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Lifespan of a Fact

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Now a Broadway Play.

An innovative essayist and his fact-checker do battle about the use of truth and the definition of nonfiction.

How negotiable is a fact? In 2003, after publishing his book of experimental essays, Halls of Fame, John D’Agata was approached by Harper’s magazine to write an essay for them, one that was eventually rejected due to disagreements related to its fact checking. That essay which eventually became the foundation of D’Agata’s critically acclaimed About a Mountain was accepted by another magazine, the Believer, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. What resulted from that assignment, and beyond the essay’s eventual publication in the magazine, was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.

This book includes an early draft of D’Agata’s essay, along with D’Agata and Fingal’s extensive discussion around the text. What emerges is a brilliant and eye-opening meditation on the relationship between “truth” and “accuracy” and a penetrating conversation about whether it is appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other.

128 pages, Paperback

First published February 27, 2012

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About the author

John D'Agata

16 books72 followers
John D’Agata is the author of Halls of Fame: Essays, About a Mountain, and The Lifespan of a Fact, as well as the editor of the 3-volume series A New History of the Essay,, which includes the anthologies The Next American Essay, The Making of the American Essay, and The Lost Origins of the Essay. His work has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. He holds a B.A. from Hobart College and two M.F.A.s from the University of Iowa, and recently his essays have appeared in ,i>The Believer, Harper's, Gulf Coast, and Conjunctions. John D’Agata lives in Iowa City with a dog named Boeing, and he teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa where he directs the graduate Nonfiction Writing Program.

Find out more at johndagata.com

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 242 reviews
Profile Image for David.
161 reviews1,450 followers
March 10, 2012
As of the writing of this review, I am the only person to give The Lifespan of a Fact fewer than three stars. This, I think, is clearly a case of a book preaching to its choir. Those who choose to read a (windy) transcript of a dispute between an essayist (John D'Agata) and a fact-checker (Jim Fingal) on the struggle between fact and truth are perhaps predisposed to 'enjoy' it. It isn't a book likely to be discovered by an audience uninterested in its themes.

Accurately or not, I would tend to count myself as a constituent of this book's target audience. I am, after all, a writer (of sorts). I am often embarrassingly passionate about esoteric, philosophical topics. I'm intrigued by, if not entirely won over by the trickery of literary postmodernism. I am concerned, ambivalently, with pure aesthetics—that is, art divested of moral responsibility. And I am a nerd who enjoys eavesdropping on a hifalutin discourse.

But... The Lifespan of a Fact, overall, strikes me as a failure. First of all—and despite Maggie Nelson's back cover blurb—it is monotonous and not 'compulsively readable.' (If priggish fact-checker Jim Fingal were analyzing the phrase 'compulsively readable,' he would probably write two or more long paragraphs on the distinction between literal readability [i.e., being able to be read] versus the connotation of being enjoyable to read. He would ultimately give the phrase a pass, although he would be bothered by the figurative use of the adverb compulsively.)

What The Lifespan of a Fact is comprised of is the reprint of an essay by John D'Agata about suicide in Las Vegas accompanied by Fingal's scrupulous (and tedious) fact-checking notes—as well as D'Agata's snide responses to these notes. I am not faulting a fact-checker for being tedious. It's certainly his job, in a sense. But I am faulting the publishing powers-that-be for imagining this might be an interesting or enlightening read.

I would estimate that the detailing of factual quibbles make up 80% (or more) of the book. Only the remaining scraps of the book engage in spirited discourse about the goals and responsibility of essays/'non-fiction' (which is a contentious genre for D'Agata). Once the reader gets the feel for the pattern—Fingal increasingly nitpicks in retaliation to D'Agata's perceived ethical failures—it's just a matter of riding out the book, with its droning barrage of fact corrections.

D'Agata and Fingal, as represented in the book, are both extremely unlikeable. D'Agata is sniping and petulant. His grandiose formulas for the essay are as moralistic and childish as Fingal's needling scrutiny. Once Fingal realizes what he's dealing with, he spitefully extends his fact-checking authority to the sources cited by D'Agata. In other words, he not only checks to see whether people said what they were quoted as saying, but he also judges the truth-claims of their quotes. Clearly, he is a fact-checker run amok.

D'Agata's position that essayists are not beholden to facts and may change them liberally to arrive at 'truth' is nothing but postmodernist nonsense, in my opinion. The essay (as it exists today) is a culturally established exchange between writer and audience endowed with certain expectations. D'Agata's prickly response is essentially, if I may paraphrase, that the audience is wrong—or as he puts it 'ignorant.' I would question how the audience is expected to arrive at D'Agata's understanding of the rules of the essay if they aren't edified in some way—if there isn't some 'opening' onto this knowledge. Readers will leave the essay on Levi Presley's suicide believing that it is factually accurate. If they never come to understand the essay otherwise, how will they be enlightened and come to appreciate D'Agata's use of the genre? As Fingal, I think, correctly diagnoses, D'Agata is contemptuous of his readers—looking down on them from the rarefied temple of 'art.'

