The key passage in John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s “The Lifespan of a Fact” (W.W. Norton: 124 pp., $17.95 paper) comes late in the book, during an exchange on the role of fact in the amorphous genre known as literary nonfiction, or creative nonfiction, or literary journalism, or, in D’Agata’s usage, “the essay.” D’Agata and Fingal are arguing about intent, and the extent to which, or whether, invention ought to be allowed.
It’s an essential question, albeit one that’s been boiled down to sound-bite status in recent years, after mini-tempests over James Frey, Margaret Seltzer and other memoirists who embellish, or falsify, their memories, and D’Agata, for one, has had enough. “I’m not calling this ‘nonfiction,'” he writes, “and neither do I tend to call anything that I write ‘nonfiction,’ because I don’t accept that term as a useful description of anything that I value in literature. The only reason this is being labeled ‘nonfiction’ by your editors is because that is one of the two binary categories that editors allow in prose.”
“The Lifespan of a Fact” offers an extended debate on that issue between D’Agata, author of the searingly good book “About a Mountain” and editor of “The Next American Essay,” and Fingal, a former fact-checker at McSweeney’s and the Believer. At the heart of their discussion is an essay D’Agata wrote, which later helped inspire “About A Mountain,” about the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from the tower observation deck of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere hotel in 2002. Commissioned by Harper’s, the piece was rejected and picked up by the Believer after many of its details could not be verified.
Excerpt of an article written by David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic. Continue HERE. Image by Dolly’s Bookstore