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The Lifespan of a Fact

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The Lifespan of a Fact Cover

ISBN13: 9780393340730
ISBN10: 0393340732
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Staff Pick

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.
Recommended by Sandra G, Powells.com

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

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.

Review:

"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.

Synopsis:

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.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 3 comments:

James Taone, May 26, 2013 (view all comments by James Taone)
This book is amazing. I don't know that I should actually be calling it a book but I digress.
Do you ever stop to think if Cheryl was actually wearing shorts instead of jeans in your favorite story to tell about her? Or that it was Coors Light not Bud Light in the keg that Trevor did a keg stand on? Do these factual missteps make your story any less real/funny/important?
I think John D'Agata sums it up brilliantly in an argument (discussion?) he has with Jim Fingal, in the book, in which he says: "At some point the reader needs to stop demanding that they be spoon-fed like infants and start figuring out on their own how to deal with art that they disagree with--and how to do so without throwing a fucking temper tantrum or banning that art from ever appearing again."

This book begins by approaching teen suicide. Tough to take on for anyone. In the midst of it there is a struggle between writer and fact-checker to make sure they're doing their job. It seems trifling at times and may be, but through it all I'll never forget the story about Levi Presley while the debate of essay vs. fiction vs. non-fiction rages on.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
Samantha Abrams, February 26, 2012 (view all comments by Samantha Abrams)
Outstanding.

This book is cheeky and rude - take this shot, for example, from John: tread very carefully, asshole - and infuriating and fascinating and original and beautiful and silly and exactly the debate we - we, as writers; we, as people who read nonfiction; we, as people who live in a world where nonfiction and fiction do exist in some odd realm, where peace and agreement are not possible - should be having, right now. It is all necessary: this book, this argument, these people.

John and Jim - Jim and John, fact-checker and artist - dislike each other, I think, because each poses a threat to the other. Jim is the intern who volunteers to fact-check John’s essay, and John is the writer who carefully, consciously creates a world that has its heart - but not necessarily its facts - dipped and coated and submerged in the truth. But John’s truth - his emotional and his artistic truth - is not Jim’s truth, which is cold and verifiable and perfect, by definition. So, this book is what you’re left with. And that’s great.

Neither Jim, nor John, is correct. Neither plays necessarily fair. Neither can be hailed at the victor at the end of this book. At times, they both look foolish and immature - at one point, Jim writes: "I’ve never met John in person so I can’t speak to his animal magnetism, but it sounds like he’s tooting his look at me I have kind eyes and am so empathetic that people just want to tell me their stories horn," and John retorts, numerous times, with what should be considered direct insults.

But it is the at the end of this essay - a span of five pages - that turns a - let’s be honest, here - look at how stubborn and witty we are contest into a genuine, important conversation about art, writing, and nonfiction. You should pick up the book for pages 107 - 112 alone, because that is what nonfiction needs. But, if you still refuse, read - a small, edited - excerpt, where both Jim and John make their best arguments:

"Jim: You are writing what will probably become the defacto story of what happened to Levi, and so every detail you choose to do that with will become significant, because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him […] Why not suck it up and do the work to get it right?
John: […] This is what I believe the job of the artist is. […] What we do, like every other artist, is a compulsion for meanings, and so, just as any other would, we arrange things and we alter details and we influence interpretations as we pursue ideas. I know that most hard-core nonfiction writers won’t agree with this, and that’s fine. I know I’m in that minority. But I also suspect that those are the kinds of writers who still have faith in the genre, who have faith in the idea that by calling themselves “nonfiction” writers they automatically are. And bless their hearts for having that kind of faith, really, because somebody’s got to keep up the struggle to try to nail down the facts of the world. […] An essay is an attempt, Jim. Nothing else. […] And so, as a writer of essays, my interpretation of that charge is that I try - that I try - to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos. […] I understand your concerns, Jim - I completely do. But what I believe is that unless the imagination can do this, then I don’t know what it’s for. What writing isn’t fueled by the imagination?

John: Numbers and stats can only go so far in illustrating who a person is or what a community is about. At some point, we must as writers leap into the skin of a person or a community in an attempt to embody them. That’s obviously an incredibly violent procedure, but I think that unless we’re willing to do that as writers, then we’re not actually doing our job.
Jim: […] Its about people searching for some sort of Truth that connects with how they feel about themselves and their place in the world, finding that Truth in a piece of writing that resonates with them deeply, and then being devastated when they find out that the thing they were inspired by turned out to be deliberately falsified… And so they end up feeling alone in the world all over again.
John: […] of course that’s going to feel like a betrayal, because we don’t have enough deep experiences with art to know that that is what art is for: to break us open, to make us raw, to destabilize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with therefore the possibility of recognizing something that we had not recognized before."

And then there’s this - which is the last part of the book, which is what you should not read if you haven’t read the book - that leaves us right back at the beginning, at the heart of the question and issue:

"Jim: I mean, even if everything that’s in question could be verified by unbiased third-party witnesses, and even if I could definitively determine to a fraction of a second exactly when it was that Levi left his house and from how high it was that he jumped and in what direction the wind happened to be blowing - and how hard, and at what temperature, and whether there was dust or not - when he dove off the tower at 6:01:53 p.m., and plummeted for a total of 8 seconds onto a sidewalk of brown-brick herringbone … well, then … I don’t know. I’d have done my job. But wouldn’t he still be dead?"

