The Skeptical Gaze
Purchase Book
The Lifespan of a Fact
author: John D'Agata , Jim Fingal
publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
pub date: 02.27.2012
pp: 128
tags: Nonfiction , Fiction , Literary Criticism

Ander Monson on The Lifespan of a Fact

The Skeptical Gaze

March 20th, 2012 reset - +

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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 each of us are inevitably up our own asses in one way or another at some point in our writing, and can be extricated or at least reminded of this — hopefully to some glorious aesthetic end that won’t be dulled by workshopping but honed by it.


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It’s easy to slide into weaponized metaphors, particularly since John and Jim cast themselves in this book as literary gladiators. Though I don’t know enough about ancient Rome to easily construct a bulletproof argument about gladiatorial combat and its role in society beyond some Wikipediaing and a passing knowledge of Russell Crowe glistening in films, I have spent countless hours playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement of my parents’ duplex as a teenager, demonstrating my steely appeal to sexy, barely-clad half-elves in need of my immediate assistance, so I think I know a little something about fantasy and combat.


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It’s hard not to feel beset by air travel: the particular stink of the guy sitting next to me in steerage class, the petty interruptions of my fantasies about intriguing passengers by overloud announcements from the crew about US Airways’ sponsored credit card offers, and the constant threat of screaming, burning death. I’ve started popping anti-anxiety meds because it takes the edge off the experience and beats my strategy of raging out over any minor inconvenience. The rage is an easy, pleasing response, one I’m accustomed to indulging, even as it doesn’t lead me anywhere and eventually subsides into a sulky acknowledgment of our shared humanity and a predicament that’s impervious to my subjectivity.


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The “in this corner”-ness of the boxers in this spectacle — an often-wack, occasionally lucid sparring between two “dudes” (as they are described in Wayne Koestenbaum’s savvy blurb for the book) — is evident in the boxing-style promo photo on the book’s back. One champions truth and one champions beauty. Grrr! says one. Arrrr! says the other. Their argument and interpretation winds, Talmudic, around the central text.

As the post-publication discussion of Lifespan has copped to, and as we suspected, the argument is exaggerated, meant as spectacle, that glittering gladiatorial match, and, like real fake combat, is at least partly staged for our enjoyment.

And enjoy it — or enjoy talking about it and battering it about — we have.


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Even as we gnash our teeth and decry the red-state/blue-state Fox News/MSNBCification of the way we receive our news — even, one suspects, our literary news — and confirm our ideas about what we really know very little about, for the most part, if we’re being really honest, we still like to see blood. It’s always red. We know what it means. It’s easy, isn’t it, comfortable and secure, to feel the surety of a principled position, to take either a stand against truth’s erosion into the abyss, or a stand for the always-present erosion, or entropy, that troubles the easy claim of truth and argues for art?

It is.

But I don’t like it.

More to the point, I do not trust it. Like a convenient narrative resolution, it’s too easy.

Even in the emailed invitation to contribute this response to the Los Angeles Review of Books, I was invited as counterpoint to Lee Gutkind, a writer, editor, and progenitor of one strand of contemporary literary nonfiction I admire, who will presumably be occupying the corner of the “Party of the Fact,” to cite the editor’s description in the invitation email. This slots me nicely into the opposition, the party of beauty, champion of the lyric.

I understand my role, but I don’t like playing roles unless there are half-dressed half-elves involved.

This point-counterpoint response to the text furthers the notion that there is an either/or binary to the issue, already implicit in the oppositional structure of writer/fact-checker, that it’s either fully cool or it’s fully not to do whatever, and I don’t think the two poles are mutually exclusive. I don’t even think this book is about the space between the two. Instead I suspect it’s about the space between the ears and accepting that the ego needs a challenge.


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One thing I like about space is its lyric possibility, how a silence can echo and be filled. Instead of extending an anecdote or argument directly, white space, a space break, a caesura, a pause — all of these serve as an opportunity for an electric silence, a space we ask the reader to occupy. It’s an antidote to ego, an opportunity to just shut up for a minute.


