Fact vs truth in non fiction

Is "truthiness" acceptable in non fiction? An essayist and a fact-checker hash it out.

Lifespan of a fact book cover

Humorist Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" in 2005, it means the quality of feeling that something is true even if it really isn't. The Lifespan of a Fact  is a conversation between the author of an essay, John D'Agata and the fact checker, Jim Fingal. The magazine that originally commissioned the work later refused to publish due to factual inaccuracies, but it became the basis for D'Agata's 2011 book "About a Mountain." The book (Lifespan) is structured with the main essay in the center of the page and messages between Jim, John and sometimes the magazine's editor around the perimeter. The messages between Jim and John start out cordial, I even saw a =) in there somewhere, but they quickly devolved into name calling and insults. Also, this went on for seven years.

In D'Agata's essay, there's a lot of truthiness, half truths, and flat out untruths, but, there is also a lot of beauty and sadness. It's a picture of a lonely boy in a lonely town who jumps from a lonely tower in Las Vegas. He tells of a series of events that occur before and after this boy's death that lead the reader to believe that the event was inevitable. The essay is so well-written, it flows so perfectly, and the author speaks with such authority that each fact presented is unquestionably true. "On the day that Levi Presley died, five others died from two types of cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes. It was a day of two suicide by gunshot as well. The day is yet another suicide from hanging." Five, four, three, two, one, and then there was Levi, it's perfect, too perfect, how could this not be true? But it isn't, Fingal checked with the Coroner's office and these statements simply aren't all true. They aren't all big lies, but they are lies, and we are only four sentences into the piece. As Fingal writes to his editor, after fact-checking just the first few lines, "we're only one sentence into this piece, though, and I don't think this is the worst of it." And it isn't the worst of it.

My allegiance keeps moving between the fact checker and the author. D'Agata claims that Presley died at 6:01:52 in the evening, which, according to the Coroner's Report is one second off. The difference of that one second is probably trivial, except that D'Agata's excuse for not correcting his mistake is that it would "ruin the essay." On the one hand, how can the author be so morally corrupt that he would lie about someone's final moment? As Fingal complained, it's not as if the boy was a celebrity or some important historical character-come legend, but he was important to someone, and isn't that worthy of respect? On the other hand, there is a larger story here about our unaccommodating world. All of our stories deserve to be put into context, be made cinematic, and accessible. In a way, the whole book is about this one-second disparity.

Fingal claims a number of "factual disputes", and quotation inaccuracies in the essay, some of which are in fact, factual disputes, or quotation inaccuracies, some of which are simply good editing. For example  D'Agata says that in the 1990s the homeless rate in Las Vegas nearly quadrupled. Fingal rebuts "the raw data is correct. But there's a problem with the rate estimate…" blah blah blah "4.88, which is more accurately represented by the statement "nearly quintupled," not "quadrupled." Goodness, leave the poor man alone, I mean he's not a statistician, in fact he doesn't even claim to be a journalist! I think that we all have learned that statistics can be manipulated, and that a series of facts does not always equal the truth. But a series of truths also don't always paint and accurate picture.

I kind of don't like either of them toward the end. D'Agata sort of redeems himself, sort of. His essay is amazing, but full of... lies? "Lies", "truths", apparently the genre is called creative nonfiction, which is not a term that I'm entirely comfortable with. How do you feel about it?