Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker
Precision only gets you so far.
“The Writer” (2009) by Kelly C. Tate.
I work on and off as a fact-checker at the most accurate magazine in America. I think so, at least. The checker assigned to this piece may come up with a list of competitors for that title—and in that case I’ll say that, having either been fact-checked by or been a fact-checker at most of them, she can count this fact as my own original reporting. My editor will probably agree and, if she pushes it, tell her that anyway “most accurate” is a qualitative evaluation, like “best defensive shortstop,” or “hottest freshman.” He won’t say, though it’ll be implicit, that the whole idea of The Oxford American assigning an essay about fact-checking works better if the guy they got to write it works as part of the best research department in the country—which makes me seem like an authority—and that it’d be a shame to lose the superlative when the magazine in question isn’t even going to be named. Superlatives, if you pay attention, are how magazines make stories seem worth reading, and not even the checkers at the most accurate magazine in America can fight off all the spurious ones.
A few months ago I wouldn’t have believed that anyone outside New York would care seven thousand words-worth about what I do there, but fact-checking has recently become a voguish topic among the New Yorker-
reading and NPR-listening set. This probably has to be the result of two minor controversies—palatably packaged and sold in the manner of political “teachable moments”—that hit the middlebrow public this winter within a couple weeks of each other. The first came in February, when a smoothly edited and largely fabricated e-mail exchange between the essayist John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, his fact-checker at The Believer
, was released as a book, The Lifespan of a Fact.
D’Agata had written a good, but deeply unfactual, essay for Harper’s
, which refused to run the piece. He then took it to The Believer
, where Fingal—who was then, like most “fact-checkers” at small magazines, just an unpaid intern—was assigned to enumerate the factual issues. What followed, according to the publicity department at Norton, the book’s publisher, “was seven years of arguments and approximately one hundred pages of give and take, detailing a factual problem in nearly every one of D’Agata’s sentences, as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.” The book reproduces the “give and take,” formatted around the original essay, which really isn’t a bad piece of literary journalism. The publicity sheet goes on: “The Lifespan of a Fact
tests the limits of art and challenges the role of the nonfiction writer. After experiencing D’Agata and Fingal debate the line between art and fact, witnessing the position of both the author and the fact-checker falter, the reader is left to ponder if the compulsion to obtain ‘The Truth’ is in fact plausible.” Sic
with regards to syntax.
The book, which is as convoluted and overblown as its marketing material, was reviewed on NPR
and in the Times
the London Review of Books—
now that I’m looking—
and has become by far D’Agata’s best-known work, which is probably fitting. He has been teaching at Iowa for many years and from there has become America’s most dogged partisan of the lyric essay, publishing anthologies but few long works, and generally making a lot of unsubstantiated claims about the genre’s history and potential.
The second came in mid-March, when the staff of the radio show This American Life
discovered that the performer Mike Daisey had lied on-air about witnessing poor working conditions at Apple suppliers in China. They retracted the episode, and then, as a neat counterpoint to D’Agata’s defense of fabrication in nonfiction, turned the retraction into an entire seppuku-session of an episode
—explaining how they discovered the fabrications, bringing Daisey back to cringe and account, and giving a thorough explanation of TAL
’s fact-checking process. It became, in so much as any show on NPR can create one, an event
, which I just cannot find a way to interpret generously. Newspapers and the various entertainment media loved the story. The whole editorial failure became an excuse for Ira Glass to talk up just how tough his show’s journalistic standards really are—the usual response from any burned publication—and TAL
turned a fuck-up into a brilliant advertisement for itself.