More to the point, perhaps, D'Agata's liberties do not make for a compelling essay! In the end, he falsified and distorted the facts to arrive at an entirely mundane 'truth.' If only his writing were as exalted as his theories...
Profile Image for Michael.
541 reviews50 followers
March 23, 2012
Quick edit(3/22/12): In surveying some of the professional reviews out there (and on here), I've been surprised by one strand of criticism in particular, the heart of which seems to stem from this line on the back cover: "This book reproduces D’Agata’s essay, along with D’Agata and Fingal’s extensive correspondence." It has since emerged that the quotes we get from Fingal and D'Agata have been edited/selectively chosen/made up wholesale for the sake of this book/etc., thereby beefing up the internal drama of what was more likely a humdrum fact-checking process.

I've thought about it and while there may be some tap-dancing on the part of the authors going on, I still don't think it invalidates the point they're trying to make, or at least the questions they're getting you to ask. It never occurred to me that their email exchanges hadn't been doctored to some extent for this publication. Of course this isn't a verbatim transcript of their argument; why would it be? Another reviewer here said it best: This book isn't a book about an essay; this book is an essay. It would be kind of self-defeating for a book that is trying to address the allegiance to Facts in pursuit of Truth to issue a disclaimer at the beginning that parts of it might be exaggerated.

I'm not saying you shouldn't be bothered that the authors might be playing fast and loose with their shelving classifications. But in a book that is essentially asking you to question the nature of nonfiction, why would the authors expect you to exempt their own book in the process?


First things first: You're going to want to read this as a hard copy. I'm sure you could get away with reading it on a tablet, but you probably need good ol' print to truly appreciate the design. D'Agata's essay runs in the middle of the page, with Fingal's factual disputes and D'Agata's testy responses surrounding it. It's really cool and visually appealing, and according to the book, it was designed by Chris Welch, so high credit to him.

As for the book itself, its immediate selling point is that the author and fact-checker engage in feisty repartee throughout. There are definite laughs to be had when D'Agata tells Fingal things like, "Tread very carefully, asshole." Here's a representative exchange:

Fingal: "Can't find any reference to this ordinance anywhere. John?"
D'Agata: "Not sure, but I'm sure I could find it if nailing down this tiny little fact is that important."
Fingal: "'Important' is relative at this point. But I'd like to have it for the sake of thoroughness."
D'Agata: "OK, will hunt around."
Fingal: "Awesome, thank you. And you know, while we've hit some rough patches off and on, I think things are looking pretty good."
D'Agata: "Sorry, can't find it."

But there's a deeper argument at work here, one that slowly emerges as you wend through the text, and one that may change how you read what you assume to be "nonfiction." D'Agata stakes out a territory somewhere between fiction and nonfiction (which he says are two arbitrary designations publishers came up with that everyone else is now forced to choose between) and argues that the essay form almost requires the manipulation of facts in order to make the author's vision appear true.

One of David Foster Wallace's most memorable pieces is the cruise ship essay, which is always cited as among the most observant, funniest essays of its time -- and yet Jonathan Franzen more or less confirmed that great chunks of it were at least embellished, if not more. Does that make the essay worse? Does it diminish Wallace's points, or does it actually enhance them to know that he engaged in something other than reportage? As Tim O'Brien writes about in The Things They Carried, is it possible that story-truth is more "true" than capital-T Truth?

The book reaches its climax at page 107, when Fingal and D'Agata finally get to the heart of their arguments (some 7 years after the project started!) The insults and snarkiness give way to a sincere, important, thought-provoking debate about the division between Truth and Story-Truth. Fingal says that this essay is the only account of Levi Presley's suicide that 99.99% of all people will ever read, so we are duty-bound for the record to getting it right -- saying he fell for 9 seconds for thematic purposes when it was really 8 will over time erode the reader's trust in the author and ultimately negate what he's trying to say. D'Agata, who for the duration has stressed he is not a journalist, counters, "An essay is an attempt, Jim. Nothing else ... and so, as a writer of essays, my interpretation of that charge is that I try - that I try - to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos."

I think the majority of people will side with Fingal for the bulk of this book, if not the entire book -- especially as D'Agata casually dismisses/insults Fingal throughout for doing his job. But with his final declaration, D'Agata may swing the pendulum more in his direction.

At any rate, The Lifespan of a Fact is a book that should be read, considered, and discussed. Check it out.
Profile Image for Clint Barker.
1 review1 follower
October 7, 2013
I taught this book to a class of high school students last semester. Those students, like many of the reviewers here, eventually discovered that the dialogue between the two authors was not as genuine as the book's cover would lead a person to believe.

The students, however, took it a step further in a project to fact-check the book--that is, to fact-check what Jim Fingal wrote about John D'Agata's essay. This makes perfect sense: if Jim Fingal was willing to change the details of his dialogue with John D'Agata to make that dialogue more interesting, then why should the details of his own fact-check be above suspicion?

The conclusion of the project was that so much of Jim Fingal's fact-checking was incorrect that it was likely intentional on the part of the authors. As such, the book may be read as if it "plays by the same rules" as D'Agata's essay.

For anyone that is interested in looking at the results, they are written up at http://lifespanlifespanfact.weebly.com
Profile Image for Phrodrick.
882 reviews36 followers
November 6, 2018
LORD Chancellor
. Now, sir, what excuse have you to offer for having disobeyed an order of the Court of Chancery?
. My Lord, I know no Courts of Chancery; I go by Nature’s Acts of Parliament. The bees – the breeze – the seas – the rooks – the brooks – the gales – the vales – the fountains and the mountains cry, “You love this maiden – take her, we command you!” ’Tis writ in heaven by the bright barbèd dart that leaps forth into lurid light from each grim thundercloud. The very rain pours forth her sad and sodden sympathy! When chorused Nature bids me take my love, shall I reply, “Nay, but a certain Chancellor forbids it”? Sir, you are England's Lord High Chancellor, but are you Chancellor of birds and trees, king of the winds and prince of thunder-clouds?
Ld. Chan. No.
It's a nice point; I don't know that I ever met it before. But my difficulty is, that at present there's no evidence before the court that chorused Nature has interested herself in the matter.

