusing. While I’m afraid I can’t agree with D’Agata’s entire thesis, we are on agreement on one thing: the essay he wrote is most definitely not non-fiction. The other thing I would note is that D’Agata is the big wheel at the University of Iowa’s Non-Fiction Workshop. Depending on your point of view you may find this ironic or scary.

  31. @ John

    I find it flummoxing that none of the parties — D’Agata, Fingal or The Believer — did the rational actions available to each of them at certain critical points in the process, choosing to instead to embark on a five-year exercise in — what, exactly?

    If their goal is to sell their circus act, then they did indeed behave rationally.

    @ E. J.

    What I took away from the reading was that the book is more an attempt to change (D’Agata) or defend (Fingal) the definition of Non-Fiction, than it is a factual story of what happened with the fact-checking process for The Believer.

    Since the only difference between a lie and fiction is concealing whether it’s true, D’Agata’s position is that lies are okay as long as they get people to do or believe what the author wants. By definition, the former is fraud and the latter is propaganda.

    Long live truthiness!

    @ MTimonin

    Celia Hayes: I am very careful to note (usually in the afterward and historical notes in my books) where I have indulged in speculation, exaggeration, and flat-out made up incidents and details. But then, I am old-fashioned that way.

    MTimonin: As a reader of historical fiction, I greatly appreciate that sort of attention to detail; I think it suggests a certain level of trust in the intelligence of the audience. Perhaps I am also old-fashioned that way.

    I agree entirely. Mostly I read history nowadays, but as a kid I devoured historical fiction, alternate history and counterfactual history, and knowing where the story and reality diverged was always much appreciated.

    @ Rich Ward

    Hhhmmm…does the fact that we’re commenting on your comments give this piece more attention than it ever deserved?

    It saved me money since I won’t be wasting any on this ghoulish trollfest, so I’d say the thread gives it just the sort of attention it deserves.

    And, I love the quote, “I wanted his death to be more unique”. In his world does, ‘unique’ have degrees of…uniqueness?

    That’s the aspect of this whole “performance art” that is most contemptible; The kid didn’t harrowingly enough, so his final moments need to be replaced with how I wished the little shit had died.

    @ Eirdani

    I agree with you a million percent about the proper way this should have been handled. But for me, this is a study on how it looks to work in corporate America – a bunch of bullshit that you are forced to treat as if it were legitimate.

    And the military and the civil service and everywhere else where bureaucratic creep has rendered accountability impractical.

    @ Terry

    The other thing I would note is that D’Agata is the big wheel at the University of Iowa’s Non-Fiction Workshop. Depending on your point of view you may find this ironic or scary.

    Somehow that fails to surprise me. There are and have been some great mentors in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but there have also been some absolute egomaniacs crapping in that pond.

  32. Gulliver:

    “If their goal is to sell their circus act, then they did indeed behave rationally.”

    Possibly. I would still question the process taking five years.

  33. I cannot imagine any set of circumstances in which precious reading time and dollars would be profitably spent reading about two guys jerking off in print. I only comment to congratulate you for the allusion to the battle of Verdun in a manner that indicates you have some familiarity with that history. But then the best writers tend to be eclectic readers I believe.

  34. Clearly, I haven’t been imaginative enough in my career as an editor. I’ve certainly worked with a few authors (the minority, to be sure) whose grasp of “factual” didn’t quite line up with what most reasonable people would expect. (A few also had difficulty with the concept of “plagiarism,” but that’s another story.) Obviously, instead of complaining to the publisher and then gritting my teeth when I wasn’t supported, I should have collaborated with the author and turned it into a book. I can’t imagine why I never thought of that.

  35. On why two people would fight this out for so long…I have learned the hard way (although not with any such extreme example) that when people are challenged in an areas they are supposed to be an expert in, they choose ground and they defend it.
    To lose a point, means taking a blow to their self definition. They define themselves as the expert. You don’t usually have two “experts” going toe to toe. You usually have an expert and someone who wants something from the expert. Experts generally win in those battles because they have more at stake – their pride.
    Experts don’t have to be true experts either. Any professionals in the field who know that their position is right as they define it will do this. If they can get a couple of supporters and they aren’t face to face, they will entrench with very few repercussions, until an invested outsider (usually the boss) stops the silliness.
    Its really not surprising to me at all that they debated the subject for 5 years.

  36. One of the most excellent interviews I’ve read plays loose with facts, but does it in the open and obviously. It helps that the subject of the interview is James Frey, the author-mill running weasel who wrote the 99.9% fictitious A Million Little Pieces as a memoir. It’s a brilliant bit of journalistic savagery and fancy. I hope it’s OK if I link to it here:

    http://www.esquire.com/features/james-frey-1111

  37. D’Agata is a D’Ick. Specifically a Lying Sack Of Shit.

    And the fact checker was trying to keep him from looking like an idiot. But what do you do when the idiot insists on showing his idiot ass to the world? Apparently, do readings with him.

    They’re both kind of dickish. But D’Agata is a Supreme Limp Dick of the most stinky kind.

  38. @BW 6:24 pm: Every so often I pull my copy of “But What Of Earth?” off the shelf and page through the footnotes. They’re a reminder not to be an obnoxious editor of the type PA disparages . . . and also a reminder that some editing jobs are not worth the money. If I’m really having trouble sleeping, I’ll read the story itself.

