NPR's On The Media

The Lifespan of a Fact

This weeks On The Media dealt a lot with truth, from Middle East countries trying to cover it up to media sources like movies and essays not being able to live up to its high standards. I want to focus on the second to last story entitled “The Lifespan of a Fact” which was a story about an essay written by John D’Agata. D’Agata knowingly stretched the truth a number of times in an essay about a teenager in Las Vegas who committed suicide.
There was a short but contentious debate between D’Agata and a fact checker named Jim Fingal. This short back and forth was really what cemented by opinion of D’Agata as an ass depicted in quotes like “ever heard of Cicero”. He didn’t really address any of Fingal’s issues with the essay and deflected most of his questions. He also struck me as defensive and aggressive. For the majority of the short interview I wanted to punch him in the mouth.
It’s hard for me to divorce my feelings for D’Agata from his point of view. With that said I don’t agree with him. It is true essays are works of opinion rather than fact, like journalism, but that does not give the essayist license to lie. “it sounds like you are saying an essayist can say things of arbitrary truth value and make quotations up out of whole cloth that are attributed to real people who live in the real world…isn’t that what people call fiction?” this was Fingal’s biggest objection to the essay and it is mine too. If one bends the truth too much it snaps and is no longer the truth and an essay even as an opinion piece isn’t saying anything if it is dealing in fiction.
D’Agata’s piece is not grounded enough in truth to merit the title essay. If I wrote an essay for a history class and I changed facts to make a more poignant literary point I would fail for writing an inaccurate essay. D’Agata does acknowledge that he does stray from the truth in the essay, but if an essay has that caveat what is the point? Anyone could write a convincing essay if they are not constrained by facts.
I understand what D’Agata is trying to accomplish. He is trying to make his point more powerful with his literary skill which is fine for any writer to do, but presenting creative enhancements or altered facts as true is morally wrong and often illegal, especially when dealing with a topic like a specific teen’s suicide. Using a tragic event to shed light on an issue is fine but very delicate I feel if you are writing about real life you have to use facts not fabrications.


  1. I actually have to take the other side here, Cameron, and I’m speaking of course from my own point of view here, as both an essayist and a fan of D’Agata. I think an important point he makes is that he’s writing from a tradition, the essay, that’s hundreds of years old, much older in fact than journalism as we know it today, and such rigid fact-checking is a mild affront to that tradition of relating one person’s attempt at constructing meaning from the material that the world gives us. Of course, I hope you don’t think I’m condoning plagiarism; Peter Matthiessen once said, and I’m paraphrasing, that it’s the job of the nonfiction writer not to tell the truth but to tell nothing verifiably false. Of course, D’Agata here does run up against some things he wrote that are verifiably false, which is mainly what Fingal calls him out on. D’Agata’s question, and it’s definitely a defensive one, is then, “Is it really that important?” And I think whose side one takes in this debate depends on one’s answer to that question.

  2. I definitely see your point of view, and D’Agata’s. I think he most essays walk a thin line though, between fiction and non fiction. As an author of opinion the essayist can say just about anything so long as he/she holds it to be true. Even paraphrasing is not necessarily a bad thing so long as the quoter is making a honest effort to represent the quoted’s sentiments. I think what D’Agata did however was not just paraphrase people, which he may or may not have done dutifully, but paraphrased reality. For example his use the nine seconds the boy fell. He said “by the time I had met the coroner and found out I was off by a second the essay had already started structuring by itself around nine”. If the kid didn’t fall nine seconds he didn’t fall nine seconds, so even if you tell everyone the kid actually fell for eight seconds it destroys your point. Possession is nine tenths of the law, I’m on cloud nine, this kid fell for nine seconds (but he actually fell for eight). In that section he refers to how reality relates to reality and that’s what makes it profound, if it is actually reality relating to fiction there is nothing there but an observation that nine occurs in many of our sayings, something that has nothing to do with teen suicide.

    An essayist can work in fact or in fiction. My problem with D’Agata here is that he made it seem like he was working in fact when at times he was actually working in fiction.

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