I get paid an absolutely fair—generous, even—amount of money to sit at a desk in New York and hunt down bits of imprecision. Not to be cute, but imprecision might not even be a very precise way of explaining what I’m looking for. But I’m certainly not just looking for falsehoods. Smaller research departments, or magazines that rely on interns, generally don’t have the time, money, or will to do much beyond trying to figure out what’s wrong in the piece, but our approach is much more abstract. To give an example: A few weeks ago, a friend of mine—let’s call him Geoff—was assigned to check a mention of two television shows that contained a sentence describing them both depicting “a stunning amount of back-entry sex.” There’s really no easy way to check a sentence like that. The shows hadn’t aired yet, and we had already sent the promo DVDs back to the network. So you call the network’s publicity rep. This is what the office heard:
Geoff: So we have this mention of these shows, yeah? And I just wanted to confirm some plot points with you.
Well, one in particular.
Well, so, there’s a lot of sex in both of them, right?
No, no, we’re not going to harp on it, of course, but our editors thought that maybe it was a significant enough factor in each of them to mention…to maybe even draw a link between the two….
And yeah, so what I was wondering is if there’s any particular position the sex usually happens in….
Like, from the back, front, side? Do you think that a lot of it comes from the back?
Cool, that’s helpful. Do you think that the percentage of rear penetration might seem disproportionate? Or even surprising? Really surprising? Say if I was just a normal, married guy in the Midwest.
That does seem like a lot. And I guess I just want to make sure, because I’m not totally certain that we’re being totally clear here....
Yeah, I mean, when you say rear-entry sex—you mean entry from the rear, right? Not, um, into the rear? It’s a little confusing.
There’s a hierarchy of truth in this sentence. The first concern is, obviously, to make sure that both shows contain some back-entry sex. Any amount of any sexual act on television will be “stunning” to someone, somewhere. So there’s a sense in which you could just leave it at that. But our boss will want a justification for the adjective, and will go home, sit on his couch, and send us one-line e-mails demanding one until he gets it. So the amount of sex has to be a lot, and it has to be a lot in the context of the network on which the shows run, and at the same time it has to be a lot in the minds of the type of people who typically read the most accurate magazine in America. And so follows a discussion of who that type of person really is, and whether we can know how much would be stunning to them.
At that point it becomes all about precision, and you stop worrying about the truth-value of a sentence: Back-entry sex may mean something pretty clear, to a writer and editor, but can we be sure that it’ll be clear when read by even just a mildly prurient layman? It’s an important question, sort of—don’t we, as a magazine, have a responsibility not to send people off to watch shows in the hope of seeing sex in
the rear when all they’re going to see is sex from
the rear? And to avoid driving away anyone who would really
be “stunned” by depictions of the former? We do, I think, and I would recommend that we change the wording. The editor would probably laugh at me, but it’d be worth a try. And thinking like that is what makes us good checkers.1
And sometimes you win real victories. Not often, but it does happen. A few months ago, I was working on a story about Afghanistan, and the editor—hours before we sent the piece to the printer—inserted a bit of text under the headline—a dek, in magazine-speak—that contained the phrase “enemy combatant.” Which is an entirely political term devised under the Bush Administration to justify the arbitrary detention of foreign citizens. Political stances aside, it’s pure political jargon—and no kind of jargon deserves a place in front of a good piece of writing. The piece dealt very poignantly with some victims of arbitrary detention, and it occurred to me, just after our editor-in-chief had read and approved the piece, that we were not only using a phrase that had been invented as cover for an immoral practice, but that by using it we were undermining our own writer and the whole purpose he had in mind when he wrote the piece. Which was very good, and which was and still is the only thing I’d ever been proud to fact-check. These things happen, in fairness, to the best writers and editors. You work too quickly, and you pull dull phrases from the less active parts of the mind. But that’s why magazines have layers.
So I went to the editor and tried to explain why I didn’t think the term was current anymore, and how it maybe didn’t apply to the people he was applying it to anyway, and he, having reached the point of resigned fatigue that comes at the end of any magazine’s publication cycle, said that there wasn’t anything he could do at this point, and I went away. “The Taliban can’t really sue us, can they?” he said. I sat at my desk for an hour and stewed. During that hour the piece went to the printer. I came back and presented the issue as it’s framed above—more as a moral issue than a factual problem. He called the editor-in-chief, the production staff got in touch with the printer, and the line got changed.
