On the same day in Las Vegas when 16-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in 34 licensed strip clubs in Vegas, archaeologists unearthed parts of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Buckets of Blood and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a 35-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.
Which prompted this e-mail response from one of the magazine’s fact checker:
Hi, John. I’m Jim Fingal. I’m the intern who’s been assigned to fact-check your article about Las Vegas, and I’ve discovered a small discrepancy between the number of strip clubs you’re claiming there are in Las Vegas and the number that’s given in your supporting documents. I was hoping you could clarify how you determined that there are thirty-four strip clubs in the city while the source you’re using says thirty-one.
Which D’Agata replied to by saying:
Hi, Jim. 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; at least that was my understanding with the editor I’ve been working with. I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful. I’m not sure it’s going to be worth your time to fact-check this.
The above two paragraphs are combined together from an excerpt published in Harper’s Magazine and an excerpt from the New York Times. Harper’s quotes portions of their subsequent discussion as follows:
FINGAL: I hear you. But I think it’s just policy to fact-check all the nonfiction pieces the magazine publishes. So could you help me out with that number?
D’AGATA: All right. Well, from what I can remember, I got that number by counting up the number of strip clubs that were listed in the local yellow pages. However, since that issue of the phone book was long gone by the time I started writing this, I found that porn article that I gave the magazine so that they could check up on my estimate.
FINGAL: I guess that’s where the discrepancy is, because the number that’s mentioned in the article is different from the number you’re using in your piece.
D’AGATA: Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of “thirty-four” works better in that sentence than the rhythm of “thirty-one,” so I changed it.
FINGAL: Hey, John… again =). I was wondering if you could weigh in on this tic-tac-toe game with the chicken. It looks like it happened after Levi Presley died. Also, the woman who won it wasn’t really from Mississippi. I think she was a local resident. Does this matter?
D’AGATA: I realize that, but I need her to be from a place other than Las Vegas in order to underscore the transient nature of the city—that nearly everyone in Vegas is from someplace else. And since she did in fact originally come from Mississippi, I think the claim is fine as it is.
FINGAL: What about that fact that this didn’t occur on the day Presley died? It’s not accurate to say that it did.
D’AGATA: It was part of the atmosphere of that particular summer.
FINGAL: Then isn’t that how it should be framed?
D’AGATA: No, because being more precise would be less dramatic. I don’t think readers will care whether the events that I’m discussing happened on the same day, a few days apart, or a few months apart. What most readers will care about, I think, is the meaning that’s suggested in the confluence of these events—no matter how far apart they occurred. The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as “facts.” Nobody is going to read this, in other words, in order to get a survey of the demographics of Las Vegas or what’s scheduled on the community calendar. Readers can get that kind of information elsewhere.
FINGAL: There’s no mention of this accident in the archives of either the Las Vegas Review-Journal or the Las Vegas Sun, the two major papers in the city. John, do you have a source for this?
D’AGATA: I heard about this from a woman I interviewed at the Aztec Inn, which is across the street from the Stratosphere.
FINGAL: Can you send me a copy of your notes from this interview?
D’AGATA: I didn’t keep notes from the interview. I just relied on my memory of what she told me. Besides, this wasn’t a formal interview. I was just wandering around the Stratosphere trying to gather information.
FINGAL: To be honest, I suspect your casual interviewing strategy is going to be a problem.
D’AGATA: Well it might be a problem, but with all due respect, it’s your problem, Jim, not mine. I’m not a reporter, and I have no interest in pretending to be a reporter or in producing journalism. Also, even if this had been a formal interview, I still wouldn’t have taken extensive notes, because I tend to be casual whenever I’m interviewing people so that they feel more comfortable with me. The minute you take out a tape recorder or a notebook during an interview people get self-conscious and start “performing” for you, watching what they say and how they say it.
FINGAL: Well, OK… I guess… but this still seems to violate about ten different rules of journalistic integrity.
D’AGATA: I’m not sure that matters, Jim. This is an essay, so journalistic rules don’t belong here.
FINGAL: “… his answers to the questions on the last pop quiz he took in school…” These questions are taken from an “Art Pretest” rather than a “pop quiz.” And the test is dated August 25, 1999, and Levi’s death was on July 12, 2002, so even if this were a “pop quiz,” it’s very unlikely that it was “the last pop quiz he took in school,” unless he was one lucky kid.
