Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Measuring the lifespan of a fact is no easy task

Originally printed Feb. 22, 2012.

When my kids force me to watch "Dinosaur Train" with them on PBS, the most redeeming feature is "Dr. Scott," the real life paleontologist Scott Sampson who ends every episode with a quick, kid-friendly account of all science featured on the show.

But the "Dinosaur Train" scriptwriters also seem to think that some parents just won't be able to appreciate the sheer absurdity of telling the story of a family of pteranodons, with an adopted baby T-Rex, who learn about other dinosaur species aboard a time-traveling, passenger train.

So, Sampson's closing segments at times also include a character who offers a refutation of the most fantastical features of the program. Dressed in a lawyerly suit and stuffy bowler hat, "Mr. Disclaimer" bursts into the scene and interrupts with short, terse, obvious statements such as, "Point of fact: Dinosaurs did not play Dino-ball!"

"Dinosaur Train" scripts, of course, are a far cry from the type of quality writing associated with the faculty of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. But it's hard not think of Mr. Disclaimer, with his stiff voice and absurd outfit, when reading through "The Lifespan of a Fact," a highly intellectual and surprisingly theatratical dialogue co-written by UI professor John D'Agata and his frustrated fact checker Jim Fingal.

Back in 2003, a magazine commissioned D'Agata to write about a Las Vegas teen who committed suicide. The resulting essay eventually went on to become the foundation of D'Agata's award-winning book, "About a Mountain," but the magazine ultimately rejected the piece because, while moving and well written, it contained too many of what the editors considered "factual inaccuracies."

D'Agata then offered his essay to another magazine, who was interested in printing it, but assigned Fingal to fact check D'Agata's prose. Fingal immediately takes issue with so many of the assertions in D'Agata's opening paragraph that his senior editor gives up trying to address every point. Instead, the fact checker is left on his own to own find some kind of accommodation with a literary essayist who refuses to abide by the magazine's normal standards for nonfiction.

"The Lifespan of a Fact" tells the story of how D'Agata and Fingal utterly fail to find points of common ground in their understanding of "literary nonfiction" (a term that D'Agata despises despite being a professor of nonfiction). Each page includes a centered column of text from D'Agata's original essay surrounded by the email conversations between the journalistic editor and the essayist — between the artist and killjoy. When Fingal confirms a fact, the marginalia text is in black; when he disputes a fact, the marginalia text is in red.

Needless to say, there's a lot of red.

At times, Fingal comes across as a Dr. Scott — providing helpful information that corrects verifiable factual inaccuracies in a way that won't affect the tone and style of D'Agata's literary voice.

At other times, Fingal comes across as a verbose version of "Mr. Disclaimer," aggressively challenging facts and epistemological assumptions that have absolutely no bearing on the literary experience D'Agata is trying to create.

D'Agata, likewise, comes across at times as an artist whose broader vision is completely misunderstood by his editors. But in his unwillingness to make even the most basic of factual corrections, D'Agata loses his reader's sympathy — even as he makes the more compelling arguments about the intersection of art and life.

"It would 'ruin' it to make it more accurate?" Fingal asks at one point.

"Yup," is all that D'Agata replies.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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