Streph. No evidence? You have my word for it. I tell you that she bade me take my love.

Ld. Chan. Ah I but, my good sir, you mustn't tell us what she told you; it's not evidence. Now, an affidavit from a thunder- storm or a few words on oath from a heavy shower would meet with all the attention they deserve.
Streph. And have you the heart to apply the prosaic rules of evidence to a case which bubbles over with poetical emotion?
Iolanthe, Act I
Gilbert and Sullivan, 1882

I am very frustrated with John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact. The four stars are because there is a lot here for a reader consider. The material is engaging and intelligent. There are words that may keep this from being read by many people and the suicide of a teen ager is not likely to be a topic for family night reading.

I first heard of John D’Agato and Jim Fingal’s book The Life Span of a Fact was in a review of the New York stage, I understood this to be about the problem of wiring a story in the age of “Fake News” and the apparent righteousness of body slamming a reporter. The media has a long history of self-critism and this looked to be a chance to read some intelligent arguments about the way the media have been politicized (actually it has been for many decades going back to when newspaper publishers routinely ran for and won office), and what has morphed into weaponized divisive argument that defies what America should be about.

The Life Span is about none of that. In fact it is a debate whose time has either gone or cannot be vital until more immediate public concerns have been brought down from the precipice of bombing, (here in the US, mass shooting (In France) and the deliberate state sponsored murder of a reporter (Jamal Khashoggi). In Life Span the case is made that by calling your product an essay, the author has infinite freedom to rewrite prosaic history in the name of whatever esoteric poetical emotional truth that fits the writer. At the time my used edition was published in 2012 this may have been an important topic. In 2018 it adds poison to a well where the water has already been made bitter.

The book itself is a dramatization of an actual series of exchanges between an essayist and a fact checker. The essay in question is about the Las Vegas suicide by jumping by a teenager, Levi Presley. We are not told if the editor intends to publish the essay as a literal recitation of the facts or as a dramatization of the facts.

John D’Agato is a well-established essayist. He has definite beliefs about the term. In this book he will argue passionately that the writer must serve art in preference to fact; if by doing so the essayist helps the reader to experience a deeper and more aesthetically meaningful appreciation of the events under discussion. In fact the essay is a poorly defined medium of expression and it is legitimately plastic in the matter of content. A case can be made that it occupies literary space between fiction and non-fiction.

D’Agato goes further; insisting that the term Non-fiction is new and that facts are rarely absolute. He tosses out several famously named essayists arguing that the history of the essay is the history of exactly his understanding of the rights and duties of the essayist. Earlier he established that in taking this assignment he made it clear to the editor that he is not a reporter and that he will not be bound by the rules of journalism.

Perhaps on the strength of this warning, Jim Fingal is tasked with fact checking the proposed article and in writing he is ordered to “comb through this marking anything and everything…” In taking the assignment, Jim is at once literal and increasingly meticulous and unforgiving. His questions everything from the number of seconds given for the boy’s fall to the color of bricks and the exact routes between locations.

The author comes off as an arrogant, defender of his every invention and demonstrably wrong statement. The Fact Checker become so focused on his mission he will even challenge the facts as given in the report from the Coroner’s office.

Ultimately I had little patience with either person.

D’Agata will on two occasions make appeals to authority. In logic this argument can count as a fallacy or not. The way D’Agata applies the technique it is fallacious. He states the rules were set out by the ancient Roman orator, Cicero, among othesr and D'Agata does not state those laws.
Worse the writer states that If his readers feel betrayed when they realize how often an ostensibly nonfiction article is in fact fictional, he turns on the readership, complaining that they are too poorly educated to understand the writer’s rights. D’Agata could have made a reference to the failure of the 1913 audience to appreciate Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. There the portion of the audience that was known to reject anything new were when presented with ultra-modern music and lacking appreciation for the non-traditional choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky; rioted.

Instead the 2018 reader has the peculiar juxtaposing of a writer arguing for “Fake News” if the fakery is in service of art, and a time where the press is under increasing demands to clear not only the kinds of niggling fact checking of Fingal, but the creation of elaborate, fictional conspiracies to replace the prosaic, researched and fact checked.

The Lifespan of a Fact is good writing. It is not apropos to the moment and does not serve D’Agata. It is a good book, but a prospective reader needs to know that this is not about journalism. It is a high-level discussion of a very particular type of writing, the essay.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
290 reviews26 followers
March 17, 2012
Okay, so this miiiiiight not get five stars from me if I didn't know Jim personally (and think he's pretty much a wonderful human being). But in terms of reviewing MY experience reading it, totally five stars. I laughed out loud literally dozens of times. I love the whole concept, and it was so well-executed. And beautiful! I think the way they did the layout is incredibly clever and effective and cool.

