John D’Agata Challenges the Benefits of Fact-Checking

by by Erica Schwiegershausen

Earlier this month, Harper’s published an excerpt from John D’Agata’s latest book, The Lifespan of a Fact. The book traces the extensive fact checking of D’Agata’s essay “What Happens There,” which was published in The Believer in January 2010, seven years after it was rejected by Harper’s, the magazine which had originally commissioned it, due to “factual inaccuracies.” Each page features text from the essay which D’Agata originally submitted accompanied by fact-checking notes made by Jim Fingal, an intern for The Believer, and supplemented by email correspondences between the two.

The book is provocative, in part, because D’Agata is, according to Salon’s Laura Miller, “the leading light of a literary movement (largely confined to MFA programs in creative nonfiction) advancing the ‘lyric essay,’ a form that combines elements of poetry with the prose essay.” D’Agata is known for his anthologies The Lost Origins of the Essay and The Next American Essay, in which he argues for a rethinking of the concept of the essay, reminding readers that the term derives from the French essai, meaning a test, trial or experiment. He proposes that the essay is “the equivalent of a mind in rumination, performing as if improvisationally the reception of new ideas, the discovery of unknown, the encounter with the other,” seeking especially to discourage the notion that inherent in the definition of an essay is that it holds information.

However, some argue that this loose definition of the essay, and, accordingly, nonfiction, becomes increasingly problematic in D’Agata’s most recent book. In his exchanges with Fingal, D’Agata argues for the artistic liberty to alter, invent, or ignore facts in his articles, asserting that his essay “shouldn’t need a fact checker.” He explains: “I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful.”

Some of these exchanges between D’Agata and Fingal are humorous. When confronted with the fact that there are thirty-one strip clubs in Las Vegas, not thirty-four, as his essay claims, D’Agata concedes that “the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty one,’ so I changed it.” However, many have had strong reactions to D’Agata’s practices and assertions. Particularly controversial is the fact that “What Happens There” is an article about the 2002 suicide of Las Vegas teenager Levi Presley, a story whose accuracy D’Agata undermines with his claim that “being more precise would be less dramatic.” D’Agata also asserts that “this is an essay, so journalistic rules don’t belong here.”

The book has prompted a slew of writers to condemn D’Agata’s nonfiction writing philosophy, with publications proclaiming their own attention to fact-checking in blog posts like The New Yorker’s Hannah Goldfield’s “The Art of Fact-Checking,” or Salon’s Laura Miller’s “In Defense of Fact-Checking.” Such reactions are quick to describe D’Agata as a “total jerk” (Goldfield) or “dickish” (Miller) and make trite claims such as “fact-checking—not just the experience of being fact-checked by often the mere expectation of it—makes you pay more attention to the world around you. It compels you to stop insisting on what you want things to be and to come to terms with what they are” (Miller). However, as modes designated as “creative nonfiction,” “literary journalism,” and “nonfiction prose” become increasingly widespread and encompassing, perhaps readers can no longer expect a clear line between fiction and nonfiction. D’Agata asserts, “the important thing here is the search for meaning…I am seeking truth here, but not necessarily accuracy.” The distinction seems increasingly difficult to navigate.