The Life Span of a Fact By: Brett Henderson Just how fictional can a non-‐fictional story be? In the book, The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal battle out that exact question. I found this book to be a very interesting read; I liked the way that it included the back and fourth banter between John and Jim. In the book John says “It’s called art, d***head.” Jim replies with “That’s your excuse for everything.” John rebuttals with “It’s not an excuse, Jim, it’s how I approach the genre” (The Life Span of a Fact, pg. 92). This quote is an example of the knock down drag out fight that the book shows for its entirety. It also kind of sets the tone of the book, how fictional can a non-‐fictional story be? To really get into the book and break down what I was reading, I kept in mind two different questions. Whose argument is more compelling? What issues does the book raise? Both are very essential when processing the information and making a decision on who you agree with. Who’s argument is more compelling? I had an internal battle with this question. I see both sides, half of me wanted to agree with John because it makes sense to write with the imagination. For a writer to tell a story, make the read to believe that they are living in that story and emotionally connect with the surroundings. The other half of me likes facts and statistics, so it was almost frustrating to see the blatant misuse of true facts. I started thinking back over the time we spent in class on credibility. I decided that I was on Jim’s side, and if John was writing a “non-‐fiction” essay it should be factual. I came to this conclusion when thinking about the issues of credibility we discussed in class. In the article Principles For A New Media Literacy it states “In the traditional news world, even though we understood the prevalence of minor errors in stories, even by reputable journalists, we also understood that, by and large, the better media organizations get things pretty much right. The small mistakes undermine any notion of absolute trust, but we accept the overall value of the work” (Gillmor D. 2008). From my perspective of his stance in this article, I believe that he expects the true facts most of the time to bring credibility to the writer or organization. He understands that there will be slip-‐ups that are going to happen. If the organization has a reputation of being credible, mistakes can sometimes be overlooked. Jim felt uneasy about the whole situation from the beginning. In a conversation with the editor Jim says, “For a piece that seems to rest on the weight of a lot of details, it seems a little problematic for John to be washing his hands of their accuracy, no? (The Life Span of a Fact, pg. 16) I felt a little cheated by John after reading this book and finding out that the facts from the story aren’t entirely true. I had never heard nor read the story before reading this book, so I can only imagine what the readers of the essay felt like after reading both the article and the book. What issues does the book arise? I think the main over lying issue is the discussion between the two authors about what to categorize this essay as. Coming from Jim’s point of view, fact checking, it is a “non-‐fiction” essay. He believes that it should be factual and truthful. Jim says, “John, but don’t you think that the gravity of the situation demands an accuracy that you’re dismissing as incidental? This isn’t just about the name of one slot machine. I mean, even if there was no inherent
meaning in these details, you’re giving them meaning by calling attention to them.” He continues by saying “You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi and so every detail you choose to do that with will become significant, because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him. And that’s why to me this is serious business, because the record you’re creating now will be regarded as the authoritative one, if only because there is no competing narrative anyone else is likely to read or write about this kid” (The Life Span of a Fact, pg. 107). John on the other hand see’s his writing as a story that should use the imagination to capture the reader. John states, “It’s not that I’m claiming there’s no meaning in this flood of information, Jim, but rather that the more important thing to highlight here is the search for meaning. An integral part of my search for that meaning is this attempt to reconstruct details in a way that makes them feel significant, even if that significance is one that doesn’t naturally occur in the event being described. “ He also states “I am seeking truth here, but not necessarily accuracy. I think its very misleading for us to continue pretending that nonfiction writers have a mystically different relationship with “The Truth” than any other kind of writer” (The Life Span of a Fact, pg. 108). In John’s opinion he is seeking the truth, he is find answers, and then writing them in a way that makes the readers feel like they are apart of the story. This is where the issue between them comes in to play. They get on a carousal back and fourth and can’t agree to a clear-‐cut solution to the issue. They end the book in a disagreement and go on their separate ways continuing their different outlooks on what a “non-‐fiction” story is. In conclusion I really enjoyed reading this book. The back and fourth banter between the two, which was a huge part of the book, was something I haven’t ever experienced in a book before. It was interesting to see each their point of views and how they stood their ground through out the book. The whole book circles back around to the original question I had. Just how fictional can a non-‐fiction story be?