Sunday, February 26, 2012


There was an interesting front page article in yesterday's New York Sunday Times book review about mendacity. "The Fact-Checker Versus the Fabulist" is a review of The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. The book summarizes the "knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants," the essayist D'Agata and his fact-checker, Fingal, an intern assigned by The Believer magazine to go over D'Agata's article about a young man's suicide in Las Vegas. The dispute begins when the conscientious Fingal contacts the author to say that he has "discovered a small discrepancy" in the piece, triggering a tart response from D'Agata: "maybe there's some sort of miscommunication, because the 'article,' as you call it, is fine. It shouldn't need a fact-checker; at least that was my understanding with the editor... I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful."

Not having read the book, I'm in no position to judge of its veracity myself, but the review makes it clear that the "liberties" are numerous and, while not harmful, perhaps, at least egregious distortions of the known facts surrounding the suicide. (I'm assuming the Book Review itself subjects its writers to the scrutiny of fact-checkers, so let's assume that on this front the reviewer, Jennifer B. McDonald, has it right--though she clearly sides with Fingal in the argument.) In any event, D'Agata's imperiously dismissive attitude seems based in his belief that the essay is an art form and that he, as the artist, is obligated to literary rather than factual truth. He insists on his right to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction in the interests of creative freedom and what he perceives to be a higher truth. Fingal, so far as he's concerned, is an irksome nit-picker. "As long as a story 'is believed by somebody'," writes McDonald, quoting D'Agata, "'I consider it a legitimate potential history.'" ("Hogwash," she adds.)

I wonder what a "legitimate potential history" is, anyway. A lie? As an essayist myself, I do not consider it my right to alter simple facts in the interests of mellifluous writing, as D'Agata appears to do. A small example: if there were, as Fingal ascertained, 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas at the time of the suicide, why would D'Agata inform his readers that there were 34? "Because," he writes, "the rhythm of '34' works better in that sentence than the rhythm of '31.'" I do concern myself daily with the quality of my writing, but my own choice would be to find a way to create a rhythm in which "31" worked just fine for my purposes, rather than alter the simple fact to suit my impeccable prose.

There is to my way of thinking a certain ego involved in the belief that what I write and the way I write it is more important than the reality about which I write. D'Agata affirms what the comedian Stephen Colbert memorably described as "truthiness" over truth. What I say is true trumps all other truths because I say it. This is essentially the argument of post-modernist, deconstructive thought. This whole thing, though, would not be of concern to me if it were simply a philosophical argument about literature. I started out life as a poet and slogged my way through a doctorate in Comparative Literature, and I have long since abandoned any delusions I once entertained about my own aspirations to literature as a high art form. I think of myself as a journeyman writer who tinkers away with words until I get them right.

But this mendacity is not just about literature. It's pervasive in our lives in the contemporary world. It has become okay to assert our version of reality as "the truth." It dismays me to think that D'Agata is a professor in the prestigious writing program at the University of Iowa (where I myself graduated, many years ago) and that he is in a position to purvey to students his belief that the "truth" of literature entitles even the non-fiction writer to manipulate the facts in the service of his art. We see the results of such thinking in the "real world" of politics, where candidates find it perfectly acceptable to utter lies, half-truths, and the projections of their own fantasy in the interest of persuading a gullible electorate to vote for them. The words and deeds attributed to Obama in the current election cycle rarely reflect the facts of his presidency. They are simply rhetorical devices, intended to deceive.

We seem to have lost the critical faculty needed to discern the difference. Indeed, if D'Agata is to be believed, we should suppress that faculty: the ultimate implication of his thinking is that we should believe whatever we are told. More and more of us distrust the truth, or are unable to discern it, with the result that it becomes an increasingly rare commodity. Once I learn that there are in fact 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas, why should I trust a man who insists, for whatever reason, that there are 34? Yet trust is the essential glue that holds us all together as a society, as human beings living in relationship with each other, as a global community. It seems to me that we should be working to devise ways in which we can restore it rather than undermine it further with our clever thinking and our fancy footwork, whether literary or political. I work hard to earn the trust of those who read or listen to my words. And I want others to work hard to earn mine.

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