John D'Agata, a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa, writes essays, but not the kind you remember composing in school. His particular style of essay--which he calls "lyric"--blends fact and, well, something on a continuum of fact and if not fiction, something more akin to it than nonfiction, to convey what he feels is the essence of what he's exploring. D'Agata's stance, which he argues is valid based on the etymological and historical sense of "essay," a verb synonymous with trial, test, and attempt, is that the Truth of a matter cannot solely be conveyed through empirically verifiable facts.
Some, including Jim Fingal, the Believer fact checker assigned to research the contentious essay at the center of this book, take issue with D'Agata's playing fast and loose with our mutually shared reality. Fingal, NY Times Book Review editor Jennifer McDonald, and others point to the troubling aspects of D'Agata's process, arguing that blurring the lines between fact and fiction may be aesthetically justifiable, but is morally questionable. D'Agata counters with the argument that he's never claimed to write non-fiction, only essays. And essays are a genre of their own, amorphous, personal, drawing on myth, poetry, and imagination as well as facts (as commonly understood) to portray the richness of life--or, in the case of the essay under the microscope here, death.*
These fundamental differences in opinion create a dynamic tension in this record of D'Agata and Fingal's dialogue about the essay in question, which would later become a critically lauded book, About a Mountain. What starts innocently enough, with a bright-eyed intern's attempt to iron out some seemingly straightforward facts (are there 31 or 34 strip clubs in Las Vegas?), by the end has taken on a much larger meaning, becoming a tense ideological and aesthetic battle about the nature and value of art, truth, and meaning.
The text on the page of Lifespan of a Fact is neatly arranged, with the back-and-forth between Fingal and D'Agata surrounding the essay, marginalia that overwhelms the text. I'll refrain from drawing my own conclusions here, but am curious as to what other readers think, whose side you fall on. Are facts negotiable? Do they matter in a work of art? Is truth only what's verifiable, or are there truths of feeling? These are big questions, of course; Lifespan of a Fact is a compelling contribution to this age-old debate.
* The argument D'Agata makes would be more acceptable in France, where a genre-bending category of literature called l'autofiction has become increasingly common in recent years.