Books News & Features
12:01 am
Thu March 8, 2012

'Lifespan': What Are The Limits Of Literary License?

When an author writes something that's supposed to be a true story and readers discover he's stretched the truth, things can get ugly fast. Recall Oprah Winfrey's famous rebuke of author James Frey for making up much of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. "I feel duped, but more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers," she told him.

Now a new book is making waves by defending an author's right to embellish the facts. The book is called The Lifespan of a Fact, and is a collaboration between author John D'Agata and his former fact-checker, Jim Fingal.

Ten years ago, D'Agata was in Las Vegas when a 16-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower. D'Agata wrote an essay about the tragedy — but in the telling, he took a generous amount of artistic license.

"All of which I was completely open about, but was unwilling to budge on," D'Agata says. "I was too enamored, I guess, of my pretty sentences to alter them in any way."

Harper's, which had originally commissioned the essay, rejected it because it played so loose with the facts. It was eventually accepted by the magazine The Believer, where Fingal, an intern at the time, was put on fact-checking duty. Fingal expected to find maybe 10 inaccuracies or inconsistencies in its 15 pages — instead his response ended up filling more than 100 pages.

This report was the seed for The Lifespan of a Fact, which reprints Fingal's queries alongside the original essay.

D'Agata's piece began as follows: "On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-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 thirty-four licensed strip clubs in Vegas ... and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe."

While fact-checking, Fingal found that the lap-dancing ban hadn't actually taken effect by that day. "John's claim here isn't technically accurate," he wrote. He called into question the number of strip clubs in Vegas ("Not sure where John got this number from."), and pointed out that the tic-tac-toe game with the chicken actually occurred a full month after Levi Presley's death.

And that's only a selection of the factual discrepancies Fingal found in the first sentence of the essay.

"It was interesting, the sheer number of sources I needed to consult in order to break down a single sentence," Fingal says. These sources included D'Agata's notes, a coroner's report, newspaper articles, websites and historical databases.

The Lifespan of a Fact also contains the correspondence that passed between D'Agata and Fingal during the fact-checking process. When Fingal got in touch with D'Agata to ask some follow-up questions, the author wasn't pleased.

"Initially, I hated him. I was appalled and I was offended in the way that you get offended when someone points out that you are a big, ugly liar," D'Agata says.

So why did D'Agata make things up? Why did he make it seem that all of the events — some extremely trivial — happened on the same day?

"Because it's more dramatic," D'Agata says. He argues that, in the age-old art form of the essay, the greater point is more important than the details.

He paraphrases T.S. Eliot, saying, "Sometimes we misplace wisdom for information. Accumulating all of this data isn't really going to provide us with the answer we need. We need another approach, and perhaps that approach is one that's more meditative, one that isn't relying solely on gathering facts."

D'Agata also points out that we often apply a kind of double standard to the truth, depending on the perceived seriousness of the subject matter. "I don't think it's OK for us to say, 'In your memoir about growing up and liking pie, it's completely OK to alter the facts, but when you're dealing with huge issues like suicide or nuclear waste or whatever, it's not OK.' I mean, the subject in this essay is amped up to get us to pay attention."

Nevertheless, when readers feel they've been lied to, they feel betrayed.

"It is important, and it's something that publishers think about all the time," says Jonathan Burnham, a senior vice president at HarperCollins.

Burnham knows a thing or two about the trickiness of truth claims in creative nonfiction — he is the one who gave James Frey a second chance after the A Million Little Pieces scandal. He points out that the medium is important; the expectations are different for newspapers, magazines, literary journals and books.

"But one of the most problematic issues that lies at the heart of all this is this philosophical conundrum: What is the truth? Because the truth is often so subjective," Burnham says.

And The Lifespan of a Fact has one more trick up its sleeve. The correspondence between D'Agata and Fingal, as it turns out, was largely invented for the sake of the book. And although Fingal swears that all of the fact-checking is real, much of it was done specifically for this project.

A revelation like this can make readers feel like the rug was pulled out from under them. Burnham says that this happens when there is no disclaimer.

"It's an almost essential piece of qualifying information that alerts the reader to the fact that not every single word in this book is true," Burnham says.

But D'Agata says getting a strong reaction is the point. "That, I firmly believe, is the job of art. And we can't have those experiences that break us open to something new if we are cued ahead of time."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's a scenario that's played out millions of times - well, not exactly, but you get the idea. An author writes something that's supposed to be a true story, then people figure out he stretched the truth. We all know how this ends - on Oprah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

OPRAH WINFREY: I feel duped, but more importantly I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.

MONTAGNE: That's Oprah's famous take-down of author James Frey, who ran into trouble for making up much of his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." Now, a new book is making waves by defending an author's right to embellish the facts. NPR's Travis Larchuk has more.

TRAVIS LARCHUK, BYLINE: At first, this book, "The Lifespan of a Fact," sounds like a writer's worst nightmare. It's an essay printed side-by-side with a fact check that tears the essay apart. Now, the essay has some history to it. Ten years ago, author John D'Agata was in Las Vegas when a 16-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower. D'Agata wrote about his experience trying to figure out why this happened. And in the telling, he took a generous amount of artistic license.