But wait. Our magazine employs a rotating collection of youngish writers, paying them more than they need to live comfortably as a young person in New York. It buys us dinner if we want it, from pretty much wherever we want it. Our magazine doesn’t hire a black car to take us home after a certain hour, but others I’ve checked at do, and we can expense a ride in a yellow cab. We get to work with smart, generally pretty attractive people; we get to drink on the job. Sometimes, when we’re waiting for a new draft of a piece and the boss has already gone home, we collect our smartphones and go off to a bar with some of our smart, generally pretty attractive co-workers, and we talk about the Jesuitical recalcitrance of editors trying to defend lines that are plainly unfactual, or about their rampant overuse of superlatives—the “Midwest’s best new small brewery!”—and don’t worry about the cost of drinks, because we’re still on the clock, getting paid a fair, even generous amount of money.
If it sounds like something out of the golden days of print, it isn’t. We don’t get health insurance, if you’re wondering about that. And, more to the point, the most accurate magazine in America probably didn’t set out to become as accurate as it has. Odes to fact-checking—and most of the criticism of D’Agata’s attitude toward it—tend to focus on how checkers improve a piece of writing, or save a writer’s ass.2
But, just so we’re clear, magazines pay for research departments because research departments keep magazines from getting sued for libel. That’s why we triple-verify lines that you’d think were commonly accepted as truth. That’s why some pieces in The New Yorker
seem to be totally made of attributions: “According to a leaked memo….” They pay us to triple-verify, and when we can’t, they groan when we tell them we have to stick an “according to” in there. But we keep them from getting sued. The rest is just a bonus, really, and the facts are that some executive will probably someday decide that we could keep the magazine from getting sued with a department half our size. And he’d probably be right. I checked a piece about cancer treatments once, at a very different magazine, and at one point, with time running out, the boss came and said “Push it along! Anyone getting advice about cancer from us is gonna die young anyway.”
The OA assigned me, because I’m a fact-checker, to write about Lifespan of a Fact, which I initially declined to do. Partially because everyone else has already reviewed it. Partially because I was worried about pissing off our research director. And partially because the basic question of the book—“How negotiable is a fact in nonfiction?” as the jacket copy puts it—seemed rhetorically empty to me, symptomatic of an entire body of our recent nonfiction that explores questions that are simply interesting, without seriously trying to influence the way we live or our metaphysical understanding of the world. That avoid trying too hard to matter, you could say. You find this sort of work in Sheila Heti’s new staged interview-novel, How Should a Person Be?, and often in the pages of The Believer, the magazine that eventually published the essay Lifespan fact-checks. You get it on This American Life, and not just from Mike Daisey. You hear the word “amusing” used to describe this stuff disturbingly frequently. I remember once being amused by an episode TAL did about classified ads: They read the classifieds in Chicago papers and then tracked down all manner of people giving away dogs, or selling quilts, or whatever you put a classified ad up for, and through a series of short interviews created a pretty touching picture of that segment of Chicago that hasn’t yet figured out Craigslist. But that’s it. It’s amusing, in the purest etymological sense: amuser, from the Old French, used to mean a thing that caused you to muse—and muser—to muse—meant “to stare.” This sort of work invites a good stare, not real thought.
It’s not a coincidence that this kind of work has problems with reality. James Wood, writing in The New Yorker
about Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
her “novel” made up entirely of post-college what-should-I-do-with-my-life conversations that clearly really did take place in some form, called it a “charming,” “hospitable,” and “successfully evasive” failure. I would have only added “lazy.” Heti’s book, though it claims to be a novel, was clearly designed to fail: It’s stylized just enough to force you to think Heti’s working in the realm of art, but it’s real enough that you can hardly expect her conversations with her dull artist friends to hit on any real truths.
