Fake Facts, Real Imagination
In a time of fake news, the story couldn’t be more timely. In America, an article written for a magazine spawned a play and an essay about the negotiability of facts in non-fiction.
In 2003 John D’Agata, a writer from the American school of factual overload had an essay spiked for inaccuracies. The piece ostensibly concerned a boy who committed suicide from a tower in Las Vegas. His fact-checker Jim Fingal annotated the essay to an almost unimaginable level and a battle ensued between writer and checker that saw them take polar stances on the blurring of fact and fiction. This in turn is now a book, ‘The Life-Span of a Fact’, and the play version is currently on Broadway with Daniel Radcliffe.
During the reading of the essay and its many annotations I found myself switching sides constantly, between the increasingly stroppy, flawed arguments of D’Agata and the frustratingly overzealous micro-management of Fingal.
In the writing of essays how do we negotiate the truth? Do broad strokes suffice if they engage the reader or does every tiny fact require provenance? Does it matter if the seats in a café described by the author are red or purple? Fingal argues that if the essay is going to become the precedent for future investigation then it does. But an essay is not a legal document; we are not required to provide provenance, reference or addenda for every detail in a piece about ideas. There needs to be room for the author to breathe.
But what if the writer turns out to be a bit of a Ken Russell, fabulising facts for the flow of the untouchable words? Academic articles are referenced and fact-checked but non-fictional memoirs are not and nor should they be. An essay tries for truth in another way – it evokes and twists the prism slightly, allowing us to reinterpret events or ideas.
In ‘The Life-Span of a Fact’ the fact-checker’s complaint is that the author is passing off fiction as the truth and defrauding readers with false facts. The truth, inevitably, lies somewhere in between the two states. Some dialogue will always be unobtainable, some facts uncheckable, some events undocumented, and it makes sense for the writer to imagine missing scenes and provide dialogue bridges.
This is where the skill of the writer comes in. Robert Harris takes outrageous liberties with language but still manages to instils a sense of time and place. The TV series ‘Taboo’ transferred past dialogue into a modern idiom in order to keep its ferocity. Truth is in the details, of course. They ground a book and make it real. When confronted with nasty surprises humans don’t always react as you’d expect. Sometimes you see a little thing a character does in a film (first and most famously, Brando playing with a glove in ‘On The Waterfront’) that makes the character more real. Equally you need flights of the imagination to make the mind soar.
And so to personal experience: When I wrote my second memoir ‘Film Freak’, one of my more literal-minded co-workers was outraged by my cavalier attitude to times and dates. My argument was first, that over a quarter-century timespan I had kept no notes at all and could only date a handful of events, and that I was going for a general understanding of the times, the recreation of a specific atmosphere that would bring the experience of Soho in the seventies back to life. I’ve read books that forensically examine parts of London while completely failing to capture the feeling of being there.
My intention in writing a crazy pulpish novel called ‘Hell Train’ was to conjure up the perfect Hammer film that Hammer never made, a fantasia on Hammer themes. It needed to feel like a B-movie in book form, which critics understood but readers did not so much. However, the German edition was fact-checked by someone who needed every single thing in the book to be treated as if it was real, which was impossible as many elements were fantastical. It would be like fact-checking ‘Game of Thrones’. Of course internal logic needs to be sound, but how can you fact-check an imagined carnivorous moth? I ended up having to identify the year of manufacture and capacity of the steam engine in the book, ignoring the fact that the train was going to hell.
Where D’Agata invites trouble is in his determination to make the essay sound like factual reporting before spiralling off into ideas. It confused Fingal, and would confuse readers. Some give and take on both sides would have sorted it out – but that wouldn’t have made for such entertaining reading.