AS I FINISHED READING The Lifespan of a Fact I was aloft, jouncing about in the very top layer of cloud cover, on the way to North Carolina. I’m sure there’s a name for this flying tactic and a reason for it, probably involving saving fuel or reducing perceived turbulence, but it’s irritating to not know it and to undergo it. Aside from the bumpy ride, as the first officer called it in his apologia, this tactic has the secondary effect of obscuring the earth below, eliminating the only thing I like about flying, the reason I demand window seats and put up with the humiliations of air travel: that sense of godlike perspective one gets from the aerial view. Yes, I think, as we clear the clouds and I can see the flatness parceled out below into field after field, divided by roads, this could all be mine.
It’s hard to extricate a conversation about John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact from the cloud cover of conversation and frenzied internet commenting of which anyone who has frequented literary blogs or conferences in recent months is probably aware. Most of us are talking about the argument that D’Agata and Fingal perform, rather than the book the two have written. Perhaps that’s because the argument is more interesting to us than the book itself. Or maybe it’s laziness. It’s easier to post a comment than to parse a book.
It’s true that both author and fact-checker are occupying and performing extreme positions, which might be what leads us to this conflagration. John resists any fact-checking challenge to his writing whatsoever, alternately angry, petulant, and lecturing in his responses. Jim uses his mandate for fact-checking not only to check on significant, operating facts but to confirm that the coroner having a conversation with John actually had a beard at the time, using his vacation time to run down increasingly dickish and esoteric details, like obscure points in the legend-shrouded history of Tae Kwan Do, surely to increasingly frustrate John as he is himself frustrated.
The way Jim goes after John, taking apart and running down the minutiae of John’s arguments, is entertaining for a while. Before its most dramatic overture in the ninth section, Jim’s argument winds down to point-scoring, most obviously on page 78, where John acknowledges a rare mistake and Jim crows, “Score.” It’s clear that the work of fact-checking has now given way to the ego of the fact-checker.
As any writer knows, our work is infused with ego. It’s surely no accident that the way many of us are trained is via the workshop, the process in which we silence — humble — open — ourselves to the criticism of others, theoretically our peers, and then revise in accordance, or don’t, as we prefer. The awkwardness of this forced momentary humility might be thought of as a model for the fact-checking and editorial process that students of the workshop aspire to undergo. As a teacher of writing, I tend to defend this model as a necessary counterpoint to the way...