JOHN D'AGATA: All of which I was completely open about, but was unwilling to budge on. I, at the time, was too enamored, I guess, of my pretty sentences to alter them in any way.

LARCHUK: Now, a journalist would probably be fired for trying to do something like this, but D'Agata says he isn't a journalist, and his goal was to create a more artistic essay. Even so, Harper's magazine, which originally commissioned the piece, rejected it. The essay eventually found its way over to the magazine The Believer, where this guy, Jim Fingal, an intern at the time, was told to fact check it.

JIM FINGAL: And, you know, maybe we'll call out the 10 things that are inaccurate, and it can be a little commentary on the essay.

LARCHUK: So Fingal got to fact-checking with no idea what he was really in for. Let's start with what he found in the essay's first sentence. Author John D'Agata will read from the essay, and we'll stop and go to Fingal any time there's a factual dispute.

D'AGATA: (Reading) On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city...

LARCHUK: And stop.

FINGAL: Factual dispute.

LARCHUK: That ban hadn't actually happened at that point.

FINGAL: So John's claim here isn't technically accurate.

LARCHUK: All right. Let's keep going.

D'AGATA: (Reading) Lap-dancing was temporarily banned in the city in 34 licensed strip clubs in Vegas.

LARCHUK: Stop again at that number, 34.

FINGAL: Not sure where John got this number from.

LARCHUK: The author, John D'Agata, continues, listing more events that supposedly happened that same day.

D'AGATA: (Reading) And a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a 35-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.

LARCHUK: And stop. Back to Jim.

FINGAL: This tic-tac-toe game actually happened a full month after Levi Presley's death.

LARCHUK: Now, remember, he was expecting to find maybe 10 fudged facts in the entire essay, and we're only through the first sentence.

FINGAL: It was interesting, the sheer number of sources I needed to consult in order to break down a single sentence.

LARCHUK: Sources like D'Agata's notes, a coroner's report, newspaper articles, websites, historical databases.

FINGAL: I had a lot of work ahead of me.

LARCHUK: For an essay for 15 pages, single-spaced, Fingal's fact check was more than 100 pages long. The book also includes correspondence from the process that shows author John D'Agata didn't take kindly to his fact-checker at first.

D'AGATA: Initially, I hated him. I was appalled. I was appalled and I was offended in the way that you get offended when someone points out that you're, you know, a big, ugly liar.

LARCHUK: So, I asked D'Agata: Why did you make things up, like that first sentence? You made it seem like all of these things happened on the same day from that first sentence. Why do that?

D'AGATA: Because it's more dramatic.

LARCHUK: Now, some of the reviews of this book mention that D'Agata basically comes off like a jerk. And before we go on, an essay about a teenage boy's suicide is a pretty touchy subject to use as the seed for this kind of discussion. So, to be fair, I called the boy's mother, Gail Presley. She says she loves D'Agata's work, especially that it brings attention to the issue of teen suicide. And to the people calling D'Agata a jerk...

GAIL PRESLEY: If lives gives you jerk, make jerk chicken.

LARCHUK: So, as far as the family is concerned, the people closest to the story are OK with it. And D'Agata's take?

D'AGATA: I don't think it's OK for us to say in your memoir about growing up and liking pie, it's completely OK to alter the facts. But when you're dealing with huge issues like suicide or nuclear waste or whatever, it's not OK. The subject in this essay is amped up to get us to pay attention.

LARCHUK: D'Agata says the essay is an age-old art form, and the greater point is more important than the details. He paraphrases T.S. Eliot.

D'AGATA: Sometimes we misplace wisdom for information. Accumulating all of this data isn't really going to provide us with the answer that we need. We need another approach, and perhaps that approach is one that's more meditative, one that isn't relying solely on gathering facts.

LARCHUK: But still, when readers feel they've been lied to, they get angry.

JONATHAN BURNHAM: It is important, and it's something that publishers think about all the time.

LARCHUK: That's Jonathan Burnham. He's a senior vice president at Harper Collins. Now, he knows a thing or two about this - he actually gave James Frey a second chance after the "Million Little Pieces" scandal. And Burnham's also quick to point out that everyone's standards are different. Expectations change if you're reading a newspaper, a magazine, a literary journal or a book.

BURNHAM: But one of the most problematic issues that lies at the heart of all this is this sort of philosophical conundrum: What is the truth? Because the truth is often so subjective.

LARCHUK: And Burnham says there's an easy way to get around this problem: just start off with a disclaimer.

BURNHAM: It's an almost essential piece of qualifying information that alerts the reader to the fact that not every single word in this book is true.

LARCHUK: And there's some irony here, because what isn't mentioned in "The Lifespan of a Fact" is that the book itself isn't all it appears to be. The correspondence between the author and fact-checker was largely invented just for this book. And much of the fact-checking, which Jim assures me is all real, was done specifically for this project. And I have to admit, when I found out, I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. Again, here's author John D'Agata.

D'AGATA: That, I firmly believe, is the job of art. And we can't have those experiences that, you know, break us open to something new if we are cued ahead of time.

LARCHUK: The book is "The Lifespan of a Fact." I'm Travis Larchuk, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related program: