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The Lifespan of a Factby John D'Agata and Jim Fingal
Though listed as a reference book, The Lifespan of a Fact is really a heated and often hilarious battle between essayist John D'Agata and his fact checker at the Believer, Jim Fingal. John's flippant responses frustrate Jim so much that he retaliates by, among other things, taking stabs at the former's mom (and perhaps even quits the editing biz — his bio notes that he went on to become a software engineer).
One could probably learn some tips about fact checking and essay writing in The Lifespan of a Fact. But ultimately, the book serves as an intense demonstration of the difficulty of accurately representing any event and a meditation on how much fidelity to fact can be sacrificed for poetics.
Synopses & Reviews
How negotiable is a fact in nonfiction? In 2003, an essay by John D'Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies. That essay — which eventually became the foundation of D'Agata's critically acclaimed About a Mountain — was accepted by another magazine, the Believer, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. What resulted from that assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D'Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.
This book reproduces D'Agata's essay, along with D'Agata and Fingal's extensive correspondence. What emerges is a brilliant and eye-opening meditation on the relationship between "truth" and "accuracy" and a penetrating conversation about whether it is appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other.
"An essayist (D'Agata) and his exasperated fact-checker (Fingal) debate the line between art and reality in this inventive fencing match. The text reproduces D'Agata's article (published in The Believer after another magazine killed it) about a teenager who leapt to his death from a Las Vegas hotel (an expanded version became the book About a Mountain), Fingal's Talmudic fact-checking commentary (reflected in the book's equally Talmudic design), and the authors' barbed e-exchanges on everything from the number of strip clubs in Vegas to the origins of tae kwon do and the existence of D'Agata's mother's cat. Invoking poetic 'rhythm' and 'emotional truth,' D'Agata cheerfully admits to embroidering the story with factoids; meanwhile, Fingal's efforts to verify them, which required seven years and the help of medical journals, academic linguists, satellite photos, and field research, get wrapped up in their own crazed erudition and nit-picking while opening a fascinating window into the fact-checker's ingenious craft. In their lively, labyrinthine argument, Fingal seems the dogged conscience to D'Agata's preening writerly ego — until Fingal realizes there may not be a reliable factual record to check. Very apropos in our era of spruced-up autobiography and fabricated reporting, this is a whip-smart, mordantly funny, thought-provoking rumination on journalistic responsibility and literary license. Agent: Matt McGowan, Frances Goldin Literary Agency." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
An innovative essayist and his fact-checker do battle about the use of truth and the definition of nonfiction.
About the Author
John D'Agata is the author of About a Mountain and Halls of Fame and editor of The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives.
Jim Fingal is now a software engineer and writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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