In a funny sort of way, I think this is a great book for people who love great character arcs in their books. It's ostensibly a book about journalism and non-fiction writing and essays and "truth," but it's actually also a book about two very funny, very smart guys having a super interesting conversation, and just BRINGING it in terms of both the intellectual fire-power and the snark. My dinner with Andre for the Longreads set? Anyway, I don't care SO much about how many tons of concrete were used to construct a high-rise hotel, but I still enjoyed the hell out of this. Read it! Recommend! Yay Jim!
Profile Image for Megan.
482 reviews
October 9, 2017
Fact checking can be mind numbing. I know. I've done it professionally. I've also been the writer on the other side of the table. In my experience, most writers are happy to have their articles fact checked, and to talk through any discrepancies that arise. I always was. It gave me the chance to make sure I was saying exactly what I wanted to say (even after going over the words in multiple edits), and it provided a safety net against a lawsuit if I should happen to get something wrong (we're all human, and it happens). But not every editing experience goes smoothly. This one certainly doesn't.

This particular fact-checking experience is more extreme than any I've ever had, primarily because the author is so touchy about every word. He has so much pride wrapped up in this article! And while I can certainly understand an author wanting to craft the words perfectly for greatest impact, I was decidedly on the fact checker's side here. There's simply a lot to be said for conducting oneself with humility in interpersonal conflict.

You may think that watching an exchange about publishing a magazine article might be boring, but in fact, it's fascinating, and it makes you consider how far one could or should go in the craft of writing and at the expense of the facts. Can't an article be both beautifully written and factually correct? The way John D'Agata puts it, not necessarily. He argues that accuracy just isn't as important as the article's emotional impact, which is what stays with readers. Certainly, some of the edits or questions Jim Fingal presents seem downright silly in their supposed thoroughness, but what harm is there in raising them? If an author is more willing to reconsider the more significant factual discrepancies, they'll be dropped. But if he/she decides to be a jerk about every suggestion, the label "difficult to work with" gets thrown around, the fact checker is inclined to get even more nit picky to ensure complete accuracy, and the relationship is strained. That counts for something in the publishing world. Authors who freak out at every edit come across as sophomoric or, sometimes, dishonest. In an editor's place, I'd be reluctant to commission an article from D'Agata again. There's no need to sacrifice accuracy for word craft.

I'm impressed with the courage it took for both writer and fact checker to put their work and their interpersonal conflict on public display and invite all to judge for themselves. The concept of this book is original and interesting. It succeeds in its delivery. If you write nonfiction or edit or care about the accuracy of the articles you read, it's worth your time. Did I "really like it," per the GoodReads four-star rating? I'm not sure that's the right descriptor. But it really made me think.
Profile Image for Caroline.
36 reviews5 followers
February 21, 2012
This should be required reading if you want to talk about essays. Unless you think it is a book about fact-checking. In which case: go away.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,399 reviews463 followers
Shelved as 'stricken'
July 14, 2014
I've done fact-checking. Working with D'Agata is apparently impossible.
Profile Image for Leanne.
590 reviews49 followers
July 23, 2020
Why do you think this was presented as an email exchange? How well would you say this form works in the piece? What important questions do they raise about the nature of truth and creative nonfiction? Who do you side with? Why?

What happened in Vegas
I am a huge fan of the original Believer magazine essay that was turned into this book that was then turned into a Broadway play! What’s not to like? It’s absolutely hilarious.

I believe the original exchange was by email, and so they decided just to keep it like that (note below*). And I think it works really well. Both sides can just represent themselves. The temptation would be to make the fact checker into the stooge. But this piece was very nuanced and what you get is two sides of the same coin?

Earnest fact-checker tangles with cranky but brilliant writer over journalistic accuracy.
Wait, who is writing journalism here?

Fact is always stranger than fiction—but creative nonfiction is emotionally the truthiest?

The book is great because the original essay from the Believer runs down the middle of the pages with the email exchanges off to both sides. It is a fun read. Here is he original article, which is really well-written!

In Japanese translation we grapple with similar issues regarding truth and facts. There are even different words to designate literal translations 直訳 versus literary translations 意訳

Literal translation are factual in the sense that if someone translates the entire text back into the original Japanese, every single word would be accounted for. Also, when you translate company names or any proper nouns, you are supposed to provide a link to show the established translation—this reminded me a lot of his checking things. Of course, you can’t translate poetry like this… that is more working in meaning and truth. You translate a poem in one language into a poem in the other. Often you read the original, turn it over and make your own truth of what the Japanese says.

Both are necessary—but poor John D’Agata— he is NOT a journalist. And to be required to provide journalistic sources was just so off base… and funny!

Finally as an anecdote. In one of my classes at UCLA, I felt pushed to write a memoir mode first person narrative and so I tried it. But honestly, even though all the facts were there, it was a big lie. An emotional lie. Art —and the artifice of fiction— can attain truth better sometimes than facts.

* From Goodreads:
It has since emerged that the quotes we get from Fingal and D'Agata have been edited/selectively chosen/made up wholesale for the sake of this book/etc., thereby beefing up the internal drama of what was more likely a humdrum fact-checking process.
January 12, 2023
Very affecting, in several dimensions. Truly thought-provoking, if that word still has any meaning. I only fear that Levi's suicide gets trampled under the text of both the original essay and the commentary.
Profile Image for Tracy Towley.
371 reviews26 followers
December 6, 2015
Did I like The Lifespan of a Fact? That's a hard question to answer and I'm scared if I do answer it Jim Fingal will come tear my words apart and show the inaccuracy in every tiny little opinion I have.