Books like Heti’s or Lifespan don’t explore the boundaries of reality so much as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be a writer. Can you do it without producing what normal people would call writing? D’Agata—who claims that in an essay anything’s possible—has never to my knowledge even tried to produce an argument essay defending his invention and manipulation of facts, and you have to assume the task would be beyond him. Certainly it’s beyond Heti to try to create art capable of answering the Tolstoyan question asked in her title. Manufacturing the real, whether you create it through novelization or the slow, painful job of assembling facts that support your version of the truth, is work.
Manufacturing media events is easy, and David Shields—the Horace of the lyric essay—has actually taken this logic to its lazy extreme. His Reality Hunger, a splashy book-length defense of invention and pastiche, is just a long series of unattributed quotes backing up the central claim that “there are no facts, only art.” Here, watch, I’ll make my own essay using quotes already borrowed by Shields:
#423: “No artist tolerates reality.”
#424: “If I had the slightest grasp on my faculties I would not make essays. I would make decisions.”
#362: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.”
D’Agata, in other works, has argued that literary nonfiction progressed from Sumerian aphorisms, carved onto tablets, to collections of the aphorisms, to anecdotes, to full essays. Lyric essays and TAL stories tend to be essentially anecdotal in character—less structured than strung together—and in Heti and Shields it seems that we’ve regressed even farther, back to the aphorism.
Let’s not drag this out: Lifespan is definitely rhetorically empty. It invites you to stare—gawk, even—at D’Agata’s dedication to his craft, the so-called lyric essay; at Fingal’s dedication to the truth and his prowess as a fact-checker. It might invite you to muse, as the various reviews have done, on the value of fact-checking or on our ever-changing conceptions of factuality. But I had expected that explaining why it was rhetorically empty would be boring, and irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t follow the essay like some people follow football, and certainly that it’d be irrelevant to readers of The OA, who would have to be expecting this all to somehow mean something about the South. But I’m inclined to think there’s something important here, especially in a region of so many conflicting truths.
The formatting of the book is hard to describe. Every page has, in the middle, a block of text in large-type black ink from the essay being fact-checked, which centers on the suicide of Levi Presley, a sixteen-year-old Las Vegan who killed himself in 2001 by jumping off the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel. Around the essay, in smaller type, are the e-mail exchanges, headed, in quotations, by the phrase or sentence being addressed. When there’s no factual dispute, the exchanges are written in black. When there is one, they’re in red. Most of the book is in red. So, on page nineteen, the centered text reads: “We therefore know that when Levi Presley jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel at 6:01:43 p.m.—eventually hitting the ground at 6:01:52 p.m.—there were over a hundred tourists in five dozen cars that were honking.”
Then, around it, you read: “We therefore know that when Levi Presley jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel at 6:01:43 p.m.—eventually hitting the ground at 6:01:52 p.m.…” Factual Dispute: Although the incident did happen at ‘18:01,’ according to the Coroner’s Report, Levi Presley’s fall supposedly only took eight seconds, not nine. So the actual time frame would be more like ‘6:01:43-6:01:51.’
John: Yeah, I fudged that. It doesn’t seem like it should be that big a deal, though. It’s only a second. And I needed him to fall for nine seconds rather than eight in order to help make some of the later themes in the essay work.”
D’Agata’s basic position is that his essays are art, that in this case his art is expressing something important about suicide and the spirit of Las Vegas—which is, for reasons no one totally understands, the suicide capital of America—and that the better he executes his art the better his important point comes across.
Fingal is the project’s straight man. That exchange goes on:
Jim: John, Changing details about stuff like Tabasco sauce bottles and thermometers is one thing, but it seems a tad unethical to fiddle with details that relate directly to this kid’s death. In my book it just seems wrong, especially since the coroner clearly states that Presley’s fall only took eight seconds.
The length of Levi’s fall becomes the central question of the first section of the book—a lot of D’Agata’s lyric art consists of sticking unexpected facts about the number nine into the essay. Meanwhile, no one has taught Fingal to fact-check, and so you get ludicrous exchanges like this one: “Before he could receive the secret meaning of runes, Odin had to hang for nine days on a tree.” Factual quibble: Odin actually hanged for “Nine Days and Nights,” not just nine days. (source: “Odin’s Nine Nights” by Jennifer Emick, About.com.)
About.com? I’m pretty sure I’d be fired on the spot if my boss found About.com in my browser history. And if I told you I went on a “nine-day hike,” wouldn’t you assume that I’d been gone for nine days and nights? The odd thing about this project is that neither participant seems to have any respect for facts at all. Fingal’s checking process mostly consists of sticking together search terms and seeing what comes up, or of complaining that exchanges D’Agata quotes from aren’t in his notes, like here:
“When I asked a woman at Las Vegas Teen Crisis whether suicide is a problem for teenagers in the city, she told me that she preferred I ‘not write any of that down.’”
Jim: I can’t find this quote anywhere in John’s notes. Even then, if this is the same woman who appears in John’s notes elsewhere, what she’s saying seems to contradict what she stated about the importance of being forthcoming about suicide….
John: How would you know if this is the same woman as the one I’m talking about? I changed this woman’s identity. As far as I know, “Las Vegas Teen Crisis” doesn’t even exist.
Jim: Because I’m very good at my job.
John: So good that you know the employees of nonexistent organizations?
Jim: Good enough to figure out what you’re up to.
Real fact-checking is a process of recreating the truth using reliable sources. Writers take facts and statistics from all sorts of ridiculous places: About.com, interviews with crackpot professors, the mouths of politicians. Checkers assume those numbers are suspect, and they set out to do them justice. I know it sounds hokey, but it’s true. You pick up the phone, or you open a book, and you find a reason to believe in the fact. You don’t go out and find the first idiot on the Internet who disagrees with it.
This points to the other media-aggrandizing aspect of the book. The fact-checking process is interesting in a behind-the-curtain sort of way, but it’s the absolute worst way to explore truth in nonfiction. Because checkers aren’t soldiers for truth, they’re soldiers for credibility. You are at the service of a magazine, first to keep it from getting sued, and second to make its writers look good. I once heard a story about a kid who went to check at Time: The research editor sat him down and said, “Listen. We work here with the presumption that our reporting is accurate. Your job is just to prove it.”
D’Agata’s clearest response comes later: I’m not sure how I can say this so that you understand, Jim, because it doesn’t seem to be getting across to you. But one more time for the record: I am not a journalist; I’m an essayist. OK? And this is a genre that has existed for a few thousand years. (Ever heard of Cicero?) So these “rules” that I’m working under are not mine, but rather were established by writers who recognized a difference between the hard research of journalism and the kind inquiry of mind that characterizes the essay, an inquiry that’s propelled by lots of different sources simultaneously—including science, religion, history, myth, politics, nature, and even the imagination.
Now we can start talking. This is the central argument of the book, and, to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace, it’s so stupid it practically drools. You can sort of see the logic, if you squint and you read generously: Essays are rhetorical explorations. Cicero wrote rhetorical explorations. So Cicero was an essayist, the same way high-schoolers writing book reports are essayists.
But Cicero wasn’t an essayist because when Cicero lived there were no essayists. Precocious middle-schoolers know that Montaigne invented the form. It’s like saying Robert Johnson played rock & roll. D’Agata, in his lectures, anthologies, and in this book, frequently refers to writers who predate the term as “essayists”—“St. Augustine and Plutarch and Seneca and Cicero and Herodotus and dozens of other masters of this form,” as he puts it at one point. It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s odd postmortem mutability: If you spend a lot of time around anarchists, you’ll probably hear Whitman called an anarchist. If you spend a lot of time around queer activists, you’ll probably hear Whitman called a queer activist. I wonder, if you spent a lot of time around D’Agata, if you wouldn’t hear Whitman called an essayist.
