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.