D’AGATA: OK, you’re probably right that this wasn’t his “last” quiz. But it’s more dramatic to say that it was, and I don’t think it’s harming anyone to do that. It’s not like there’s a quiz out there that’ll get jealous if we claim that this was Levi’s last quiz. Really, Jim, respectfully, you’re worrying about very stupid sh**. (By the way, also very stupid would be calling this quiz a “pretest,” because I kind of suspect that half the readers out there wouldn’t even know what the fuck that was.)
FINGAL: Unfortunately I don’t get to decide which facts are stupid; I have to check all of them.
FINGAL: Can’t find any reference to this Zurich ordinance anywhere. Source?
D’AGATA: 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.
D’AGATA: Sorry, can’t find it.
FINGAL: “There was, for a long time, when construction on it began, the rumor of an anomaly that locals called a ‘kink,’ a bend in one of the tower’s three 800-foot-high legs.” I can’t find evidence of this. John?
D’AGATA: The “rumor” about the Stratosphere kink is entirely anecdotal, which is why it’s called a “rumor.” I took my first trip to Las Vegas in the summer of 1994. On a bus tour I took from Las Vegas to Hoover Dam, we sat briefly in traffic at the foot of the tower, and the bus driver—who doubled as our tour guide—told us that one of the three legs on the tower’s tripod was crooked and that because the sight of it so unnerved local residents (even though it was supposedly safe), the building’s contractor filled in the leg’s crooked angle with Styrofoam.
FINGAL: Do you have any documentation of that, like notes from your trip?
D’AGATA: You’re asking for evidence of a rumor?
FINGAL: If you’re saying that there was a rumor, I have to find out whether there was in fact a rumor, even if I ignore the truth value of the rumor. Do you remember the name of the company that ran the tour?
D’AGATA: Are you serious? No, I don’t remember the name of a tour company from more than fifteen years ago. Sorry, readers are going to have to feel factually unfulfilled here.
FINGAL: Then what about the notes you took during that trip?
D’AGATA: In 1994 I was a sophomore in college, studying Latin and Greek—not writing—and on vacation with my grandparents. We were going to Hoover Dam on a thousand-hour bus trip through the desert without any air-conditioning. No notes were being taken, Jim.
The entire process of the exchange between the D’Agata and Fingal is apparently documented in a new book (which I have ordered just now but have not read), entitled The Lifespan of a Fact. The New York Times reports that
Thus begins the alternately absorbing and infuriating exercise that is the book The Lifespan of a Fact, a Talmudically arranged account of the conflict between Jim Fingal, zealous checker, and John D’Agata, nonfiction fabulist, which began in 2005 and resulted in this collaboration. D’Agata’s original paragraphs appear in chunks at the center of the pages, and their exchanges on the disputed facts in question appear in the marginal running text. D’Agata starts with the casual assurance that the article doesn’t need to be fact-checked, but the process is standard at most magazines, and it remains a fundamental, if hidden, support for their credibility. And besides, the only reason the article ended up at The Believer in the first place was that Harper’s had already killed it — on the recommendation of its own fact-checker.[…]
Over the next 100 or so pages — the fact-checking comes to at least five times the length of the piece itself — Fingal questions not just a few dates but also the existence of entire conversations, etymologies, histories. By the end, they’re reduced to exchanges like this:
Jim: “I, the hypothetical reader, am putting my trust in you to give me the straight dope, or at least to make some effort to warn me whenever you’re saying something that is patently untrue, even if it’s untrue for ‘artistic reasons.’ I mean, what exactly gives you the authority to introduce half-baked legend as fact and sidestep questions of facticity?”
John: “It’s called art, dodobrain.” (He doesn’t actually say “dodobrain”; I had to alter the quote, in keeping with The Times’s standards of crude language thereby violating another Times rule that quotations cannot be changed. But why should D’Agata mind?)
So, do facts really matter – especially in pursuit of a larger truth? D’Agata does not think so:
D’Agata proposes that we give up the idea that there is a genre called “nonfiction” and instead return to the blurrier, artier time (from Herodotus until around 1940) when we were content with the term “essay” — “an attempt, a trial, an experiment.” From his rostrum as an influential professor in the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa, D’Agata has often argued that we read such essays for the poetry of “experience” rather than for mere “accuracy.” This rhetoric has gained him a cult following among young writers who write what is typically if inadequately called “nonfiction.” If it were possible to stop using the term “nonfiction” and instead to talk about “essays,” what might that mean for writers and readers?
