A WRITER COLLEAGUE, REFERRING TO a document she had written, confessed: “I totally D’Agata’d this.” I couldn’t help laughing. But her comment was unsettling because she meant that she had fudged her story, made some of it up. And I suspected that the man behind the reference, John D’Agata, co-author of the book The Lifespan of a Fact, would be pleased.
The book’s backstory begins in 2003: D’Agata had written an essay on assignment for Harper’s Magazine about a teenager who committed suicide in Las Vegas. Harper’s rejected the essay because of factual inaccuracies, so D’Agata re-sold it to another magazine, The Believer. Jim Fingal, the co-author of the book, then a 23-year-old intern, was given the opportunity to fact-check the article, and a pack of red pens to help in the effort. He probably used the entire pack — to little effect.
The necessity of fact-checking nonfiction has been discussed and disputed off and on in the publishing world over the past 40 years, usually in the wake of discoveries of inaccuracies or outright deceptions. Clifford Irving, named “Con Man of the Year” by Time Magazine in 1972, sold a fake biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes and spent more than a year in prison for fraud. Six years before the flurry of discussion that has greeted The Lifespan of a Fact, there was the great debate — and much finger-pointing — following revelations that James Frey, author of the best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces, had exaggerated or simply made up information about his traumatic life. In 2008, Margaret B. Jones’s lauded memoir, Love and Consequences, the saga of her biracial gangbanging girlhood in the 1980s in South Central Los Angeles was revealed as pure fiction and “Margaret B. Jones” to be a pseudonym for a white middle-class woman from Sherman Oaks, Margaret Seltzer. The book was trashed by Riverhead, its publisher.
Book publishers maintain that they lack the resources to fact-check every book they publish. Fact-checking is up to the writer, they insist. But since writing and publishing is a partnership, and the publisher can be as liable as the writer if legal action is taken, sloughing it off on the writer doesn’t make a lot of sense. Most magazines, by contrast, such as The New Yorker and Harper’s (and The Believer), do fact-check. Even the tiny magazine I edit, Creative Nonfiction, checks the facts. It is a question of credibility and integrity. Factual accuracy goes hand-in-hand with personal truth. If readers can’t rely on writers to confirm the accuracy of verifiable details of their essays, especially when the task is often so easy, then how can anyone believe the more questionable contentions in their stories? In other words, how can we trust a writer’s interpretation of a story, if we can’t trust the foundation he or she has built?
Fingal, at least initially, represents this side of the convers...read more