Fact-Checking: the devil’s in the details

We recently received a letter from an annoyed reader who discovered a factual error in an essay Creative Nonfiction published.

We recently received a letter from an annoyed reader who discovered a factual error in an essay Creative Nonfiction published. The details of his annoyance aren’t particularly important—the issue had to do with the size of a body of water. Suffice it to say, the essay contained a statement that was, our letter-writer said in his e-mail, “absolutely false” and made a “big difference” to him and his reading experience.

I understood where he was coming from and why the error made a big difference to him. But really, as I thought about it, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference to most readers. And looking back, the factual error didn’t really make much of a difference to the essay, either. So why should we care? What’s the big deal?

To the annoyed reader, the big deal was that the writer may not have fact-checked herself—as he put it, an easy task that could have been done with “a couple clicks with the mouse on the Internet.” Creative Nonfiction was at fault, too: “Editors and/or fact- checkers at your magazine should have caught this blatant mistake. It would have saved [the writer] from embarrassment in a national literary magazine, since other readers undoubtedly caught it, too, over such an easily recognizable research flub. …”

This was all true, though I would say in our defense that despite having a very small, overworked and underpaid staff, we try hard to fact-check the essays we publish. We feel that’s our responsibility, especially as the voice of the genre, a magazine
that focuses exclusively on nonfiction. On the big-picture front, this means we try to make sure the stories we accept are, fundamentally, nonfiction; on occasion, we have “un-accepted” essays slated for publication when, upon closer reading, we have found portions of them to be fictionalized or fabricated. On a more detailed level, we also check easily verifiable facts, such as measurements. Sometimes, however, as in this instance, we miss things.

And the letter-writer is right: Checking for factual accuracy is not so complicated. You can question or debate the idea of truth: How one person sees a certain subject or remembers a certain incident may be different from another person’s perception and recollection. But personal truth is different from factual accuracy.The size or depth of a lake, or the height of a building or the length of a banana can be researched and confirmed.

And yet, factual accuracy goes hand in hand with personal truth. If writers can’t be relied on to confirm the accuracy of the verifiable details of their essays, especially when such a task is often so easy, then how can we believe the questionable contentions in their stories, especially in situations when we must take the writer’s word? It is a question of establishing credibility.

“I’m not surprised that [this writer] would make such an error (we all have if we write long enough), or whether the rest of her writing is marvelous or not,” our annoyed reader added in his e-mail. “I’m sure she’ll become a splendid writer, but, to be truthful, I didn’t finish the piece because if there are obvious errors of fact in the first two pages, you immediately lose me as a reader.”

Ok, as I said before, the mistake struck a chord—a negative chord— in this reader, and he responded forcefully.The writer lost a reader, and the magazine may have lost a subscriber.This gaff was an oversight, easily correctable, and it’s precisely because it was so easily correctable that it should have been corrected—either by the writer or the editors.

And while fact-checking is most obviously an issue in nonfiction—we are supposed to be true to the facts—some readers also expect, quite legitimately, fiction writers (I am not including fantasy here) to be true to the facts in their stories and to create people and places that are plausible.

Adelheid Fischer, in an essay recently published in the online publication Places (www.designobserver.com), discusses the importance of factual accuracy in writing

about nature, particularly at a time when, as the writer and conservationist Paul Gruchow put it, “we fear that our very lives may depend upon how well we understand nature and our own responsibilities and limits within it.” Fischer begins her essay with a story about a conversation she had with a friend, who looked up from the novel he was reading to ask her, “Are there armadillos in Phoenix?”The friend explained that in the book, a character— Jonathan—and his father drive to a movie theater and “dodged dead armadillos on the road in Phoenix.”The friend added that the book also said Jonathan stood on a frontage road, looking out at the freeway through a line of Joshua trees.

According to Fischer, whose work at Arizona State University focuses on natural history and environmental issues and whose co-authored book won the 1999 Minnesota Book Award for nature writing, Joshua trees grow mostly at elevations of 3,000 feet or higher in the Mojave Desert. “Phoenix lies in the Sonoran Desert at about 1,100 feet,” she adds “And the only dead armadillo I knew about in Phoenix … was the one I bought several years ago at an antique store.”

Fischer later read the chapter her friend was quoting from, with the armadillos and the Joshua trees. “And sure enough,” she writes, “I stumbled across more eco- confabulations. At one point in the book, Jonathan and his father take a nighttime walk into the desert for a heart-to-heart conversation. Jonathan describes looking up at the sky ‘as the sickle shape of a hawk skated over the stars.’”

But Fischer points out that hawks are sight-feeders, “flying during the day in search of desert rabbits and birds. Could the writer have meant nighthawks, a bird that trolls the sky for insects, primarily after dark?” Probably not. “They are unrelated species, as different as, say, a Wall Street broker and a kindergarten teacher. But I can see how the two birds might easily have been confused. After all, they both have wings and fly.”

Fischer says she would not have become so annoyed by the factual errors if the book were some cheap airport paperback. But she expected more from this novel, published in 1990, entitled “A Home at the End of the World,” written by Michael Cunningham, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize nine years later for his novel “The Hours.” She also fumes over the back cover, on which there is an excerpt from a review in The Wall Street Journal that describes the book as “so finely pitched that even the smallest details are sharp- edged and vivid.” The New York Times praised Cunningham for his “reverence for the ordinary, this capacity to be with the moment in its fullest truth.”

“The fundamental issue here, I think,” writes Fischer, “is not that Cunningham got the details wrong, but that he didn’t seem to care about getting them right. Neither did his publisher or editor or the critics. But what if Jonathan’s conversation with his father had taken place not in the Sonoran Desert but instead in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Would Cunningham have had his protagonist refer casually to, say, strolling past the Elgin Marbles? My guess is that this major American writer would not have conflated the British Museum with the Met. Nor would most of his readers. So what makes us think that it’s OK to play fast and loose when it comes to matters of natural history?”

I think Fischer is right on target here— as was the annoyed reader who wrote to complain to Creative Nonfiction. In both cases, the work is sloppy and incomplete, and, therefore, shows disrespect for the reader. In both cases, the writer undoubtedly labored unceasingly to write the best story possible, to make an impact. Clearly the factual mistakes didn’t hurt Cunningham, who went on to win the Pulitzer—or our young writer who got the facts wrong about a lake. She got published in a major literary magazine—a significant publication for an MFA student. She has a very productive and, I hope, prestigious career awaiting her if she continues to write with such effectiveness.

But it’s important to remember there are many different kinds of people out there
in the literary world—readers and writers who will buy books and sing writers’ praises as well as readers and writers who, once disappointed, can and will walk away from work at the sight of a writer’s name. This is unfortunate because a writer might have something of great significance to give to these readers, who are clearly sensitive and undoubtedly care about the very places and people the writer cares about, but who will give up—all because of a lack of attention to detail.

Fact-checking is not difficult or complicated. It is one of your tools as a writer of fiction, nonfiction, poetry or drama—and representative of your uncompromising commitment to your work and of your dedication to every detail. This is what being successful and true to your work is all about in any profession, but perhaps especially in literature, where the details solidify the scene and the story.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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