'Lifespan': What Are The Limits Of Literary License? When an intern accused author John D'Agata of embellishing the facts in an essay, the two began wrestling over the writer's responsibility to the truth, and even the meaning of truth itself. The Lifespan of a Fact is the real-life record of their debate (or is it?).
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'Lifespan': What Are The Limits Of Literary License?

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'Lifespan': What Are The Limits Of Literary License?

'Lifespan': What Are The Limits Of Literary License?

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It's a scenario that's played out millions of times - well, not exactly, but you get the idea. An author writes something that's supposed to be a true story, then people figure out he stretched the truth. We all know how this ends - on Oprah.


OPRAH WINFREY: I feel duped, but more importantly I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.

MONTAGNE: That's Oprah's famous take-down of author James Frey, who ran into trouble for making up much of his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." Now, a new book is making waves by defending an author's right to embellish the facts. NPR's Travis Larchuk has more.

TRAVIS LARCHUK, BYLINE: At first, this book, "The Lifespan of a Fact," sounds like a writer's worst nightmare. It's an essay printed side-by-side with a fact check that tears the essay apart. Now, the essay has some history to it. Ten years ago, author John D'Agata was in Las Vegas when a 16-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower. D'Agata wrote about his experience trying to figure out why this happened. And in the telling, he took a generous amount of artistic license.

JOHN D'AGATA: All of which I was completely open about, but was unwilling to budge on. I, at the time, was too enamored, I guess, of my pretty sentences to alter them in any way.

LARCHUK: Now, a journalist would probably be fired for trying to do something like this, but D'Agata says he isn't a journalist, and his goal was to create a more artistic essay. Even so, Harper's magazine, which originally commissioned the piece, rejected it. The essay eventually found its way over to the magazine The Believer, where this guy, Jim Fingal, an intern at the time, was told to fact check it.

JIM FINGAL: And, you know, maybe we'll call out the 10 things that are inaccurate, and it can be a little commentary on the essay.

LARCHUK: So Fingal got to fact-checking with no idea what he was really in for. Let's start with what he found in the essay's first sentence. Author John D'Agata will read from the essay, and we'll stop and go to Fingal any time there's a factual dispute.

D'AGATA: (Reading) On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city...

LARCHUK: And stop.

FINGAL: Factual dispute.

LARCHUK: That ban hadn't actually happened at that point.

FINGAL: So John's claim here isn't technically accurate.

LARCHUK: All right. Let's keep going.

D'AGATA: (Reading) Lap-dancing was temporarily banned in the city in 34 licensed strip clubs in Vegas.

LARCHUK: Stop again at that number, 34.

FINGAL: Not sure where John got this number from.

LARCHUK: The author, John D'Agata, continues, listing more events that supposedly happened that same day.

D'AGATA: (Reading) And a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a 35-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.

LARCHUK: And stop. Back to Jim.

FINGAL: This tic-tac-toe game actually happened a full month after Levi Presley's death.

LARCHUK: Now, remember, he was expecting to find maybe 10 fudged facts in the entire essay, and we're only through the first sentence.

FINGAL: It was interesting, the sheer number of sources I needed to consult in order to break down a single sentence.

LARCHUK: Sources like D'Agata's notes, a coroner's report, newspaper articles, websites, historical databases.

FINGAL: I had a lot of work ahead of me.

LARCHUK: For an essay for 15 pages, single-spaced, Fingal's fact check was more than 100 pages long. The book also includes correspondence from the process that shows author John D'Agata didn't take kindly to his fact-checker at first.

D'AGATA: Initially, I hated him. I was appalled. I was appalled and I was offended in the way that you get offended when someone points out that you're, you know, a big, ugly liar.

LARCHUK: So, I asked D'Agata: Why did you make things up, like that first sentence? You made it seem like all of these things happened on the same day from that first sentence. Why do that?

D'AGATA: Because it's more dramatic.

LARCHUK: Now, some of the reviews of this book mention that D'Agata basically comes off like a jerk. And before we go on, an essay about a teenage boy's suicide is a pretty touchy subject to use as the seed for this kind of discussion. So, to be fair, I called the boy's mother, Gail Presley. She says she loves D'Agata's work, especially that it brings attention to the issue of teen suicide. And to the people calling D'Agata a jerk...

GAIL PRESLEY: If lives gives you jerk, make jerk chicken.

LARCHUK: So, as far as the family is concerned, the people closest to the story are OK with it. And D'Agata's take?

D'AGATA: I don't think it's OK for us to say in your memoir about growing up and liking pie, it's completely OK to alter the facts. But when you're dealing with huge issues like suicide or nuclear waste or whatever, it's not OK. The subject in this essay is amped up to get us to pay attention.

LARCHUK: D'Agata says the essay is an age-old art form, and the greater point is more important than the details. He paraphrases T.S. Eliot.

D'AGATA: Sometimes we misplace wisdom for information. Accumulating all of this data isn't really going to provide us with the answer that we need. We need another approach, and perhaps that approach is one that's more meditative, one that isn't relying solely on gathering facts.

LARCHUK: But still, when readers feel they've been lied to, they get angry.

JONATHAN BURNHAM: It is important, and it's something that publishers think about all the time.

LARCHUK: That's Jonathan Burnham. He's a senior vice president at Harper Collins. Now, he knows a thing or two about this - he actually gave James Frey a second chance after the "Million Little Pieces" scandal. And Burnham's also quick to point out that everyone's standards are different. Expectations change if you're reading a newspaper, a magazine, a literary journal or a book.

BURNHAM: But one of the most problematic issues that lies at the heart of all this is this sort of philosophical conundrum: What is the truth? Because the truth is often so subjective.

LARCHUK: And Burnham says there's an easy way to get around this problem: just start off with a disclaimer.

BURNHAM: It's an almost essential piece of qualifying information that alerts the reader to the fact that not every single word in this book is true.

LARCHUK: And there's some irony here, because what isn't mentioned in "The Lifespan of a Fact" is that the book itself isn't all it appears to be. The correspondence between the author and fact-checker was largely invented just for this book. And much of the fact-checking, which Jim assures me is all real, was done specifically for this project. And I have to admit, when I found out, I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. Again, here's author John D'Agata.

D'AGATA: That, I firmly believe, is the job of art. And we can't have those experiences that, you know, break us open to something new if we are cued ahead of time.

LARCHUK: The book is "The Lifespan of a Fact." I'm Travis Larchuk, NPR News.

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