One of the more common questions that comes up with creative non-fiction is how to balance meaning with accuracy–how flexible can or should “flexible reality” be to convey tone and symbolic meaning effectively without doing a disservice to readers? Essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal just published The Lifespan of a Fact (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), a book collecting their email exchange about the topic. D’Agata ran afoul of Fingal’s fact-checking efforts while working on a piece about the culture of Las Vegas, leading to a clash of positions that is less resolved than rehearsed in elaborate, articulate, and frequently very funny detail in The Lifespan of a Fact. Ranging from passive-aggressive to conciliatory to plain aggressive-aggressive, the book chronicles their competing expectations for what gets to count as truth and what should be published as such. Rather than provide a simplistic resolution to the ethical and aesthetic questions surrounding creative non-fiction, the book presents their extended dialogue in all its messiness.
If this sounds interesting, you can check out a sample of the correspondence published in the February 2012 issue of Harper’s. It looks like a great teaching tool for anyone working with students on creative non-fiction, or even for teachers asking students to think carefully about the ethical issues involved in writing ethnography or journalism.