What I can tell you is that I've never read anything even remotely like this before. The premise is that John D'Agata has written an essay about the suicide of a 17-year-old boy named Levi, and Jim Fingal has been hired to fact check it.

D'Agata's written an . . . essay I'll guess we'll call it? And after basically every paragraph in it, Fingal either agrees or disagrees with the accuracy of it. Some people are apparently upset because a lot of it was punched up for dramatic effect, which is interesting considering how much of the book is taken up with D'Agata and Fingal arguing back and forth about whether or not it's appropriate / acceptable to take liberties with facts.

Like I said, I've never ready anything like this. At first it was fascinating and I enjoyed the insight into what it's like both to be a fact-checker working with someone who's defensive and resistant to any changes at all, and what it's like to be a writer who's written a (very) creative non-fiction piece and have a pedant come in and argue tiny, unimportant after tiny, unimportant point.

I went back and forth on these dudes, agreeing with one for a while, getting annoyed with him, and swinging over to the other camp. D'Agata didn't seem to understand that the huge liberties he was taking with this real life suicide could be considered not just inappropriate but pretty fucked up. Fingal didn't seem to understand that saying a tower was 750 feet tall, when it was actually 752, was probably not worth complaining about for an entire page.

While I did initially find the premise to be interesting, it got pretty tedious pretty quickly. I think this book would have been better as a chapter in a longer work because really all there was was an idea, and though it was an interesting one, that idea didn't warrant an entire book to get its point across.
Profile Image for Schuyler.
208 reviews62 followers
March 6, 2012
Wow. Let's just start with that one word.

Moving on, this slim "book" is unlike anything you've ever read. It's a sort of companion piece to the astoundingly good About a Mountain (also by D'Agata). About a Mountain was originally an essay that was later fleshed out into a book. The Lifespan of a Fact is the story of that original essay but really it's about fact-checking, but no, it's really really about truth vs. accuracy, but seriously it's really really really about Art and Literature and the failings of Genre Labeling and Nonfiction and suicide and James Frey but it's also about everything ever.

(Just for clarity, the book is structurally set up in a unique way, where the center of each page has a section from the essay that Jim Fingal (the fact-checker for The Believer) is examining and then as a kind of border to that text is Jim's own comments on what he feels needs to be verified and sometimes John (the author) responding to Jim's accusations and hilarity and swearing ensues.)

My first thought was, "This is brilliant and this is going to be amazing." About 20 pages in my thought was, "This is getting a little repetitive but it's still interesting and surprisingly addictive." Then I kept reading, a chapter or two a night (they're pretty short) and then I powered through and read like four chapters because John (the author) and Jim (the fact-checker) were really getting into it ("it" being an argument/discussion/pissing match/exploration). And then the last six pages or so is just John and Jim going back and forth, trying to really get at something True and Real about Art and Literature and it ends beautifully.

I believe this will be taught and studied. It will appear on every Nonfiction course syllabus.
Profile Image for John Vanderslice.
Author 17 books54 followers
February 17, 2016
This is one of the oddest engaging books I've ever read. If you try to explain to someone what it's about it's hard to get across how interesting it is. And informative. The reader learns a LOT about the life and diligence of a magazine fact checker, the extent to which a checker must needs go in order to check literally every single fact in an essay. And Jim Fingal--who, truth be told, wrote most of the words that appear in this book--comes across as an incredibly diligent fact checker. However, what also comes across is how annoying to the writer a fact checker can be, especially when the writer has an entirely different idea about facts and "nonfiction" than does the fact checker. In fact, this writer, John D'Agata, doesn't even like the term "nonfiction" and instead prefers the older, broader, more flexible word "essay." The book quickly becomes a boxing match between the fact checker--who keeps pointing out inaccuracies in D'Agata's text and expects him to want to fix them--and D'Agata, who can barely stand that Fingal doesn't understand what he's trying to do with the essay. ("Barely stand" is putting it mildly.) Finally, toward the end of the book, the two set aside D'Agata's essay and get into an admirably long and elevated back and forth about the nature of truth in nonfiction. It's brilliant and revealing on both their parts, because they are both very smart, very eloquent, and very committed to their own point of view. It's intellectual fireworks of the highest order, but as you might expect at this point, they just can't come to an agreement. I thoroughly recommend this book, "different" though it may be. I have to wonder who thought to turn this fact-checker/writer discussion into a book, because it was a great idea.
Profile Image for Sharman Egan.
15 reviews1 follower
March 15, 2012
Be aware before you buy this book that it, like the essay that forms the basis for it, is more fiction than fact (according to an article on Poynter.org and interviews with the authors). If you believe the Poynter article, that's not disclosed anywhere in the book or the promotional materials.

