Jim Fleming: How negotiable is a fact in non-fiction? If you’re writing an essay, is it okay to take some artistic license with the facts to make the piece more interesting and literary? John D’Agata thinks it is. In 2003 he wrote an essay about a 16 year old boy named Levi Pressley who committed suicide by jumping from the observation deck of the high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The magazine that commissioned the piece rejected it due to factual inaccuracies. D’Agata’s essay was then accepted by another magazine. This magazine handed it over to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. Over the next 7 years, D’Agata and Fingal went back and forth in a struggle to navigate the boundaries of literary non-fiction. The essay, along with the correspondence between the two, is now available in a book called “The Lifespan of a Fact.” John D’Agata and Jim Fingal tell Anne Strainchamps about their experience. Here’s an excerpt from their book.
Jim Fingal: Hi John. I’m Jim Fingal. I’m the intern who’s been assigned to fact-check your article from Las Vegas and I’ve discovered a small discrepancy between the number of strip clubs you’re claiming there are in Las Vegas and the number that’s been given in your supporting documents. I am new at this, so bear with me. I was hoping that you could clarify how you determined that there are 34 strip clubs in this city, while the source you’re using says 31.
John D’Agata: I think there maybe is some sort of miscommunication because the article, as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker, at least that was my understanding with the editor that I’ve been working with. I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful and I’ve actually been assuming that everyone was cool with what I turned in, but I’ve also given the magazine all my research so that people there could see for themselves what I was up to when I took these liberties, so I’m not sure it’s going to be worth your time to fact check this. I’ve been open about all these discrepancies.
Fingal: I hear you, but I think it’s just policy to check all the non-fiction pieces the magazine publishes, plus it’s the job that I was assigned to do, so I have to do it. I’ve also already made a trip out there to check up on a few things in the essay because my friend was getting married and I knew this assignment was coming up. Pen and Teller] say hi by the way. So I made a bit of investment in this myself, but really I think they just want to make sure that all the facts in the piece add up, especially since there are a lot of them and your claims sometimes get a little inflammatory, in a good way of course, so could you help me out with that number?
Fingal: I mean in a hard-hitting and intriguing way. Wrong choice of words, sorry.
D’Agata: All right. Well, from what I can remember, I got that number by counting up the number of strip clubs that were listed in the local yellow pages at the time of Levi’s death. However, since that issue of the phone book was long gone by the time I started writing this, I found that porn article that I gave the magazine so that they could check up on my estimate.
Fingal: Thanks, John. Very helpful. Now I guess that’s where the discrepancy is because the number that’s mentioned in the article is different from the number that you’re using in your piece.
D’Agata: Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of 34 works better in that sentence than the rhythm of 31, so I changed it.
Fingal: Ah, okay. Well, thanks for your time, John. I’ll probably be checking back with you later on.
Anne Strainchamps: Well, that turned out to be the understatement of the year, didn’t it Jim? You checked back with John several dozen times over the next, what, seven years?
Strainchamps: So here you are dealing with this whole new beast and John says he had quote, unquote, taken liberties. What kind of liberties did you discover John had taken?
Fingal: You know, numbers, massage quotations streamlined, sentences that sort of stretched the limits of interpretations of the source material.
Strainchamps: What did you think, for instance, of John’s comment that he had changed the number of strip clubs from 31 to 34 because he liked the rhythm of 34 better?
Fingal: That sort of thing was hard for me to really approach. A lot of what, you know, one does as a fact checker, is you either personally verify something, or you consult a trusted source, a book or an article in a newspaper. I guess in the realms of counting strip clubs in a phone book, you get in the realms of ephemera where there’s not really any practical way I could verify that, so the author himself is my only real source for that, so very quickly started butting up against the wall of unverifiability.
Strainchamps: And John, for you this whole approach grew out of a much larger philosophy about the kind of piece you were writing. You didn’t necessarily see yourself as writing journalism. Is that right?
D’Agata: Yeah. Absolutely. I don’t consider myself a journalist. I never received training as a journalist. I guess my last few projects, however, have just been initiated by a journalistic approach. I don’t even know what that means. I know that I do an overwhelming amount of research and I’m often interviewing people, but what I then do with the information is then dramatically different. But I also like, much in this essay and in the book from which this essay was excerpted, I like playing with the idea of journalism and our expectations of journalism, so I like making something feel journalistic and then slowly reveal that that approach isn’t really going to give us as readers, what we want from the text, that we need to try and different source of essaying, and then the essays become a lot more associative and they perhaps become a bit more imaginative and start taking the problematic liberties.
