Travel Writing and “The Truth”

Las Vegas, as a city, has long been a reliable creative irritant to the sensibilities of travel writers who work in a genre called “literary”, “narrative”, “nonfiction-creative”.

The city’s shiny surfaces candy-shell over a variety of social cankers, plus real people live their lives there, and any of these conditions alone, or all of them together, make for a good subject. See, for instance, Stilettos in Paris, In the Neon Boneyard, The Las Vegas Imposter, Road Trip.

Two years ago, I read John D’Agata’s  “What Happens There”, an essay  about Las Vegas in The Believer,  and About a Mountain, the same essay at book length.

I found them both satisfying, which is a high compliment. D’Agata articulated much of what I’d perceived in my visits to Vegas.  His writing allowed my experience to make larger sense.*

Lifespan of a FactA couple of weeks ago, I picked up The Lifespan of a Fact, by D’Agata, and Jim Fingal, who fact checked the essay at magazine length. The book is the back-and-forth between the two, as Fingal reckons with the “liberties” D’Agata took with facts.

The liberties are myriad — massaged quotes, multiple elisions,  and many changes for poetic reasons: the rhythm of thirty-four works better than thirty-one; a description of a van as pink instead of purple, because purple has two beats and pink has one; four deaths from cancer on a particular day instead of the factual eight, because it worked better in a list for the numbers to descend.

At first, reading this made me feel a little uncomfortable. As everyone who has written about Lifespan is apparently obligated to point out, I have had some experience with the fact-checking process — I’ve been fact-checked many times and have fact-checked a bit myself. I would not like to be in D’Agata’s defensive position.  In my own writing, I do try to get things right: not just because I have spent most of my career in journalism, but because even when I write essay, narrative, nonfiction-creative, or whatever you want to call it, I think the facts are an interesting and appealing creative constraint. You have to make the art work inside the narrow band of fact, and I like that.

As I read Lifespan, I was reminded me of how I felt when watching the movie Shattered Glass, which would be how I’d feel watching anyone caught in an dishonest act.

But D’Agata repeatedly insists that he is not being dishonest, because he was never trying to be accurate. He was not a journalist, trying to commit journalism. “The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as “facts”.  The work that they’re doing is more image-based than informational.”

I wanted to object to the possibility of a fact having something other than its “bald function”, but I realized that I couldn’t, and that I thought D’Agata was right.  As I said, after I read D’Agata’s work, I understood something about Las Vegas that I hadn’t been previously able to articulate. Even though they were rife with factual errors.

Still, the journalist in me was still irritated by his manipulations. She said, oh come on, John, please. Couldn’t you have created the same image-based effect without taking quite so many factual liberties?

I’ve since decided to withdraw the question.

The reason lies in Fingal’s black-inked sections, the relatively few passages of D’Agata’s essay that he was able to confirm. Fingal would apply the black ink in a few instances: when he was able to find a fact repeated in another news source, an article in a newspaper, magazine or website, or in a book; when there was some mention of an event in D’Agata’s notes, or, in a sort of fact-checker superhero maneuver, by going to Las Vegas and checking things out for himself.

This is standard fact-checking procedure: if you can find a “fact” replicated in another source, or possibly more than one other source, if you can get a source to agree that they said something like what is written between quotation marks (because everyone who has ever written nonfiction knows you can’t possibly quote someone both accurately and intelligbly, just try reading a transcript), if you can get some consensus, in other words, and it doesn’t have to be much, you’ve got a fact. Bring on the black ink.

But fact validated by consensus doesn’t always equal truth. In fact, if you’ll forgive the expression, it’s often the opposite. And this is a very big problem for anyone who believes that that they’re writing factually, and a problem of immense philosophical complexity for me.

It’s hard to get through the day, much less the writing of a piece of nonfiction, if you don’t believe that facts, beyond the very simplest, actually exist.  But when you seriously try to determine the accuracy of a fact, when you are not satisfied by mere consensus, things get slippery fast.  ( “Considered historically, any fact is just a hoax that is believed until it is debunked”.**)  And if you’re relying on memory, yours or someone else’s, for a factual account, good luck: as I’ve previously reported, the chances are very high that you are heavily into fiction.

This is the point of Lifespan, of course: it’s not about fact-checking, or the meaning of nonfiction, or of art, it’s about the basic instability of fact.

This is a terribly unpleasant notion for all writers of nonfiction, including travel writers, to contemplate.

So I suggest that we never speak of it again.


*For more on this, see The Art in Time in Memoir, by Sven Birkerts.
** John Tresch, “Extra! Extra! Poe Invents Science Fiction”, in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe.


  1. Caitlin February 25, 2012
  2. Alison Stein Wellner February 27, 2012
  3. Eva March 5, 2012
    • Alison Stein Wellner March 5, 2012

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