To W.W. Norton & Company: I want my money back: $17.95 + 10% tax + $3.95 shipping. Total = $25.89

P.S. Of course, I didn't actually pay the full $17.95 price, nor did I pay sales tax or shipping. And the figures don't add up to $25.89. That's just a small embellishment to the truth to improve the artfulness of my review. If the authors and Norton can play these games, so can I. I want my $25.89.
Profile Image for Michael Kokias.
215 reviews40 followers
April 1, 2018
A funny and fascinating look at the relationship between accuracy and truth, and what that means when it comes to the genre of Nonfiction. It took a while to get used to the style, and the way to read this is something I had to experiment with. But it was well worth the effort.
Profile Image for Sayantani Dasgupta.
Author 3 books45 followers
October 8, 2017
From the format to the subject to every sentence, D'Agata has written a masterpiece. I'm in awe of this work and I know I'm going to teach it soon.
Profile Image for Kurt.
610 reviews10 followers
April 6, 2019
Two self-identified "terminally overeducated dudes" hash out the nature of truth and fiction, as mediated through one very sad essay about suicide in Las Vegas. I found the jaunty macho repartee to be grating for most of LIFESPAN. But after a 100 pages of John and Jim's quibbling and sparring over so much minutia, I really felt the payoff of the earnest extended back-and-forth between them. And the fact that John's essay turns on itself in section 8 of 9 really walloped me (I said out loud, "Fuck me up!"), and then the fact that Jim turns on himself in the last line walloped me again! And of course the whole thing is artifice, which makes for better lit, to John's point, and so of course Jim flips, because of course LIFESPAN OF A FACT is about how short it (the lifespan of a fact) ultimately is—8 or 9 seconds, who cares?
Profile Image for Richard.
263 reviews
December 27, 2018
I read this book quickly on a train to New York the day I saw the play developed from it.

I sympathized with the fact-checker in the book (just yesterday I was skimming old senior theses with my pages of commentary); in the play he comes across as densely earnest, hence a comic if exasperating foil for both author and editor. How important is clinging to the accurate fact? For the journalist, everything; for the artist, not much. That is why damning books and films that are not nonfiction works reflects negatively on the critics, not the authors/directors; being bound by "reality" is humbug to me.

At least since Descartes's transference of the world into one's head, there has been a developing erosion of "fact" and an emphasis on creating a convincing "interpretation"; what else is our historical work, but a weaving of factual data into an interpretative narrative?

The play itself is concerned only with the opening two and the final sentence in D'Agata's essay, but the argument in the book is formidable in this era of manufactured "alternate realities."
Profile Image for Araminta Matthews.
Author 18 books52 followers
June 20, 2021
I took classes from John D'Agata around 2001/2. His writing of the foundation of this book was in 2004, so it was a truly lovely nostalgia to read things in his notes to Fingal that he literally professed in his instruction of creative nonfiction in my BFA program. That, and the moment when he references eating Swedish Fish (which he often ate in class and once said "Are really a kind of meal."). Brilliantly engaging and memorable. Thanks, John!
Profile Image for Charles  Beauregard.
62 reviews53 followers
February 9, 2018
It is good as a (thought) experiment but it has a very narrow audience (those involved in publishing) which I happen to not be in.
Profile Image for Sandhya.
220 reviews12 followers
October 29, 2018
so interesting and i still dont fully understand it
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
486 reviews40 followers
June 5, 2012
I’ve been holding off on writing about The Lifespan of a Fact until my new book club could discuss it – and also because I still have a lot of questions about the specific nature of the book.

Let me back up.

A couple of months ago, there were several interesting publishing stories in the news. Since I was ostensibly working for/with a publisher and since publishing was my dream job back in the day, these stories piqued my interest. First: the questions of intellectual property related to 50 Shades of Grey. Then Vanity Fair’s profile-cum-ebook on The Art of Fielding, both of which are on my To Read list. And finally, measuring truth versus fact in The Lifespan of a Fact.

The premise of The Lifespan of a Fact is this: in 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay for Harper’s Magazine on the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. Jim Fingal was his fact-checker. The book presents the original essay, the verified and controverted facts, and a conversation between the two men spread over seven years as Fingal challenged the veracity of D’Agata’s work, and D’Agata in turn challenged the legitimacy of Fingal’s complaints.

The format of the book made knowing how to read it challenging. The original essay is in a square in the center of each page, with the fact-checking surrounding it in black (verified) and red (challenged). Fingal and D’Agata’s conversation follows in the appropriate color. I originally started reading the essay straight through, then cycling back to the beginning of each chapter to read the fact-checking, but eventually got into a flow of reading the two simultaneously, laughing out loud at the absurd things Fingal found to challenge:

“…archaeologists unearthed parts of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Buckets of Blood…” Factual Dispute: This happened on June 28, 2002, fifteen days before Levi Presley killed himself, so it wasn’t discovered the same day he died. In addition, the bottle was discovered in Virginia City, which is 20 miles southeast of Reno – about 450 miles away from Las Vegas. So the relevance of this bottle’s discovery to Las Vegas is a little specious.


“My mom was beading jewelry to make some extra cash.” Since he won’t give me his mother’s contact information, I can’t confirm this, nor whether or not she really has a cat, and a need for “some extra cash.” Though she must be quite the artist to be able to sell her handicrafts for extra cash.

D’Agata repeatedly pushes back on the challenges, often placing more weight on the “flow” of the narrative than on the truthfulness of the facts. And admittedly, he’s right. In one case, thirty-four flows better than thirty-one. Referencing the coroner as County Coroner – rather than the suggested “the former coroner” or “the then-coroner” – makes more sense to the reader, who frankly probably doesn’t care that the coronership has changed hands since the original interview.

But for the reader, these small untruths add up to an unsettling sense that all non-fiction is inherently fictitious. And we know this, right? We know that even if events are documented as they are happening, they are captured through a particular lens with a particular set of biases and values. Even the most uninvolved observer brings a part of themselves to the act of observation.

It’s just that we selectively ignore these facts when we’re reading non-fiction.

