Fact Checking the Fact-Checker’s Fact-Checking

April 7, 2013 § 3 Comments

bunniesPerhaps Jim Fingal, the fact-checker engaged in the wrestling match with John D’Agata recounted in The Lifespan of a Fact is not so reliable as we assumed.  Or at least that’s the conclusion of a few of Clint Barker’s Introduction to Postmodern Literature students who put together a website,  The Lifespan of a Lifespan of a Fact, annotating the inconsistencies in the fact-checker’s work.

For instance

* Jim says that on the day before Levi died, theLas Vegas Sun published an article that referred to a possible ban against touching strippers, in response to John’s claim that lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city.
* This is incorrect because according to the Las Vegas Sun, it was a ban against the strippers touching the clients, not the other way around.

And

 * Jim confirms that the Stratosphere is the largest building west of the Mississippi River in an 1989 Las Vegas Review-Journal article by John Galtant.
* I can’t get the article itself—the archives for that year only appear to be available on microfilm thousands of miles away—but I was able to find that the journalist is named “John Gallant,” not “John Galtant.”

Will it never end?

Probably only when we stop reading, so let’s hope not.

The Fifth Genre

February 24, 2012 § 29 Comments

No one ever said John D’Agata wasn’t an interesting guy, just that his claim that he doesn’t write nonfiction but works in some fifth genre, the essay, confuses many of us — in the writing, editing, teaching world — who have always counted the essay as nonfiction.  Turns out even his latest book, Lifespan of a Fact, is only marginally true …

” … we both knowingly amped up the hostility of our comments.  I think of the form of the exchange between Jim and me as an exaggerated farce.  At its core is a real argument, a debate that we really had and that continued throughout our real-life fact-checking process.  But at some point during that process we also decided to do a book about the process … and turned the volume up on how we discussed these issues.  …. we knew that most readers would probably not be fascinated by two dudes having a sober discussion about the very nerdy issue of veracity in nonfiction.”

These nuggets come from a very interesting interview over at The Kenyon Review blog.  Here’s D’Agata on where he fits in the nonfiction spectrum (in which he contradicts himself, perhaps, on his previous claim that he does not consider himself a nonfiction writer):

“There is absolutely no difference between McPhee and me—other than that McPhee is about ten thousand times more talented than I!  The other difference of course is that McPhee has chosen one set of artistic restraints and I’ve chosen another. “

On teaching his views on fidelity to fact to Iowa MFA students:

“… by no means do all of my students agree with my rather lefty approach to the issue.  In any given year, we have students in our program who identify themselves as literary journalists, memoirists, lyric essayists, and everything else in between.  And none of them has a predictable opinion about facts in ‘nonfiction.’  However, no matter where these students fall on the “veracity” spectrum, I can guarantee that every single one of them identifies him or herself as an artist, first and foremost.  …  Actually, I take that back.  I do have one student currently who is genuinely struggling with the term “artist.” He doesn’t like it. And he’s also kind of unhappy in the program, unfortunately, because I think he feels out of place and misunderstood.  So I just lied.  I apologize.”

John D’Agata makes some good points, of course, but still leaves us scratching our heads.  John, can we just settle this and just call what you do the “fessay” or the “essaction”?

In Fairness to John D’Agata

February 12, 2012 § 28 Comments

One reader, posting in the comments to our earlier  John D’Agata discussion, warns, rightly, that D’Agata hasn’t had a chance to defend his position much in the recent critiques of  his fuzzy fact-checking and odd Harper’s excerpt.  “Disagree with him, fine,” MKE writes. “But don’t underestimate the thought he has put into this. It’s not about him being lazy or cavalier as a writer, as some people who simply don’t get it posit here and elsewhere in this online debate.”

In the interest of fairness, we found the PRI radio interview MKE cites as a good explanation of D’Agata’s approach and transcribed a fair bit of it.  Here it is:

I don’t consider myself a journalist. I never received training as a journalist … I know that I do an overwhelming amount of research and I’m often interviewing people but what I then do with the information is dramatically different.

I like playing with the idea of journalism and our expectation of journalism. So I like making something feel journalistic and then slowly reveal that that approach isn’t really going to give us as readers what we want from the text, that we need to try a different sort of essaying, and then the essays become a lot more associative and the perhaps become a bit more imaginative and start taking the problematic liberties.

I think it is art’s job to trick us. I think it is art’s job to lure us into terrain that is going to confuse us perhaps make us feel uncomfortable and perhaps open up to us possibilities in the world that we hadn’t earlier considered.

I think that we have to be fooled before we are really able to wonder. So philosophically my issue is that we’re not allowing an entire genre – nonfiction – to have that kind of a relationship with the reader.  And that’s for me, as an artist, that’s problematic.

The entire interview can be listened to (and downloaded) here.

The New Yorker on D’Agata: Simply a Hack

February 11, 2012 § 12 Comments

Hannah Goldfield weighs in at The New Yorker:

D’Agata’s responses are, rather than thoughtful and collaborative, hostile and delusional. He sees himself as an artist, not a reporter—even though he’s written a reported story about something that very publicly happened in real life—and therefore completely exempt from the responsibility of fact-checking. “Hi, Jim,” he writes, in the book’s first e-mail excerpt. “I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the ‘article,’ as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker…. I have taken some liberties … here and there, but none of them are harmful.”

There is, of course, comedy to be found in this set-up, at least for journalism geeks; Harper’s excerpted some of the choicest bits in their “Readings” section. D’Agata acknowledges that there are thirty-one, and not thirty-four, strip clubs in Las Vegas, but, he says, “the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ so I changed it.” When Fingal points out that Levi Presley, the subject of D’Agata’s essay, was not the only person in Las Vegas to commit suicide by jumping from a building on the day he did, D’Agata replies, “I think I remember changing this because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”

What D’Agata fails to realize is that not only are these liberties indeed harmful—even if only to the reader, who is trusting the writer to be accurate in his or her description of what exists or took place in reality—they are also completely unnecessary to creating a piece of great nonfiction. The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of “Truth” or a true “idea”—is preposterous. A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack. If I’ve learned one thing at this job, it’s that facts can be quite astonishing.

.. This question, no matter how it’s interpreted—as a nihilistic sigh, or as an argument that all that matters are the broad strokes—is a royal cop-out. Altering and cherry-picking details is an easy, hollow game for a writer. The challenge, and the art, lies in confronting the facts—all of them, whether you like them or not—and shaping them into something beautiful.

Read more at The New Yorker

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