D’Agata thinks this question is interesting in the abstract, but the relevant definitions are, in the end, inescapably sociological. We compliment something by calling it “nonfiction” if it accords with the standards set out by an institution that has, over time, published credible reports. D’Agata is well aware of this and is careful not to cross any lines that would make him look silly; he’s never, for example, going to be caught claiming that Jayson Blair deserved our admiration because he was actually writing poetry. But he does defend James Frey, sort of, because even though he thinks Frey is a bad writer, he did fulfill his one obligation to his readers: “to give them a good experience.” Where, then, do we draw the line between irresponsibility and poetic license? The only way to cash out this third-way argument is to ascribe to him the wish for a new kind of institution that would generate expectations consistent with a new kind of work that would be, as he likes to say, “consequential” as art. Many writers already qualify within existing institutions, but it could be interesting to make a claim for the necessity of a third way if D’Agata could name some specific improvements.
I could not disagree more with D’Agata’s thesis. Nonfiction derives its power entirely from the thesis that it is factually true – writing poetic or literary material within the confines of an essay is an exercise in restricting to form, much like writing a sonnet. If one wishes to take liberties with the facts, then one should deliberately state that one is deviating from the facts. (Of course, there are intermediate cases, such as a writer who claims a false fact in good faith, not realizing that his source is flawed; or one who simply makes an accidental mistake with no malice intended. However, it is incumbent on such a writer to make a correction when the error is pointed out.)
As a corollary, we need to treat with special scorn biopics, movies or telefilms that claim to present true facts. Such biopics, unless they contain purely documentary footage, cannot help but be false depictions of prior events. We cannot know Abraham Lincoln’s body language because we have no sufficiently accurate record of his body language. It is better to watch a documentary film, such as Ken Burns’ Civil War, than a dramatization, such Ted Turner’s (Robert Maxwell’s) Gettysburg.
The problem seems especially urgent in the case of online media: blog posts, tweets, Facebook walls. Here, there is no fact-checking at all, and it is all too easy to create cycles of false claims (as Nina Zumel and XKCD have noted.)
Details do matter. And an essay is more powerful when it gets things right.
A final coda: D’Agata’s essay was published (in edited form) and then expanded into a 2010 book. The book was generally well-received, but reviews mentioned that D’Agata was fast and loose with the facts; Charles Bock wrote:
Rarely does D’Agata betray his emotions or reactions to an event; rather, he works by establishing a scene, introducing tangentially related elements, building layers of complexity and scope, then jump-cutting or circling back at just the right moment, guiding the reader safely — and unexpectedly — to a destination D’Agata had in sight the whole time. Along the way, he provides media reports, expert opinions and first-person reportage. He gives statistics, calculations and projections; he cites policy papers and delves into scientific and academic studies. Also mixed in are literary references, modernist collages and postmodern composites that should leave any decent fact-checker wanting to set himself — or, better, D’Agata — on fire.[…]
Indeed, D’Agata’s prime reason for steering us through all the glittery factoids and scholarship is to take us to the ledge of what knowledge can provide, and to document how perilous it can be to stand on that ledge. These 200 pages are nothing less than a chronicle of the compromises and lies, the back-room deals and honest best intentions that have delivered us to this precarious moment in history. The book is a shouted question about who we are and how we move forward. This is how art is made. And the final pages of “About a Mountain,” which consist of a single long paragraph leading through the last evening of Levi Presley’s life, are unquestionably art, a breathtaking piece of writing.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem.
At the heart of a crucial section, D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” But the accompanying endnote reads: “I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.”
Maybe there’s a claim that since the Obama administration is shutting down Yucca anyway, and since D’Agata is sensitive beyond a fault to the Presley family, and since the book is so aesthetically impressive, there’s no harm in doctoring the dates — especially since doing so gives the book a better hook, and thereby (perhaps) a better chance at finding readers and keeping Levi’s memory alive. And, absolutely, all kinds of licenses are taken in the name of creative nonfiction. As D’Agata himself writes, in his introduction to “The Lost Origins of the Essay”: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. So this is a book that will try to offer the reader a clear objective: I am here in search of art.”
With “About a Mountain,” D’Agata goes further, attempting to create art through the exploration of what happens when we “misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.” But he shimmies too close to the flame. In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.
D’Agata might argue that such questions are just part of the truth-wisdom debate in which his book engages. I certainly would listen to his case, and undoubtedly will read anything he writes. Still, my sense is that this singular author unnecessarily compromised an otherwise excellent book. To me, that’s a shame.