You know that car commercial, the one where the driver’s right brain champions the car’s safety rating while his left brain gushes about the car’s horsepower? It’s a decent model for the back and forth between author John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal in their engrossing, quarrelsome new book, “The Lifespan of a Fact.’’ Only the debate here is smarter, fiercer, and entirely authentic.
At issue is the nature of fact in nonfiction. Specifically, to what degree is it acceptable for a nonfiction writer to alter the facts of a story in an effort to make it more compelling? “Well, zero,’’ you say. “Write a novel if you want to mess with reality.’’ But D’Agata doesn’t see things that way.
Here’s what happened. Harper’s magazine commissioned D’Agata to write an essay about Levi Presley, 16, of Las Vegas, who committed suicide in 2002 by jumping from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel. But the magazine rejected D’Agata’s submission in 2003. They felt he had taken too many liberties with the facts surrounding Presley’s death.
Enter San Francisco-based literary magazine the Believer. They picked up D’Agata’s story and passed it to Jim Fingal, a fastidious intern. His task? Fact-check it. “Thoroughly.’’ And so began a long war of ideas, reconstructed in “The Lifespan of a Fact,’’ between D’Agata and Fingal over the margins of literary nonfiction.
Now, before you tar and feather D’Agata for manipulating readers, take a look at his story. The version that ran in the Believer in 2010 is inset in the center of each page of the book. Despite its factual inaccuracies, which are laid bare as Fingal and D’Agata argue about it in magazine-style columns encircling each disputed chunk (and there do appear to be disputes over nearly every sentence), the piece nevertheless manages to draw an evocative portrait of Presley’s death.
But, at least for Fingal, the ends don’t justify the means. From the first sentence of D’Agata’s piece, he doggedly challenges each claim, often exposing various levels of journalistic irresponsibility.
In a typical exchange between the two early in the book, for example, Fingal questions D’Agata on his assertion about the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas. D’Agata provides documentation verifying one number, but he writes a different one. “Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ ’’ he says, “so I changed it.’’ In a similar instance, D’Agata changed the color of a fleet of vans from “pink’’ to “purple’’ because he “needed the two beats in ‘purple.’ ’’
Aesthetics aside, more troubling are the instances in which Fingal exposes graver inaccuracies in D’Agata’s writing. Here, for example, D’Agata massages data about suicide among ethnic groups. “They do not know why, generally speaking, white suicide victims tend to shoot themselves, while black suicide victims tend to poison themselves, Hispanics tend to hang themselves . . .’’ Painting such a claim as fact is dangerous, and Fingal corrects the record with a barrage of stats demonstrating that D’Agata’s assertion is purposely misleading and unquestionably wrong. “Once again, it seems John’s trying to stir up some drama here where there simply isn’t any,’’ he concludes.
The Believer took D’Agata’s story knowing that he had “no interest in pretending to be a reporter or in producing journalism.’’ For him, altering the facts of a story makes for “a better work of art - and thus a better and truer experience for the reader.’’
Admittedly, there’s something appealing about D’Agata’s passionate adherence to that idea in “The Lifespan of a Fact.’’ But because he never makes clear why his story needs to be nonfiction, why it couldn’t still be a “better and truer experience’’ if it were classified as fiction, the only point he makes in the end is that none of this “art’’ seems worth risking the loss of a reader’s trust.John Wilwol, a writer living in Washington, can be reached at jpw1922@gmail .com.