  39. Bill Peschel nails it for me: 6:10 pm “1. This is a prime example of post-modern thinking…”

    This idea that ‘real’ truth (as opposed to pedestrian objective truth) can be made plain by hand waving, obfuscations, and word play is weak sauce. ‘Course, once you put humor into it, it’s ok. It’s just that so many post modernists also look down on humor. It all seems to be an elitist drive to score one one the plebes.

  40. Regarding that fun sequel …

    Is this about how “Xena Warrior Princess” was a friend of both Moses and King Arthur? or was it Robin Hood? No matter – anything that’s not “now” fits in the category of “a long time ago.” Nit-picking historians. ;-)

  41. The short answer is that it didn’t take that long. Jim Fingal says, “The original factchecking process with the Believer took about ~6 months to a year of part-time work (I was an unpaid intern working on multiple projects and with a part-time job), after which we looked at the artifact that was produced out of it and realized that it was compelling in its own right, and raised a lot of questions that we thought were interesting. The rest of the “7 years” were really the conversation that arose out of that decision, as we elaborated on the material and started having/composing the out-and-out debate that we never really were able to have within the confines of the pseudo-professional relationship we had during the stint at the magazine.” Here’s the interview: http://www.kenyonreview.org/2012/02/doubling-down-an-interview-with-john-dagata-and-jim-fingal

  42. 1. I would assume that the reason why this has dragged on so long is because, well, they got a book out of it and ten tons of publicity for all involved.

    2. The book sounded really interesting to me, until I read a Daily Beast article about it that says that a lot of the correspondence between D’Agata and Fingal used in the book NEVER ACTUALLY HAPPENED. For example, D’Agata never called Fingal a “dickhead,” but they put an e-mail/message in the book saying that he did. What the hell? Now a book about what is true and false might itself not be true.

    3. If he wanted to do the article this way, he should have just written it as fiction. But the old excuse is “fiction is harder to sell.” Yeah, well, life’s tough, but I’m getting sick of the excuses for stuff like this. It’s easy to make things up. It really is. But it’s all dismissed because there’s a “greater truth” being explored or some such nonsense. Please.

    I think post-modernism is used as a crutch by a lot of writers who can’t do it any other way.

  43. When I first heard about this book my thought was that D’Agata would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he took a page from Stephen Glass and submitted the essay to The New Republic…

  44. I read About a Mountain, which excerpts part of the original essay, largely because I had heard all of this praise of D’Agata claiming he was one of the great essayists of our time. The book was fine enough (factual accuracy aside), but I don’t think John McPhee has to worry much about competition.

  45. I think D’Agata messed up if what he was doing was a journalistic piece on the suicide. However, there is a whole field of creative nonfiction that exists where authors judiciously shape the facts to create a narrative. Examples of shaping the narrative in ways that may not entirely be “factual” include: writing about a childhood memory, since memory is a very faulty thing, but it remains nonfiction because that is what the author remembers, and despite strenuous efforts at corroborating evidence may or may not get you to the actual facts of the event; leaving certain facts out, to tell the truth, but only pieces of it; dipping into dreams, which are not reality, but hey if you had a dream, it “happened.” So, in conclusion, nonfiction does not always mean factual…

    Of course, people like James Frey and D’Agata take this narrative license a step too far.

  46. Why did Jim Fingal do all that work? Because he was assigned to fact-check the essay. If they’d included a helpful guide to the exact latitude John D’Agata allows himself when making up new nonfiction facts, or the latitude The Believer allows authors of essays that are slated to be published as nonfiction, he could have done a more limited job. Unfortunately, no one did that for him.

    Where was Fingal’s Managing Editor, or Copy Chief, or whatever The Believer has, while all this was going down? Someone with more experience should have been keep an eye on the situation.

    Back when I ran copyediting at Tor, I’d get quietly irritated when people turned manuscripts in late, then suggested we save time by having the freelancer “just do a light copyedit.” You can’t do that. You don’t know what problems lurk in that manuscript until you go in and find them. Once you’ve done that work, you can guess at what level of markup is going to conform to the editor’s idea of what a light copyedit looks like, then subtract corrections you’ve already identified and throw away queries you’ve already written. That is: giving the appearance of a light copyedit can take more work than a full copyedit.

    I’m not surprised that D’Agata’s essay had already been bounced by Harper’s on the advice of their fact checker. He’s a cheat. He doesn’t discreetly dodge around inconvenient facts in his essays. He cites specific facts to make his points, as if his observations arose from them. But his observations came first, and he invents factoids to fit them. Nothing could be more certain to drive a fact-checker into prodigies of over-meticulousness.

    Nonfiction packs extra punch because it’s real. The same applies to startlingly coincidental, suggestive, or poetically appropriate facts. D’Agata wants that extra punch. But he also wants the right to change facts ad libitum to make them sound better, and he doesn’t want his work judged by the standards of fiction. Fingal was the voice of the real world, telling him you don’t get to do both.

    As a separate issue, I need to get hold of a copy of that book and check the copyright page. I want to see who’s mentioned in the copyright notice, and whether the page acknowledges full permission from Jim Fingal for the use of his work. I wouldn’t put it past D’Agata to get that wrong as well.

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