Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

The new book The Lifespan of a Fact is a glossed reprint of an essay written by John D'Agata. The glosses are the transcript of correspondence between the author, the man assigned to fact-check the essay, and their editor. They record a debate over the value of facts, the nature of precision, and the values upheld by non-fiction writing.

I approached the book expecting to very sympathetic to the author against the fact-checker, because there are occasional moments in my own writing where I find that if a fact were only slightly different, the whole thing would sound a lot better or the narrative would be a bit better crafted. But I found myself surprised by the extent of what D'Agata thought was necessary: Is the all-time record of 118 degrees really that much more dramatic than the real temperature on the day in question, the record for that year of 113? Did the month's worth of factoids that he collapsed into the single day of the suicide that was the subject of his essay really pack that much more of a punch having happened on the day of his death than in the month in which he died?

It did leave me wondering how many of the discrepancies were written into the text because D'Agata simply has a superior ear and I can't appreciate the difference, and how many of them were left because he has become a diva and is no longer obligated to play by even some semblance of the rules; and I'm pretty confident in my ear. Like I said, I started out reading totally sympathetic to his position, having argued over questions of style with many an editor and occasionally having wished fervently that small details (both in academic and essayistic writing) could have been just a little bit different, but the extreme to which it seems to be carried out is, well, extreme.

As a book, The Lifespan of a Fact is a fascinating exercise and a beautiful example of a modern glossed text. But it left me more interested in the facts than the lifespan. I came away with exactly the opposite conclusion of the one I had expected and hoped to draw. I think I failed to take the larger point of the glosses to heart; but it's a compelling voice that Fingal has that was able to convert an inveterate storyteller to the side of fact.

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