I think of Wallace here, because, like Cicero, he was an extremely well-read rhetorician. These days literary Americans tend to use the word “essay” as a valorizing term for any piece of really first-rate short nonfiction.3
In that sense they were both essayists. But they wrote to convince, and it’s hard for me to believe that Wallace cared any more than Cicero about whether his pieces were essays, journalism, or just pieces of powerful writing. Wallace’s pieces are frequently annoying—“self-indulgent,” the received wisdom has it—but they don’t expect the reader to supply their meaning, the way so many mediocre lyric essays do. They, to put it simply, tend to have a point. D’Agata’s main point is about the form itself, viz
: the fact that this book exists, his public crusade to be taken seriously as an artist
, this e-mail to Fingal:
John: I’ve been giving readers winks and nods for my entire career, Jim. I’ve edited anthologies, I’ve written essays, I’ve given lectures, I’ve taught courses…all about this issue. [Ellipsis his, not mine.] At some point the reader needs to stop demanding that they be spoon-fed like infants and start figuring out how to deal with art that they disagree with—and how to do so without throwing a fucking temper tantrum.
Let’s be factual. D’Agata has had every chance imaginable to be taken seriously as an artist. He teaches at Iowa, his books are published by a major house and get reviewed everywhere. His essays are pretty good and could be improved upon, if he took time off from editing anthologies and giving lectures. But he’s a failure of an artist.
He’s a failure because putting out a book like this, creating a facile controversy out of an essay that could have stood quite well on its own, is precisely to spoon-feed his readers like infants. It’s amusing,4
but if it really is true that essayists have always invented or changed facts, then John D’Agata, as a self-proclaimed essayist who invents and changes facts, is a categorically uninteresting figure. An essay—a real essay—has always been a rhetorical exercise. It might be amusing, at times—it might even be an amusing rhetorical exercise. But rhetoric is what makes them matter. And rhetoric depends on credibility. Not accuracy or truth, necessarily, but credibility.
By publishing this book, D’Agata abandons his claim to credibility in the actual essay—which makes it, in the end, something other than an essay—and in the process he shifts his rhetoric from the vague point he was trying to make about suicide, letting it rest on his process. And artists who really just want to talk about process aren’t artists at all—they’re critics. Or professors.
Let’s move on. I left New York a few months ago to live in New Orleans and to work on some of my own essays. I still go up to New York to check, and if I’m careful I can make the money I earn in a week up there last a month down here. Which leaves me plenty of time to read.
A week or so after moving here, at a used bookstore on Frenchmen Street, I bought a skinny little volume by the Byzantine historian Procopius, titled in this edition The Secret History. Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, calls it The Anecdotes, but it’s the same book. Procopius was the preeminent historian of his time and place, and from his books we know that it was an improbably interesting time and place to have lived in. He wrote under the reign of Justinian—of the Justinian Code—and Empress Theodora—a pretty universally feared and despised former prostitute—and he was the personal secretary to the great Byzantine general Belisarius, who rose to prominence by defeating an overwhelming Persian army at Daras, in Mesopotamia. Justinian then sent Belisarius west, with his wife Antonina—another former prostitute—and a force of fifteen thousand, where he drove the Vandals out of Africa, and the Ostrogoths from the Italian peninsula, and never once lost a battle.
Procopius wrote a seven-volume History of these wars, adopting the straightforward model of Thucydides, not the whimsy of Herodotus. The work was published while he was still living and at a time when Justinian and Theodora were frequently dispossessing, imprisoning, or flaying Byzantines who displeased them. But it’s not timid history: He refuses to flatter the royal couple and saves the praise he does give out for Belisarius, who clearly deserved it, and of whom Justinian was bitterly jealous.