And so the question becomes, almost, I think, not - what is nonfiction and where can we put it and how do we classify it and what is true and what is emotionally true - but, instead: why do we care and what do we do with it? Because we have to - we have to - do something with it as writers, as readers, as people.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(2 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
Samantha Abrams, February 26, 2012 (view all comments by Samantha Abrams)
Outstanding.

This book is cheeky and rude - take this shot, for example, from John: tread very carefully, asshole - and infuriating and fascinating and original and beautiful and silly and exactly the debate we - we, as writers; we, as people who read nonfiction; we, as people who live in a world where nonfiction and fiction do exist in some odd realm, where peace and agreement are not possible - should be having, right now. It is all necessary: this book, this argument, these people.

John and Jim - Jim and John, fact-checker and artist - dislike each other, I think, because each poses a threat to the other. Jim is the intern who volunteers to fact-check John’s essay, and John is the writer who carefully, consciously creates a world that has its heart - but not necessarily its facts - dipped and coated and submerged in the truth. But John’s truth - his emotional and his artistic truth - is not Jim’s truth, which is cold and verifiable and perfect, by definition. So, this book is what you’re left with. And that’s great.

Neither Jim, nor John, is correct. Neither plays necessarily fair. Neither can be hailed at the victor at the end of this book. At times, they both look foolish and immature - at one point, Jim writes: "I’ve never met John in person so I can’t speak to his animal magnetism, but it sounds like he’s tooting his look at me I have kind eyes and am so empathetic that people just want to tell me their stories horn," and John retorts, numerous times, with what should be considered direct insults.

But it is the at the end of this essay - a span of five pages - that turns a - let’s be honest, here - look at how stubborn and witty we are contest into a genuine, important conversation about art, writing, and nonfiction. You should pick up the book for pages 107 - 112 alone, because that is what nonfiction needs. But, if you still refuse, read - a small, edited - excerpt, where both Jim and John make their best arguments:

"Jim: You are writing what will probably become the defacto story of what happened to Levi, and so every detail you choose to do that with will become significant, because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him […] Why not suck it up and do the work to get it right?
John: […] This is what I believe the job of the artist is. […] What we do, like every other artist, is a compulsion for meanings, and so, just as any other would, we arrange things and we alter details and we influence interpretations as we pursue ideas. I know that most hard-core nonfiction writers won’t agree with this, and that’s fine. I know I’m in that minority. But I also suspect that those are the kinds of writers who still have faith in the genre, who have faith in the idea that by calling themselves “nonfiction” writers they automatically are. And bless their hearts for having that kind of faith, really, because somebody’s got to keep up the struggle to try to nail down the facts of the world. […] An essay is an attempt, Jim. Nothing else. […] And so, as a writer of essays, my interpretation of that charge is that I try - that I try - to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos. […] I understand your concerns, Jim - I completely do. But what I believe is that unless the imagination can do this, then I don’t know what it’s for. What writing isn’t fueled by the imagination?

John: Numbers and stats can only go so far in illustrating who a person is or what a community is about. At some point, we must as writers leap into the skin of a person or a community in an attempt to embody them. That’s obviously an incredibly violent procedure, but I think that unless we’re willing to do that as writers, then we’re not actually doing our job.
Jim: […] Its about people searching for some sort of Truth that connects with how they feel about themselves and their place in the world, finding that Truth in a piece of writing that resonates with them deeply, and then being devastated when they find out that the thing they were inspired by turned out to be deliberately falsified… And so they end up feeling alone in the world all over again.
John: […] of course that’s going to feel like a betrayal, because we don’t have enough deep experiences with art to know that that is what art is for: to break us open, to make us raw, to destabilize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with therefore the possibility of recognizing something that we had not recognized before."

And then there’s this - which is the last part of the book, which is what you should not read if you haven’t read the book - that leaves us right back at the beginning, at the heart of the question and issue:

"Jim: I mean, even if everything that’s in question could be verified by unbiased third-party witnesses, and even if I could definitively determine to a fraction of a second exactly when it was that Levi left his house and from how high it was that he jumped and in what direction the wind happened to be blowing - and how hard, and at what temperature, and whether there was dust or not - when he dove off the tower at 6:01:53 p.m., and plummeted for a total of 8 seconds onto a sidewalk of brown-brick herringbone … well, then … I don’t know. I’d have done my job. But wouldn’t he still be dead?"

And so the question becomes, almost, I think, not - what is nonfiction and where can we put it and how do we classify it and what is true and what is emotionally true - but, instead: why do we care and what do we do with it? Because we have to - we have to - do something with it as writers, as readers, as people.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(1 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780393340730
Author:
John D'Agata and Jim Fingal
Publisher:
W. W. Norton & Company
Author:
Fingal, Jim
Author:
D'Agata, John
Subject:
Editing & Proofreading
Subject:
Reference-Editing
Subject:
Reference/Writing
Copyright:
Publication Date:
20120227
Binding:
Paperback
Language:
English
Pages:
128
Dimensions:
9.25 x 7 in

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Product details 128 pages W. W. Norton & Company - English 9780393340730 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

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.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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.
"Synopsis" by , An innovative essayist and his fact-checker do battle about the use of truth and the definition of nonfiction.
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