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In an interview, David Foster Wallace makes the argument that “[t]he reader’s pre-suspension of disbelief gives nonfiction a particular kind of power, but it also seems to encumber the nonfiction with a kind of moral obligation fiction doesn’t have.” To me that’s part of the trouble: it seems to me that as readers we do, contra DFW, still get/have to choose to suspend our disbelief in nonfiction — these days at least; or any days, really. Art requires that suspension. That’s the thrill of it. In fact, that’s what we desire most deeply as readers, offering ourselves up, our brains up, as willing vessels for the (simulated) mind (in the case of the essay — which is the closest we can currently get to a simulated brain) of the writer, because we want to be possessed. We need it. Not completely, of course, particularly in texts that aspire to art — we want to do some work as readers, too. We’re not dumb. We tell ourselves we’re not dumb.

But that’s what makes us angry when we hear about confabulation in works of apparent nonfiction, even as the deep satisfaction we may take in the artifice of the book (until it is exposed) moves us greatly. It’s as if we are angry in proportion to how deeply we allowed ourselves to be possessed by a book or an essay. We are angry at ourselves, and we project this onto the author.

Maybe instead of ceding to the anger, let’s try not to be so utterly credulous and admit that there’s some space between these two positions — true believer and total skeptic — that we’ve been offered.

As readers I would think we would embrace the work inherent in parsing the context — the methods — the ethos — of the text we’re reading. Instead of wanting a definitive and limiting contract with the reader detailing every possible liberty that’s been taken with fact, shouldn’t we — as readers and as writers — be aspiring to a more complicated relationship with an essay?

Part of understanding what is happening in an essay, particularly an essay that appears to be in some way documentary (as John’s essay — the central text in About a Mountain, anyhow — does) is trying to parse what pleasures the essay has to offer us and to let it trouble us as it will, and to hope we’re up for the challenge: Reading with a bit of a skeptical eye, understanding that because a text is beautiful — moving or true in an aesthetic sense — it may not be true in a literal, fact-checky sense, that if we’re looking for the experience of running this artifice — this simulation — on our own hardware, it implies a necessary dose of subjectivity that may not stand up to closer scrutiny. This is, after all, how John’s brain works. (Or this is how this particular one of John’s essay-brains works.)


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Connected to this issue is that we can’t very well be skeptical of everything. We can’t run every text through the truth filter if we want to live in the world. We have to trust someone, and so we suspend our disbelief.


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In addition to that authority we grant to the writer who makes some claim on documentary, we also expect that the writer has struggled — as best she can — with the question of what’s verifiable or not, documentable or not, what’s important or not, and the tradeoff involved in bending facts to fit the narrative.


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Maybe what we’re reacting to so strongly in D’Agata’s argument is his apparent lack of struggle.


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I published two essays in The Believer in the last few years, the second one in particular trying to address questions significant to me regarding truth and subjectivity and exhaustion with the “I” in nonfiction and narratization and memory. I’ve been fact-checked both times, albeit not as zealously as Jim Fingal’s approach might suggest. It was not a particularly pleasant experience either time, as I came to understand I had made some basic nerd-level errors (mistaking the title of the first single the band New Order released, for instance). The fact-checker also contacted my brother to verify a claim (completely incidental to the essay—so much so that I’m still unsure why they bothered to check that) that he and his wife had just had their first child. The fact-checker asked me to provide a source to verify a claim that, after playing a poor version of Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” at an open mic at my small, Midwestern, liberal arts college, I smashed a guitar onstage. Stymied, I suggested he talk to my friend Leonard, who would have been there. He contacted Leonard, who contacted me and said he didn’t remember, and asked me if I did smash the guitar, and I said yes, and thus the fact was checked.

