You Can't Handle the Truth

It seems like every couple years, like clockwork, another journalist or memoir author or performance artist gets caught fabricating material, and is pilloried in the public square. Why does it keep happening? And why do we care so much? I mean, sure. Mike Daisey is a pompous egotistical blowhard, but does it really matter if he spoke to a specific factory worker at a specific time, if the picture he's painting is accurate overall? It's an intriguing question, so when I started seeing reviews of The Lifespan of a Fact (2012), a book that centered on this very issue, I was immediately interested.

The book reproduces an essay submitted to a magazine by author John D'Agata. It had been previously rejected for inaccuracies, and when another publication took it up for review, their resident fact-checker Jim Fingal gave it similar scrutiny. He and D'Agata began to correspond, then debate, then fight, then begrudgingly accept each other's point of view. Fingal's notes detailing the many, many untrue things that D'Agata asserts are outlined alongside the original essay. Fingal believes that when you call something non-fiction, you owe it to the reader to be completely factual, and D'Agata argues that rigid adherence to small factual details ruin the flow of his writing.

They're both right, and they're both wrong. And unfortunately, they're both kind of insufferable. Yes, D'Agata has a point when he says nailing things down like the distance between specific buildings in Vegas aren't important to his overall thesis, and no intelligent reader would ascribe ulterior motives to streamlining the essay. But does he have to be such a condescending douche about it? And yes, Fingal has a point when he argues that D'Agata can't just present something as factual, when it's a universe of his own construction, shifted to fit his narrative in the name of Art. But does he have to be such a nitpicky snob about it?

Sadly, what could have been a really fascinating debate instead comes off as an obnoxious polemic on both sides. These two deserve each other, and the reader deserves neither of them. I'm still very curious about the nature of fiction, and how much the truth can stretch before we can't call it truth anymore. There are nuggets of that discussion in this book, but it's ultimately too tiresome and self-satisfied to offer much in the way of answers. You want some real truth? You can skip this one.

The Lifespan of a Fact: C+


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