Because we’re adolescent when it comes to art. We’ve almost entirely disenfranchised art in our public schools, in our homes, in our culture at large. Of course we’re going to stomp our feet and scream when we’re suddenly thrown a curveball after emotionally opening ourselves up to something and then learning that that thing isn’t exactly what it seems. And of course that’s going to feel like a betrayal. Because we don’t have enough deep experiences with art to know that is what art is for: to break us open, to make us raw, to destabilize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with therefore the possibility of recognizing something that we had not recognized before. Art is supposed to change us, to challenge us, and yes, even to trick us.

And that? That is why I loved this book. Because it reminded me that the lines between truth and fact and between art and artifice are inherently blurry, and that crossing that line should be painful and exhilarating.
108 reviews
September 8, 2020
I decided to read this book after both hearing about the stage adaptation and seeing a page sample. As a sucker for nontraditional typesetting I knew I would like it, but all told it could have been easier to read. The comments are relatively small print and the article is broken up so that the comments roughly line up with the text they relate to: this renders the article difficult to follow and the comments an eye-blurring wall when they get too long.

Something else difficult about the book is the subject matter -- I had had no idea what the topic of the article would be, and had expected something relatively trivial (to heighten the irony of the lengthy fact-checking process). The article is an essay about Las Vegas, centering around the suicide of a local teenager named Levi. I gave up early on trying to follow the article as I read page by page, and flicked through reading the article on its own. It is in a style familiar to The Guardian and Longreads, and I found it fine. Too caught up in navel-gazing to make reasonable grand statements about anything and written with a heavy literary brush, but otherwise fine.

Then came the commentary, and I think most readers find themselves on Jim's side or John's side in general and also variably as they read. Many of Jim's comments are extremely trivial, but that is his job. John lashes out at some of these nitpicks for wasting his time (he seems, overall, affronted that his article was not immediately published without question), escalating the hostility of their communications until John refuses to respond. Some of the corrections are really dire, like a digression into the history of tae kwon do (confused by John with karate) that is both riddled with unsourced claims about the history of the martial art and completely unnecessary. This is the "heavy literary brush" I mentioned: there are fictionalized aspects to the article that may be cool in the realm of psychedelic or spiritual literature, but are eye-rolling in the context of an article purporting to describe a specific real event. On top of that, much of John's experimentation with the truth serves to build a specious link between him and Levi, making the tragic event somehow about himself.

Many of the easily-forgivable problems were forgivable because they ultimately mattered little to the story of Levi's death and John's general point: that Las Vegas is a sad city lacking both character and "soul". Ironically, these are the errors that are probably the easiest to fix. There is a whole other category of fabricated or unsubstantiated claims that are the cornerstone of John's argument -- some of which he points out himself at the end of the essay were merely artistically convenient and probably false -- and I empathized strongly with Jim in his increasing frustration. John, despite his attitude, has a point about the lack of popular interest in subtlety and art, but he never seems to address Jim's accusation that "what happened" is simply not important to -- and is often at odds with -- his conception of "the truth". No number of applications of the phrase "it's art" paper over that. Meanwhile, Jim comes to realize that while fact checking is a worthwhile role, in fulfilling that role he has not touched the world the way even an incorrect author might.

I do believe that the essay would have been good as a short fiction story, especially if it included the numerology aspect and all the unverifiable coincidences Jim challenges. It is probably for the best that it wound up as part of a larger work, because I did not find it very compelling on its own. This book juxtaposes it with a completely different story about argument over what it is to write about reality, and that second story is what I came for. Jim's comments are often filled with asides, as though he wrote them to himself (really on the line between "personality" and "annoying"), and there is still comedy in the irony of checking each of the smallest claims in a piece with so many large problems. I highly recommend this book to everyone.
Profile Image for Sara.
1,166 reviews
August 6, 2014
In recent years, there have been a number of scandals involving news agencies and their staff fudging or adjusting reports or manipulating photographs in order to present a story more dramatically or in a way that will increase the attention-grabbing factor. And in the age of the Internet, almost anything can, and will, be checked against the sources (whether those are reliable sources or not). In this short book, John D’Agata, author of an essay and Jim Fingal, a doggedly determined fact-checker, debate, argue, and yes, fight, over truth versus accuracy, and whether the form of essay-writing should be held to higher journalistic standards.

The design of the text itself is rather confusing at first, as the body of the essay is printed in the center of each page, with the fact-checker’s commentary and dialogue with the author printed footnote-style around the borders of the page. It’s a little difficult to read straight through, but this isn’t the kind of book that you’d want to just read flat out anyway. The fact-checker is extremely thorough, to the point of nitpicking, and though I wholeheartedly support his efforts, I do feel for the author, whose irritation with the whole process shows through.