I suppose this last fact was checked because it might possibly violate the only rule that I think really matters for writers of nonfiction: don’t lie in order to make yourself look cool. (Frey’s lies violated this rule, for instance, whereas self-deprecating lies or exaggerations designed to offer the writer as a character up for humiliation for the reader’s pleasure seem to me just fine.) I’m not sure how cool smashing a guitar at an open mic after playing a shitty Poison song makes me seem, but I do think of it as a moment from my past I am weirdly proud of, perhaps for its self-ironizing quality, a dubious upside — and you can see even in recalling this small memory I’ve bent it to serve the sense I have of myself — and in this way all our memories are automatically bent and bent again until they are probably so deformed as to be unrecognizable to our former selves.

I mention this to say that fact-checking is (properly) part humiliation and part aggravation, but (to me — and, I would think, to John) a welcome humiliation and aggravation, a refreshing corrective, a counterpoint to the ego. For most of us, it’s only in offering ourselves up to the gaze of a skeptical other party — whether editor or workshop or partner or self or whatever — that we can be reasonably sure of ourselves and what we’ve written, that we are forced to encounter our worst selves. Because if what we’re selling is our selves — our essays — our brains — then it seems like we need to shock them a bit on occasion to make sure they’re doing what we intended them to do.

As writers we need to suspend our own hard-earned self-disbelief in order to write anything at all. But eventually we need to reckon with that suppression.

In my case, I wasn’t happy about some of the fact-checkers’ suppositions, since they showed me to be an error-prone fool, but they also saved me on at least this one occasion from making an ass of myself in front of a large readership.


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I apologize for the self-oriented diversion, but I don’t know of another way to get at this except through the lens of self, because the essay is inherently directed through that lens. And thus the problem: it’s the distortion inherent in the lens of self that should motivate us to seek out (or at least grudgingly embrace in retrospect) opportunities for questioning the self.


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Of course John D’Agata (or at least the persona he’s rocking here — shockingly dick-like, a fact that I can appreciate as a reader, how he doesn’t seem to be all that interested in self-protection in The Lifespan of a Fact) is who he is as an essayist and thinker about the essay. And Jim is who he is, as the bio tells us, now a software engineer, thus reinforcing another binary: John, the academic, and Jim, the common man.

Most readers will have much less background with Jim Fingal and his thoughts on the essay or the nongenre of nonfiction than John, which might be why Jim gets more space in The Lifespan of a Fact than John does: while John’s original text is central on the page, it’s hard to pay any attention to it at all — or even to read it — in this format.

The pumped-up, trumped-up back-and-forth isn’t always very interesting or subtle (the bits excerpted in Harper’s are the most entertaining, but also the most specious, in that John’s argument about “34” versus “31” as central to the musical/aesthetic effect of the sentence is nonsensical, which is probably why it gives way so quickly to sparring), and that’s probably why many of us haven’t bothered to talk about the performance. It has a pro wrestling quality to it but features many fewer suplexes, and there’s not even the threat of real emotional stakes until pretty late in the game.

But then the performance is nothing if not for what it performs — and it’s performing an argument that’s pushed some buttons for us, culturally (and surely more so among makers and nascent makers of nonfiction), just as Frey mashed a few buttons on his uncontrolled spin through stardom. They’re both spectacles. I don’t have any sense that Frey was in control of his spectacle, though I’m confident John is — or John and Jim are — or perhaps I’m just hoping they are. Why else be so over the top with the performance? The dick jokes aren’t that funny.

I think of Clifford Irving’s faked Howard Hughes autobiography that was to be released in 1972, the year of Watergate, toward the end of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, and the clear glee that the American media took in hunting down and outing him — not coincidentally as we were being lied to on a national scale.