Then he began The Secret History. It covers, in one volume, the same period as the History and deals with the same material that makes the original work so exciting. There’s Justinian and the much younger Belisarius, both from poor Illyrian stock, who rose to become perhaps the most powerful two men in the world. There’s Theodora—half her husband’s age and a former harlot and actress—and Antonina—twice her husband’s age and a former harlot and magician. There are the incredible successes of Belisarius, who reclaimed much of the Western Empire—not to mention the city of Rome itself, where he withstood a yearlong Ostrogoth siege and won one of the most unexpected victories in the history of the city.
But this history is very different. It’s personal, and brutal, and, in its descriptions of the lives and depravities of Antonina and Theodora, nearly pornographic.5
Antonina and Belisarius adopt a son, with whom Antonina—old enough to be the boy’s grandmother—conducts a long and open sexual affair. Belisarius catches them en flagrante
, but he’s too willow-willed and enthralled by his wife to do anything. He’s one of the greatest generals who ever lived, but also a “contemptible,” empty man. He lets her torture and kill his trusted servants. The appraisal of the stupid and spineless Justinian is so detailed and damning that it’s beyond synopsis.
None of the facts in The Secret History contradict anything written in the plain old History. And both have been taken as true. “Of these strange Anecdotes,” Gibbon wrote, “a part may be true because probable, and a part true because improbable. Procopius must have known the former, and the latter he could scarcely invent.” Procopius, dealing with crazy facts about crazy people, knew that his first duty was to appear credible, and he starts the book off with a prolegomenous apologia: “My teeth chatter and I find myself recoiling as far as possible from the task; for I envisage the probability that what I am now about to write will appear incredible and unconvincing to future generations.” But they don’t.
The interesting thing here, for our purposes, is that Procopius wrote two different histories of the same time—one of which totally contradicts the spirit of the other—and that an impartial fact-checker would have signed off on them both. But now that we know the full story, we could never say that they’re both true: Writing the life of Belisarius without the story of his marriage to Antonina would be like someone turning in a piece about Bill Clinton’s presidency without mentioning Monica Lewinsky. And the reverse would be like turning in a piece that called Clinton’s presidency a debacle because of Monica Lewinsky. Both are absurd.
But it’s not really the province of fact-checking to point that kind of thing out, and a checker rarely gets anywhere close to dealing with the big-T-Truths of a piece. A guy I know complained to me recently about an Afghanistan story he had worked on: “I don’t understand why writers always write about the ‘U.S. drawing down its forces.’ We fucking lost! Why doesn’t anyone write that?” But checkers aren’t supposed to ask those kinds of questions. I’ve never once seen the argument advanced in a piece change because of something a checker discovered.
What we do is create the credibility that Procopius worried so much about. Surprising facts are twice as powerful when we believe them straightaway. There’s a New Yorker
on my desk right now, and, opening it up, there’s a “Talk of the Town”
about a guy who collects opium pipes
. Here’s an interesting quote: “‘Opium is easy to romanticize,’ he said. ‘But it’s really a bitch to get off. The withdrawal can kill people.’”
Who knew? Just the withdrawal? I wouldn’t have believed him if I heard that in conversation. But I know that someone at The New Yorker called an expert and made sure that it can. Because really accurate magazines even fact-check the stuff inside quotes. So I can read it without fretting, and my experience of the piece is just a tiny bit smoother. But if the checker had discovered that opium withdrawal can’t kill you? They’d have just stuck in a different quote. I’ve seen it happen a thousand times, and the bigger truth of the piece always holds up. The facts are only an enemy to lazy writers.
When I bought The Secret History I had just moved to the Treme, a neighborhood in New Orleans where the facts support a pretty bewildering set of competing truths. It’s just across Rampart from the French Quarter, and it’s generally considered the first black neighborhood in North America. Katrina hit it hard, but it’s still, in some sense, the great New Orleans black neighborhood. It’s got Congo Square, Kermit Ruffins, the Candlelight Lounge, the black history museum, St. Augustine’s church—which has been a place “for the free black citizens” since before emancipation and is one of the few remaining Catholic churches in the country where the concern is both freedom from “sin” and “oppression.”
