Monday, February 27, 2012

Team Fingal

This weekend, the New York Times Book Review ran this piece by editor Jennifer B. McDonald about John D'Agata and Jim Fingal's The Lifespan of a Fact. It is a deft dissection of the book, which follows the correspondence between a writer (of nonfiction) and the fact-checker at The Believer assigned to fact-check his essay.

I was left with one over-riding thought: D'Agata makes my skin crawl. He "fixes" reality to suit his literary needs. Amongst the changes he made to his article about a boy killed himself by jumping off of the observation deck of a hotel in Las Vegas: that the only other suicide in LV that day was by hanging (it was also by jumping, but D'Agata wanted the suicide he was writing about to be unique), the number of strip clubs in Sin City (he changed 31 to 34 because the rhythm of the latter sounded better), and the color of dog grooming vans (from pink to purple -- also for language reasons). His justification for most of his changes are that he is not a journalist, he is an essayist, not in the service of facts, but in the service of Truth -- and art. Oh, yes, now I see it: the dog grooming vans really should have been purple all along.

In the course of their correspondence, D'Agata not only calls Fingal "stupid" but alienates his audience. He laments that the essay has been "terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public." In other words, "You just don't get me."

There are times when a nonfiction writer relies on the messy pile of neuronal puzzle pieces called "memory." There are times when nonfiction writers get it wrong -- they remember it wrong or they took the wrong notes or they don't double check their notes. There are times when nonfiction writers perhaps unintentionally stretch the truth or accuracy or intention of their memories, when they, for example, insert a thought or idea that maybe didn't occur to them in the moment but want to maintain narrative continuity. Some might change names. But most (the good ones) admit to these tweaks up front or use their belt of tools to downplay time shifts so that the text reads more smoothly. You work with what you have to make it art. That is the challenge for nonfiction writers.

But D'Agata does something else. He consciously and willfully changed the facts. Fingal puts it best when he responds, "Ars longa, vita brevis, no? Why not suck it up to get it right?" Exactly. If "pink" doesn't sound right in that sentence, then fix the sentence, don't change the color.

I wouldn't normally write about a book that I haven't read based solely on one review, but I'm a little reluctant to buy the book. As much as I'm intrigued by this battle between Truth and Art (ultimately I think they're both on the same side), I can't help but cheaply think about my pennies that will go into D'Agata's hand if I buy his book. (I also can't help but think that maybe he's being a jerk just to sell books.)

Book or no book. I'm Team Fingal all the way.

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