Several years ago I took a class in travel writing. We read classic pieces by Patrick Leigh Fermor and VS Naipaul. We also constructed our own narratives, ideally after absorbing the lessons in craft contained in the readings. Our instructor was Ben Downing, an expert in the life of Leigh Fermor.
As I wrote up my own travels I wanted to get every last detail correct. If I'd had a cappucino in Buenos Aires, I couldn't very well tell the reader it had been a latte. If it took three buses to get from point A to point B in Recife, Brazil, it was a violation to only report two. This was lying. And liars are bad.
The trouble was that, in the pursuit of pristine accuracy, I was losing sight of the larger truth of these trips and what they had meant in my life. The forest for the trees. I recall Ben's sage advice not to obsess about the facts that were mere data points more than the lynchpins of the story. He was not claiming that we should lie with abandon, but making the more subtle point that there are facts and then there is truth.
Fast forward to the recent publication of the book The Lifespan of a Fact. There's a great excerpt in the current Harper's, and last night a Facebook friend pointed me to an interview about the book that ran this weekend on To the Best of Our Knowledge.
Nutshell version: For **seven years**, author John D'Agata and fact checker Jim Fingal corresponded about the numerous specific factual claims in an article D'Agata had written about the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. Fingal sought support for claims about the number of strip clubs in town, or where people hailed from. D'Agata groused back that taking some liberties in the pursuit of the larger story was fully justified. Back and forth they went, round and round again. After lo those seven years, D'Agata's article finally appeared in The Believer.
Although he can be pompous in defense of his artistic choices, I am with D'Agata. If forced to choose between literal and metaphorical truth, I'll take the latter.
Not that D'Agata always takes the high road. He says there are 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas, but Fingal can only verify 31. When pressed, D'Agata admits he claimed 34 because it works better in the "rhythm" of the sentence. Lame? Yes. But if the larger point is that Vegas is a temple of the flesh, it works with either number. Although D'Agata should have kept his rhythms in check, this is a disinction without a difference.
One more example, less cut-and-dried. D'Agata claimed that one of his sources was from Mississippi, but Fingal figured out she had lived in Vegas for many years. So doesn't that make Vegas her home? Depends on how you look at it. When people ask me where my home is, sometimes I say California (where I live) and sometimes Ohio (where I grew up). There aren't always shared facts that we can all agree on.
Here is that sentence as it ran in The Believer, which happens to be the first sentence: "One summer, when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, the local city council was considering a bill that would temporarily ban lap dancing in the city’s strip clubs, archaeologists unearthed shards of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco brand sauce from beneath a parking lot, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe."
Looks like D'Agata won this scuffle, since the Mississippi roots are intact. Had Fingal prevailed we would probably read "a woman....beat a chicken named Ginger..." In either case, we have a vivid scene set. And if this woman somehow became a person from Arkansas not much would be lost even though it isn't true.
But if Levi Pressley had jumped from the Bellagio and not the Stratosphere, we'd have a big problem on our hands. There are facts and there are FACTS. But our language has no way to make this distinction, so any deviation from the literal truth is suspect.
Maybe the solution, as the Facebook discussion indicated last night, is to post a clear disclaimer when authors are taking liberties. Readers who are troubled can look elsewhere, those who are not can read on.