John D'Agata and Jim Fingal on "The Lifespan of a Fact"

February 12, 2012

Author John D'Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal talk to Anne Strainchamps about the boundaries of literary nonfiction as chronicled in their book, "The Lifespan of a Fact."  D'Agata and Fingal spent seven years going back and forth about factual inaccuracies in an essay D'Agata wrote about a boy who committed suicide in Las Vegas.


I am both an editor and an avid reader. If I find incorrect information in something I'm reading for pleasure, fiction or non-fiction, it ruins the entire thing for me. How can you then judge if you can trust any of the information? If I find incorrect information in something I'm editing, I correct it.

As a reader of non-fiction, I'd stop reading a book if I knew the author purposely presented facts wrongly. A disclaimer for such liberty is in order, or a different genre name. I respect that an author wants artistic license, and I may read that. But I'd feel deceived if that author did so under the guise of non-fiction.

John, the author, is, in my view, espousing a view indistinguishably close to evil. When you write non-fiction you get a chance to choose the narrative... and even that can be done truthfully or deceptively, but changing a fact, no matter how small, is a lie and totally unacceptable. If you want to write a fable go ahead. If you want to write a novel, go ahead. However, if you are telling a true story then you have to be faithful to it. In fact, i would further and say that ANY fictionalization of generally real events is a disservice to society. In our culture of information overload it is hard enough to filter and edit and discern what is true and important even without people purposely blurring the lines and mudying the water..

This guy pulls the wool over his own head by claiming he's an artist-artist-artist, and thus doesn't have to follow the simple dictates of truth. Dude, if you want to write fiction, go for it. But if you're writing a nonfiction article, get the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas right -- and don't worry about the rhythm of how the number sounds in the sentence.

I wouldn't trust his prose as far as I could throw it.

What astonishes me is that people comment with their outrage by saying "But if you're writing a nonfiction article, get the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas right", which, to me, indicates they haven't really listened to this interview or understood D'Agata's entire argument. He doesn't write "articles". That's the very basic foundation of his argument, and it is stated plainly, even in the excerpt that was read. He is an essayist. People just don't seem to understand the whole premise of the debate. They keep arguing something completely irrelevant- whether or not facts matter in journalism. Given that D'Agata is not a journalist and is stating that what he is doing is an entirely separate genre, spouting off about the need for factual accuracy in articles is a wholly moot point.

I'm glad to know John D'Agata's name and his philosophy so I can avoid buyng or reading his work. He seems to be fooling himself. I'm glad he is at least open about what he is doing so I can be forewarned and not be fooled into thinking I am getting real information when I am not.

This is the most disturbing interview I've heard in a long time. Most appalling was the author's dismissive approach to facts themselves and his distorted, desperate justification for his errors (he's an ARTIST, don't you know). He is condescending toward the fact-checker. The demise of newspapers and professional journalists will bring us more of this type of writer, I fear.

As a working journalist for more than 40 years, I am alarmed and disgusted by the attitude evidenced by John D'Agata. He strikes me as a hobbyist writer of non-fiction, one of those folks who write primarily for themselves; for their pleasure and gratification without risking public scrutiny or acceptance. Anyone with the disregard that he discloses for factual information in a piece that purports to be factual cannot be writing for readers. A non-fiction, factual piece is built with truth throughout; it can have color, it can have creative language, it can have characters and dialogue and narrative, but it, nonetheless, is totally factual. The non-truthful stuff is called fiction. Readers know the difference. Writers who do not are a disservice - to the profession and to readers. A pox on them and those who publish them.

I'm an undergraduate student and I'm currently writing a paper about the importance of historical accuracy in film. I found this interview very interesting as it applied directly to my topic. In what I've learned from researching for my paper I think it's good to have people like D'Agata who are willing go outside of social expectation and be deliberately deceptive. In film I see many a similar thing. For example the 1986 film "The Mission," the film opens by stating that the events in this film "are true" and based on historical events. However, the book "Based on a True Story" Donald Stevens exposes the overwhelming historical inaccuracies in this film. With that on my mind I was very appreciative of John D'Agata's philosophy. I think he's calling attention to the collective myth that a certain label guarantee "the truth." I think that in a world thick with manipulative forces we cling to the idea that a label ensures us the truth. Really I think its our personal responsibility to assess for ourselves what we accept as the truth rather than depending on other people to secure it for us. Just to be clear, I don't mean any disrespect journalist who are deeply committed to bringing the truth that they see to their readers. In my studies I've learned to expect bias and subjectivity regardless of the effort someone makes to tell the truth. There is always so piece of the author that is imbedded in the story.

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