The back cover of this books reads, [this] “is a brilliant ad eye-opening meditation on the relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy,’ and a penetrating conversation about whether it is appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other.” This is an extremely high-blown and overly wordy way of saying, “here is a writer and a fact-checker arguing over their work;” as a librarian and an employee of a community college where we struggle daily to introduce the concept of information literacy to our students, I lean strongly towards the case of the fact-checker, whose attempts to track down and cite the references of the author are often futile. However, I wouldn’t put this book on any must-read lists, simply because the dialogue between the two tends to drag on and even becomes disillusioning after a while.
Profile Image for AJ Nolan.
793 reviews9 followers
December 22, 2018
An interesting concept for a book, but the articles and radio discussions I heard about the book were a bit misleading, or I misheard them. I thought that this was going to be essentially the gathering together and editing of the communication between the fact-checker, the editor, and the writer who had gotten into such a tiff over the nature of truth versus fact. However, instead it is a fictionalized account of the same basic idea, allowing them to punch up their dialogue, making every barb count. However, the book simply isn't worth reading as fiction. There is no tension - by midway through the book I had grown well tired of both the men and the editor's presence is basically non-existent. Both men come off as prima donnas shouting into the wind of their opponent shouting back. Not really the way you want to conduct yourself in the business of writing. After reading this, I have no idea how this actually played out, I just know it wasn't the way portrayed in the book (and which the men readily "admit" to in an interview I found with them about the publication). They were both conscious of creating characters, but ultimately they weren't that great at it. In contrast, if they had stuck to the fact of their correspondence, that would have provided the tension and interest that this book lasted. I would have read to the bitter end (which I did not) if this was an actual dialogue because that would reveal something quite interesting not just about the men, who are unreliable narrators of their own story, but also about the nature, and difference, of truth vs. fact. I'm actually going to see the play adaptation in a few days, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Canavale, and Cherry Jones, and remain optimistic about that. There is no expectation that a play is fact - it is a play! It is an artistic rendition of an invented or historical event. So, being held to those standards, I'm hopeful that the play creates not just the tension that the book lacked, but also the ability to have some empathy for these characters.
Profile Image for Mark Schlatter.
1,117 reviews10 followers
January 23, 2015
I ended up not liking this book at the start and liking it much better at the end. The basic format is an essay by D'Agata (found in the center of each page) with fact checking on the essay by Fingal around the periphery (with responses by D'Agata). What drives the book is that D'Agata has written what many people would call nonfiction --- a rambling piece centered around the suicide of a Las Vegas teen. Except D'Agata sees himself as an essayist, not a nonfiction writer, and he sees no need to adhere to specific truths when he is trying to get across an experience. That, not surprisingly, drives factchecker Fingal crazy.

In some cases (not a lot), I agree with D'Agata. For example, he changes quotes to get to the gist of what the person was saying. But at times, he changes statistics simply to aid the narrative flow, and many of the details he cites from interviews cannot be found in his writer's notes. Fingal calls him on it, and the first part of the book is a back-and-forth on what might be true and what certainly isn't. Throughout the first two-thirds of the book, I just thought D'Agata was wrong, wrong, wrong....

The last third of the book did not change my mind about D'Agata, but it did add a couple of levels of perspective. First off, D'Agata and Fingal finally get into the no-holds-barred argument on essays, nonfiction, truth, and postmodernism that I was hoping for. Second, the book ends with Fingal's search for truth reaching its limits, which begs the question: if you can't find the actual truth, does D'Agata's philosophy look somewhat more valid?

If you like thinking about truth, uncertainty, and the responsibilities of writers, I think this is well worth picking up.
Profile Image for Emily Crowe.
355 reviews129 followers
September 3, 2014
This book is endlessly fascinating! Let me try to explain how and why this book got published. Almost 10 years ago, John D’Agata wrote an essay called “About a Mountain” that was rejected for publication from various periodicals due to factual inaccuracies. Enter Believer magazine, who was willing to run the piece with a certain number of inaccuracies, as long as they knew exactly what they were and wouldn’t be surprised by anything post-publication. Believer puts their staff fact checker named Jim Final on the case, and over the next few years the writer and the fact checker go back & forth, dickering about the nature of truth in an essay and where the line is drawn between journalism and narrative non-fiction. The result is this wonderful little book that prints both the relatively short article as well as much of the fact checking correspondence between John and Jim, which is sometimes aggressive, sometimes funny, and always interesting.

I had no idea until I read this book exactly what happens behind the scenes of any responsibly published nonfiction work. It’s clear to me now, though, that the fact checkers are the unsung heroes o the publishing world, no matter where we draw the line between journalism and creative nonfiction, and after reading this, I’ll never take them for granted again! The book itself is printed in two colors on each page, with black being used for the original article and the verifiable facts, and a deep maroon for all of the parts that the fact checker challenged.

(NB: Not a book to be read straight through, at least speaking for myself.)
Profile Image for A.
257 reviews
March 26, 2018
"John: Jim, have you ever stopped to consider that maybe those aren't the only two options available? That maybe there is a third (or even a fourth or fifth or sixth) alternative? That our understanding of the world can't be categorized into either "fictional" or "historical" slots--with nothing in between? We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance."

John D'Agata argues, more lucidly than anyone else I've encountered, that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction should be abolished--that the latter has no more claim to objective truth than the former. I thought that, in the age of Trump, D'Agata's creative approach to the truth might be hard to stomach, but in fact I found the opposite. His approach to different kinds of truth, his distinction between an essay and a news story, clarified a lot for me. This is a fascinating, intelligent book that also manages to be frequently funny and, finally, heartbreaking.
Profile Image for Melissa.
298 reviews2 followers
February 10, 2019
This one bounced from one nightstand to the other as a great, and humorous, reminder that facts are not as easily defined as one may think. As a former copy editor, and current editor and writer, I have to assume that some of the liberties taken with the "facts" were invented for the purposes of the story -- to help make a point. Because, if not, then I would be appalled that anyone would twist a "fact" to this extent.

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