As somebody smarter than me pointed out, Frey’s smackdown was in part so satisfying for us because it took place around the time of the revelation of the fiction that led to the Iraq War. And were we not entertained, in part, because it was easier to call Frey a liar than to own up to the ways in which we were duped by much greater authorities about much more significant subjects? I wonder if John and Jim aren’t offering us just such a spectacle — albeit with lower stakes and a longer, often more thoughtful argument — just now, as culturally we must be at a nadir in terms of our trust in the authorities we used to trust implicitly: the Catholic Church, for instance, or the Government, or the echo chambers of broadcast and Internet news.

Enter John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, pursued by a bear.

Are we not entertained?


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I’ll be honest: I don’t really care about the liberties we come to understand D’Agata has taken with his material. I know many of you do, but I don’t.

I’m also not an enthusiast or defender of these liberties. I’m not a writer who believes that facts don’t or can’t mean anything, but I don’t feel lied to by About a Mountain; I believe that inherent in the process of making art there are going to be some compromises.


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What irritates me about Lifespan (and what is maybe meant to irritate me — and thus to get me to think about the bigger question at hand) is not what D’Agata says he does, but how he defends it. The position he takes is not one I’m comfortable with as a writer or reader because it asserts (or at least enacts) the unassailability of the authorial ego, made more dramatic here by John’s deep engagement with the genre of the essay, the most ego-dependent genre we have.


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Is he performing this as polemic in order to make a point? Is it the right one?


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Would we even be talking about it if he had struggled deeply and emotionally with the issues when confronted?


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No.


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Probably not.


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So maybe the tactic is justified by its results.


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Sometimes I’d rather be in the clouds, I think, in an alcoholic mist or an antianxiety haze, unaware of the precarious situation I find myself in — we find ourselves in — thousands of feet above the earth, supported only by thrust and lift.


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It’s difficult to ask these questions of ourselves as writers and as readers and as editors, what truths we take for granted, what we believe about the world and how it might be bent (or not) to serve the self. Without the emotional upswing of outrage at spectacle, at the way the heel has wronged our hero in the ring with a folding chair and thus offended our sense of justice, these questions tend to feel academic — precisely because they lack stakes, the conflict writ large and bloody on television. The stakes are still there, but they’re buried. Until they’re not.


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In fact we never get much insight or inquiry as to when and what John fudged intentionally or unintentionally in here, because his argument (admittedly one prompted by an equally extreme challenge) is that the writer is the sole arbiter of fact, and that any fact can be discarded for aesthetic purpose.

Fine by me, but that doesn’t mean the writer shouldn’t have to wrangle with others in doing so.

The space between the intentional and unintentional seems to me significant and worth essaying, though this book doesn’t go there in any substance. It’s a failure of the position D’Agata takes that he doesn’t get to this central question — one of how we can be possessed by ego.

Maybe this can’t be explored in an essay that manifests D’Agata as a static character. Jim, however, is another matter: he’s the one with a crisis of conscience, and as we move toward the very end he becomes the dynamic character — thus, I think, our protagonist — and whether or not he is shown to be in the wrong, most of us will certainly identify with him. He even arrives at an epiphany toward the end, right where the epiphany would normally occur.


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Knowing how constructed their argument is, it’s hard to say how convenient the narrative movement is — and thereby how much we should trust our own sense of satisfaction with the book’s plotting. This is the result, I think, of looking too far under the hood of artifice, that we begin to distrust or at least rethink the responses we have to art, and how we’re satisfied, and if we’re not careful all of this gets recursive very easily, curly-cueing powerfully inward, verging on paralysis, and nobody wants that. Do that too much and we’re back in the duplex with our towering cups of Mountain Dew and our leather bags of polyhedral dice, wondering why nobody wants to play with us.


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If we give up on the stability of facts or the reliability of memory or (y)our authorial intention, what does this do to reading? What does it do to what we call a self? Maybe it’s better to accept that we always wear a mask, play a role. The least we can do is wear it well and play it well, accept the occasional challenge to what we think we know.


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Or — wait, is this an echo chamber too?


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                                                                                  Or — wait, is this an echo chamber too?


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Somebody call a fact-checker for me please. I could use a confrontation.

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