Duel of the douchebags.
07 January 2013
I am aware that is not a really classy way to title this post. I thought long and hard about not using it, but it's really the way this book made me feel, so there you have it.*
by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal
The book in question is one of 2012's nonfiction titles that I was most looking forward to checking out. (The fact that the book was published in February 2012 and I'm just getting around to it now, in January 2013, should indicate that I'm a bit behind in my nonfiction reading productivity.) It's titled The Lifespan of a Fact, and it's co-written by author John D'Agata and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal.
Let's see if I can nutshell it for you. The book purports to be the seven-year conversation between D'Agata and Fingal about an essay D'Agata wrote and that Fingal was assigned to fact-check. The article in question was about a Las Vegas teen's suicide, and had originally been commissioned by Harper's magazine, but that publication rejected it based on its factual "inaccuracies." It was then picked up by The Believer, which is where it was assigned to Fingal. In practice, the book looks like this: there is a small paragraph in the middle of each page, that is the actual essay, and then there is smaller type around it, which is the conversation back and forth between D'Agata and Fingal about each "fact" Fingal checked and D'Agata's response to his checking.
When I first heard about it, I thought it could be an interesting case study about the use of facts in nonfiction, and I've always been really curious about the way fact-checkers work.** But I was annoyed by this book and its authors from very nearly the first page. There we have the first sentence of the article: "On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in thirty-four licensed strip clubs in Vegas..." and the discussion between the authors about how D'Agata arrived at the number of "thirty-four." Fingal queried it because another article that D'Agata provided as a source for that number stated there were thirty-one strip clubs, to which D'Agata replied that he got thirty-four by counting the number of strip clubs in the Vegas phone book during the time when he was researching the article. So of course Fingal asked why he didn't just use thirty-one, if thirty-four could no longer be verified, and D'Agata answered: "Well, I guess that's because the rhythm of 'thirty-four' works better in that sentence than the rhythm of 'thirty-one,' so I changed it." (p. 16.)
Okay, I don't know about you, but when I hear bullshit reasoning like that about the use of facts in nonfiction, I stop reading. Make no mistake: I'm really not that concerned about whether there were 34 or 31 strip clubs in Vegas on that particular day. If you can state a source and stick with it, like the phone book counting, actually, I'm no absolute stickler. That's close enough for me. But to say you went with 34 because it "worked better in the sentence"? Lame.
This happens later in the essay too, when there is some discussion about whether it took Levi Presley eight seconds or nine seconds to fall to his death. In the Coroner's Report, as Fingal points out, it took eight seconds, to which D'Agata replies, about his use of "nine seconds"--"Yeah, I fudged that. It doesn't seem like it should be that big a deal, though. It's only a second. And I needed him to fall for nine seconds rather than eight in order to help make some of the later themes in the essay work." (p. 19.)
Really, D'Agata? You needed the kid's fall to be nine seconds, rather than eight? That seems like such an interesting thing to need, in light of the subject of the story.
So yeah. Four pages in and I was pretty much done reading. And it should be noted that the douchebaggery is not all on D'Agata's side; at one point Fingal starts questioning his description of the "base of the tower," and it's pretty nitpicky.
I'm not going to finish it. I did read a very good article about it, over at The Millions, that I would highly recommend you read if you're still curious about this one at all. At one point in that article, the author Mark O'Connell points out that the conversation in the book are themselves "heavily fictionalized version of the emails that were actually sent during the fact-checking process." What?
I guess I'm left wondering, does it have to be this hard? Do conversations about facts and truth and what makes nonfiction "art" have to be this boring and pedantic? Let's be clear on one thing: (as I tell my mother whenever she wants to talk politics with me) I don't have any answers. But I do have some suggestions: Nonfiction authors, do what you can to have some allegiance to the facts. Be ready to cite your sources, but trust that your readers are smart enough to know that not even the official sources are always completely truthful or accurate. Write better sentences, so they don't depend on you randomly picking facts to make them "flow better." And, for the love of all that's holy, if you don't want to be held to a journalistic standard, don't write pieces that read like reportage. Write a novel inspired by tragic true events instead--just ask Jodi Picoult, that's more lucrative anyway.
Okay, I'm done.
Well, not quite. It should be noted that royalties from the book "will be donated to a scholarship established in Levi's name at Pino and Bantam ATA Black Belt Academy in Las Vegas." (At least that's what it says in the back of the book. Has anyone fact-checked that?)
*Also whenever I think of the word "douchebag" I think of the classic SNL skit about it, and laugh.
**I know. Could I be any nerdier? Probably not.