A book review in the New York Times on February 26 has left me with the feeling that the foundations of truth are being nibbled out from under us. I haven’t yet read the book, so this note is based on the review alone. Given the nature of the events described in the book, I feel obliged to announce that.
In “The Lifespan of a Fact”, John D’Agata, an essayist, and Jim Fingal, the fact-checker assigned by a magazine called The Believer to check an essay submitted by D’Agata, join to document their battle about truth, facts, non-fiction, writing, and art. The essay was about a boy’s suicide in Las Vegas. These two spent five, or perhaps seven, years arguing about the need for the essay to be…well, I’ll use the word ‘true’, although it seems as though essayist and checker differed on what that might mean.
The book consists of the essay as first submitted, Fingal’s annotations, and the vicious correspondence between author and checker about the doubtful and sometimes demonstrably and even admittedly false elements which the author had chosen to include. The NYT reviewer, Jennifer McDonald, advises that the book does not include the essay as eventually published–surely a surprising omission!
In my innocence, I would expect the reaction of an author advised by a pre-publication fact-checker of a factual mistake in the work to be gratitude and a humble amendment of the relevant bit. (This might explain why I remain unpublished–insufficient arrogance.) D’Agata’s response, as McDonald presents it, is that where the facts are inconsistent with artistic ‘truth’, deep-six the facts.
He makes up small items–the colours of things, the names of institutions–and big things–omitting the occurrence of another similar suicide the same day. When called to his attention, these deviations are justified because, he says, the true names or descriptions lack rhythm, or because he wanted the story he presented to be perceived as unique. He refuses to have a disclaimer on the essay because he doesn’t want to limit his audience to those “afraid of accidentally venturing into terrain that can’t be footnoted and verified.”
What is one to make of this? Is this the final destination on Deconstruction Road, where not only the author’s intent but even the purported content of the narrative is irrelevant? I’m a fan of deconstruction; I truly believe that once one releases the text into the world it has its own life. And plenty of authors who died before Derrida was born would have admitted that their works included meanings that they hadn’t intended.
But if the act of communication is to be possible at all, some common ground must exist. You may look at an Agatha Christie novel as a document of 1920s gender politics in middle-class Britain, where I’m reading it as a fascinating exercise in sleight-of-pen, concealing the murderer among the cast of characters. It can probably serve both our viewpoints, although she certainly didn’t intend the former and did intend the latter. But if you think you’re reading an analysis of the agricultural economy of Asia Minor in Miss Christie’s work, you’re not connecting with the work at all. The words don’t mean what they say.
That, for me, is the problem with D’Agata’s attitude. If something is labelled “non-fiction”, that’s a promise that the narrative contains information that corresponds in a meaningful way with events that existed in the real world. Notwithstanding the philosophical and theological objections to the idea of a ‘real world’, we deal with the illusion of reality every day. Non-fiction is a distillation of part of that reality and we are entitled as readers to rely on that. When art severs the connection, the author abandons the claim to non-fiction.
Yours for more footnotes and verifying,