Thursday, November 08, 2012

What Is A Fact?

You know when you get a good idea for a blog post, but it's going to require you to do some real thinking, and maybe background reading, before you can post it?  And that just seems like so much work when you've got this nasty chest cold coming on and can barely stay awake past 8:30?

You don't?

Well, then you probably don't know how it feels to finally suck it up to do the background reading and then realize that this guy wrote the article that's the blog post you were going to write.  This guy and probably everyone else in the world, but this was the article that took the stance most like your own.

It's not like I've even gotten very far into The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal.  In and of itself, the book is driving me crazy, because I am one of those people who didn't read A Million Little Pieces but was really pissed that James Frey turned out to have been lying about it being a memoir.  John D'Agata wrote an essay, and Jim Fingal was set the task of fact checking it, and this book consists of (a version of) the essay annotated with the fact check and portions of email correspondence between the fact checker and the author.

Now, let's stop here for a second.  The author comes across as a complete ass--about how little any of the facts he made up matter (in terms of whether they're true or not) but how MUCH they matter (in terms of creating a visceral sense of meaning and reality for the reader).  He's not only defensive, he's impatient and insulting--not even really defending his practice so much as scorning anyone who could dare question him.  I'm not even finding it as thoughtful a discussion of the meaning of fact in nonfiction as I'd like.

And then you have Fingal, the hero of the piece, defending us readers from lies lies lies.  Only--sometimes he comes across as a bit of a prig.  I mean, I agree that the facts are important, and some of the exaggerations feel like a betrayal (when you find meaning in the fact that three events occur on the same day, but it turns out they didn't, what does that say about the meaning you're trying to draw?).  But the fact is, when someone is writing a magazine article, I might expect them to describe bricks as red that are, in a certain light, really more of a dark brown.  I do NOT feel betrayed by a referral to someone whose title is Vice President of Public Relations as "the hotel's public relations manager."  If your only argument for journalistic truth is this kind of authoritarianism, then I might have lean on the side of the anarchist instead of the fascist.

What I want, though, is a discussion of what that in-between place looks like.  I want someone to help me define why I care about the veracity of the story in an article like this, that don't apply directly me.  I want a discussion that will help me map what kind of details I care about and what kind I don't.  I want an author who doesn't refer to my wanting to be able to draw my own conclusions as wanting to be "spoon fed." 

This book makes me want all of these things, badly, but I'm pretty sure it won't provide them.

1 comment:

Aarti said...

Oh sad! But HILARIOUS review :-)