Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Author's Note: This review first appeared in the third issue of Small Print Magazine.
D’ Agata, John and Fingal, Jim, The Lifespan of a Fact. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012. Print.
The Lifespan of a Fact is a battle of wills between a writer, D’ Agata, of a submitted essay in which he has admittedly taken “liberties… here and there, but none of them are harmful” and the magazine’s fact-checker, Fingal, a man obsessed with the accuracy of details in a work of nonfiction. What follows in this book is an engaging, humorous, and controversial philosophical fight that poses some difficult questions: How much flexibility and artistic license is acceptable in a work of nonfiction? Where is the line drawn? What is truth – factual versus artistic?
The book begins innocently enough, with Fingal questioning some of the initial facts in D’ Agata’s essay with the magazine’s editor. Fingal is told to check with D’ Agata on his source for the information, and the groundwork is set for the ensuing battle. Line by line, each fact in the essay is fact-checked for accuracy by Fingal, with scrupulous notes when he finds something awry. Original passages from the essay are presented at the center of each page with Fingal’s confirmations and sources used to verify the facts printed in black ink. When there’s a discrepancy or question, the dispute is printed in red ink as is the subsequent e-mail wrangling between Fingal and D’ Agata about the presentation of erroneous information versus the merit of creative artistic interpretation.
The insights into the psyches of these two are fascinating as their duel devolves into name-calling and accusations of complete fabrication and falsehoods to the ruining of the essay with too much “nitpicking.” Each is steadfast in his assertion of what is right: Fingal in stating that the trustworthiness and credibility of the writer and the piece must be maintained, with D’ Agata being adamant about his freedom to fulfill his artistic vision.
Each fact is magnified under a microscope of analysis as to its verifiability. Sources are tracked. Notes are referenced. At one point, Fingal even asks for contact information to D’ Agata’s mother to see if she really owns a cat, and Fingal makes a snide comment about a line in the essay in which D’ Agata states his mother earns extra income by beading jewelry. Fingal: “Though she must be quite the artist to be able to sell her handicrafts for extra cash.” D’ Agata: “Tread very carefully, *******.”
At the end of this book, we get the full-fleshed philosophical arguments these two men are representing in a back-and-forth debate about the relative merits of their positions. Fingal believes the writer has a contract with the reader to uphold the tenets of journalistic integrity in giving factual information or there’s a violation of trust in the author/reader relationship. D’ Agata is not a journalist nor is he running for political office, so he isn’t constrained by the same expectations for rigorous honesty to the public. He’s an artist creating the most resonant and affecting story he is capable of conveying, and his allegiance is to the emotional truth rather than the literal one.
The arguments are compelling and go to the heart of the problems posed by the loose definition of creative nonfiction as a literary form.