But you also could get clear across the Treme by walking only majority-white blocks, if you wanted and you knew the area. My block is mostly white, the one behind us is totally black. You could say the neighborhood is gentrifying, and you’d be right, but people are mostly fixing up and moving into houses that have been vacant since the storm—is that what people usually mean when they say a place is gentrifying? I’m not actually sure. From my desk I can see a tree growing out of the roof of the pink house around the corner, and half the houses on my block are still empty. Maybe it’s just “filling up.”
It’s so nice here that I’ve developed a strange sort of insomnia: I like the way it smells, I like how quiet it is, I like the way the quiet occasionally gets popped by a trumpet scale or sad drunk redneck banging at your door. I like the banana trees and the weird ponds that form above cracks in the water mains. They look like puddles, but they don’t dry up—I saw, over a couple weeks, a whole generation of tadpoles grow into frogs and hop out of the one across the street. I like the way it all adds up to the feel of a provincial tropical town in the middle of the great Southern metropolis, and I never really want to sleep, because being awake is just too pleasant.
But part of the experience of moving to New Orleans involves hearing horrible crime stories, and not just from the kinds of people who watch Nancy Grace. There really are a lot of them, and all happening blocks away: A kid’s birthday gets shot up in the Sixth Ward, there’s a hit-and-run on Claiborne, someone gets trailed home from that bar on Frenchmen and raped in an alley. The Treme isn’t so bad, as far as New Orleans neighborhoods go, but it’s not safe, either, and my part of the neighborhood can sometimes just feel entirely lawless: My neighbor to the left carries a .357 when he takes out the garbage, my neighbor on the right congratulated me on moving in and then asked “you got your window bars in yet?” Once, at our little neighborhood canteen, a young white woman named Venus pulled me and my girlfriend aside: “I’ve been seeing you guys around the neighborhood,” she said. “Are you refugees too?” When we didn’t answer, she leaned in, drunk and conspiratorial: “Don’t worry, honeys. Lots of us here are running from the law.”
And from all this my girlfriend developed her own insomnia. A crackhead broke in and stole her iPhone, I got in a fight with him—which scared her even more—and for days she couldn’t sleep, jumping whenever she heard a car door slam or a drunk redneck yell, getting me up to check the locks every hour, shutting all the windows in our un-air-conditioned little house.
She went through a phase of looking up crime statistics, and, reviewing them, a fact-checker would probably have to sign off on the statement that this is a pretty stupid place for an upper-middle-class white girl to live. That’s the level Fingal works on in Lifespan. And it’s the kind of statement D’Agata would use to create atmospheric tension: Emily, living in the Treme, braved danger every time she walked to the grocery store.
But it’s not true. The neighborhood is really nice, and lots of girls who aren’t on the run from the law live here and do quite well hanging out with ones who are. And even with the gangsters and drunk rednecks. If I’ve done this essay right, you’ll believe me over the horror stories on this point, because I’ve taken steps to show that I care about representing the world as it is. I might be overstating things. Certainly none of the conversations I’ve recalled in this piece are totally exact, but they’re all pretty close. Essayistic truth is both factual and beyond simple assemblages of facts. D’Agata misses the first point; his fact-checker misses the second. Neither is saying anything.
1. To make it harder to figure out which magazine I work for, I
’ve changed some of the details here—mainly because my boss warned me that I might be fired for writing this essay. But the sentence and conversation in question existed and the issues they raised are real. Back to article.
2. They do come out: One OA fact-checker actually had one written about her. Back to article.
3. The novelist Aleksandar Hemon is getting ready to publish a collection of nonfiction. I met him a few months ago at a bar, and he said,
“Yeah, people ask me all the time if I call the pieces essays. I call them ‘true stories.’ We’ll see what my publisher has to say about it.” Back to article.
5. One of his less—I swear—shocking passages about the early life of Theodora: “And though she brought three openings into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling that Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region.” Back to article.