Strainchamps: Would you guys mind reading another exchange?
Fingal: Sure. Hey John, again. I was wondering if you could weigh in on this tic-tac-toe game with the chicken? It looks like it happened quite a bit after Levi Presley died, but also that the woman who won it wasn’t really from Mississippi. I think she was a local resident. Does that matter?
D’Agata: I realize that, but I need her to be from a place other than Las Vegas in order to underscore the transient nature of the city, that nearly everyone in Vegas is from someplace else, and since she did in fact, originally come from Mississippi, I think the claim is fine as it is.
Fingal: What about the fact that this didn’t occur on the day Presley died? It’s not accurate to say that it did.
D’Agata: It was part of the atmosphere of that particular summer.
Fingal: Then isn’t that how it should be framed, so that it’s more accurate?
D’Agata: No, because being more precise would be less dramatic and would sound a lot clunkier. I don’t think readers will care whether the events that I’m discussing happened on the same day, a few days apart or a few months apart. What most readers will care about I think, is the meaning that’s suggested in the confluence of these events, no matter how far apart they occurred. The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as facts. The work that they’re doing is more image-based than informational. Nobody’s going to read this, in other words, in order to get a survey of the demographics of Las Vegas or what’s scheduled on the community calendar. Readers can get that kind of information elsewhere.
Strainchamps: A little later in the exchange, when you’re both getting a little testier with each other, John, you suggest, and I’m quoting here, that at some point the reader needs to stop demanding they be spoon fed like infants, and you later say that we’ve become like adolescents with art. I guess I’m curious. How is that we’ve become like children about art?
D’Agata: Well, that’s a great question. I think for me, it goes back to those expectations that we have as readers for this genre that we’ve started calling non-fiction, but one that we’ve only started calling non-fiction over the past 50 or 60 years. When you label something like that, you approach it with the expectation that what you’re getting in it is going to be something that you can trust, and in fact, it’s that issue of trust that often comes up when, you know, it’s revealed that some very popular memoir may have invented a bit of personal history, and we hear from readers in response to those revelations, that they feel betrayed. They feel that they invested some trust, some faith in this writer and that they betrayed them, and that’s problematic to me because we ought to be able to trust our politicians. We ought to be able to trust our lovers. We ought to be able to trust, you know, maybe even the companies we do business with, but that’s not the right relationship I would say, or it’s not the kind of relationship we should expect to have with art. I think it’s actually art’s job to trick us. I think it’s art’s job to lure us into terrain that is going to confuse us or make us feel uncomfortable, and perhaps open up to us possibilities in the world that we hadn’t earlier considered. I think that we, you know, we have to be fooled before we’re really able to wonder. So philosophically, my issue is that we’re not allowing an entire genre of non-fiction to have that kind of relationship to have that kind of relationship with the reader, and for me as an artist, that’s problematic.
Strainchamps: Jim, did your ideas about fact or fiction shift or change at all as you went through the fact checking process with John?
Fingal: Well, I think that the biggest thing for me was the distancing and a little bit of alienation from this concept of genre, because the genres of fiction and non-fiction, and the essay, are all man-made things. They’re sort of circles that we draw around different types of writing and there’s a porousness between their borders. Through fact checking the piece, I think the assumptions that I brought to what a piece like this, by calling it non-fiction or by calling it an essay, what that meant, it drew out to me the meaning of the act of calling it by one of those names.
Strainchamps: John, how about you. Did that experience change anything about the way you write non-fiction?
D’Agata: A little bit. I think I’m a little more willing to acknowledge that there is a line somewhere that one shouldn’t cross, but at the same time, I would still insist that it’s a line that only we as individual writers can draw, only we can determine where it is, but that we should look for it. We should be on the lookout for moments when we might be overstepping what’s appropriate.
Fleming: John D’Agata is the author of “The Lifespan of a Fact” and Jim Fingal is the fact-checker. They spoke with Anne Strainchamps.