The recent release of The Lifespan of a Fact (Norton) by the essayist John D’Agata and the fact-checker who reviewed his work, Jim Fingal, has received a great deal of attention, not least because of D’Agata’s cavalier attitude toward truth. D’Agata wrote an essay for Believer on the suicide of a teenager, and an intern at the magazine challenged D’Agata on nearly every assertion of fact, discovering that the essayist had purposely massaged quotations, changed facts, and, in places, outright lied in pursuit of what D’Agata claimed were artistic truths that went beyond truth as conventionally defined.
D’Agata defended his view of factual accuracy: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art—a truer experience for the reader—than if I stuck to the facts.”
To my mind this excuse works only for fiction. At some point, lying about what actually happened disqualifies a nonfiction piece from any claim to representing what really occurred. If the facts need to be changed to present a great truth, than what you have written is fiction, not journalism, and should be acknowledged as such.
D’Agata’s defense of falsehood reminded me instantly of Erich von Däniken’s infamous assertion that it did not matter whether the evidence he used to defend the ancient astronaut theory was actually true and that he was free to take poetic license in fabricating evidence so long as it served the greater good of promoting his pet theory. Von Däniken told Playboy in 1974, “In German we say a writer, if he is not writing pure science, is allowed to use some dramaturgisch Effekte—some theatrical effects. And that’s what I have done.” He also admitted in the same interview that some of his writing was purely for emotional impact: “In some part, I mean what I say seriously. In other ways, I mean to make people laugh.”
How is this different from D’Agata falsifying basic facts, which, not to get too morbid, involve the time it took the suicidal teen to fall after he jumped from a Las Vegas tower, to provide emotional catharsis, to “make people cry,” so to speak? D’Agata fudged an 8 second fall into a 9 second fall to harmonize with the 9 degrees of belts awarded in the ancient art of Taekwondo, lying too about the true number of 11 belts the martial art offers, of that Taekwondo is less ancient than McDonalds, founded only in the 1950s. This is hardly different than von Däniken’s fake cave in Ecuador filled with the aliens’ golden record books, or the dozens of other misrepresentations and falsehoods that fill ancient astronaut books.
What bothers me immensely is that these people are celebrated for, essentially, lying to the public and presenting falsehoods in the clothes of truth. I respect facts. For a manuscript I am working on, I spent six months trying to track down a fact. It required discussions with two of the world’s leading experts, consultation with a dozen obscure journals, and days spent translating Latin and Greek texts that few had consulted in centuries. Do I occasionally make mistakes? Sure. We all do, but I do strive for accuracy and truth. All of that work would come to nothing if it is accepted that writers can simply make up what they don’t know. I know it would sure be easier to make up an answer than hunt down the true one.
But what good comes of the hard work of finding facts if lies and distortions are held up as a separate but equal way of knowing? There is a word for stories that are not true but contain emotional truth. That word is “fiction,” and that is where these false stories belong.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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