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  • On Monday, I took the trolleybus across town to the National Court of Justice, Ecuador's equivalent of the Supreme Court, to see if anyone was protesting. Last week, the court upheld a conviction in a libel suit brought by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa against the owners and former editor of El Universo, the country's largest paper. The journalists were fined $40 million and sentenced to three-year prison terms for publishing an editorial that called Correa a "dictator" and alleged that he put civilians in danger by ordering troops to open fire during a 2010 police rebellion in Quito. The Committee to Protect Journalists called the decision "disappointing and dangerous, as it sets a dark precedent for freedom of expression in the Americas." Correa, on the other hand, announced, "Ha brillado la verdad." The truth has shone through.

    Yesterday, feeling a bit run down from the prior night's Carnaval, I resolved to take a reading day, and I found that truth in journalism is a rather hot topic this week. I started with Jennifer McDonald's sharp takedown of John D'Agata in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I moved on to Gideon Lewis-Kraus's more meditative take in the paper's Sunday magazine. Both critics are examining The Lifespan of a Fact, an epistolary account of a five-year fact-checking odyssey between MFA-beloved essayist John D’Agata and one Jim Fingal, a former intern at The Believer charged with fact-checking a D'Agata story on the meaning of Las Vegas.

    Later in the day, I moved on to Daniel Roberts' thoughtful defense of David Foster Wallace the journalist, in which Roberts argues that, as a reporter, DFW is the stylistic heir to none other than Hunter S. Thompson. Again, the central question is the extent to which subjectivity and/or balls-out literary invention disqualifies someone from the ranks of the fourth estate. This is, of course, doubly interesting to me, since I'm on the continent to research a period in Thompson's career that pre-dates "gonzo," a time when Thompson was ostensibly writing something closer to "straight" newspaper journalism.

    I've not read D'Agata and Fingal's book, but I do remember reading the piece itself when The Believer ran it in early 2010. I admire DFW's nonfiction a great deal, and I've taught "Consider the Lobster" in intro composition courses. I've also been a fact-checker at a metropolitan magazine, a brutal and thankless job about which I still occasionally have stress dreams. And I have an MFA in creative nonfiction, which means I spent three years discussing ad nauseum the pivot points upon which spin journalism, narrative nonfiction, narrative journalism, creative nonfiction, lyric essays, and all the rest.

    It's a fun conversation, to a point, but I've found that it tends to end with all parties grudgingly settling for a Potter Stewart non-definition — creative nonfiction (or literary journalism or what have you) is a genre that resists packaging, but we know it when we see it. There seems to be some consensus that a certain amount of factual indiscretion is acceptable from time to time: McDonald will accept "massaging" of facts from select writers provided that their "reputations have preceded them." Roberts permits it from DFW and Thompson because it tends "to better crystalize and define that [subjective, first-person] experience." Says Lewis-Kraus, "Nonfiction’s authority thus derives from the simultaneously rigorous (they did the legwork) and artful (they selected the right details)...." And while those acts of selection might occasionally be obfuscative, it's rare that we call them out as fraud.

    My own take was pretty succinctly summed up yesterday by Harper's associate editor Christopher Beha, who tweeted, "For good non-fiction writers, the facts act as a kind of formal constraint, like the 14 lines of a sonnet." I enjoy the structure that reality imposes on my writing, although I'd add that even Shakespeare wrote Sonnets #126 and #99. The former has twelve lines; the latter fifteen. They don't cease to be sonnets, as far as I'm concerned, because I'm willing to grant Shakespeare wiggle room that I might not afford a second-year poetry student. If you have the chops, I'm happy to grant you the occasional dereliction of "formal constraint" — and this courtesy I extend to talented nonfiction writers who are wrangling the facts.

    I seem to remember one of Thompson's biographers suggesting that the British-golfer-on-the-balcony scene from "Anti-Gringo Winds" (about which I blogged a couple weeks back) was concocted. It may have been Paul Perry or WIlliam McKeen — my library's 3000 miles away, and I've no easy way to verify this right now (how's that for journalistic integrity?). With its anonymous quotes and pseudonymed characters, there's actually very little from that story that's verifiable. But the phenomenon Thompson is describing — of creeping gringo disillusionment and cynicism — rings very true. Had Jim Fingal been fact-checking for the Observer in 1962 and taken a scalpel to this piece, I think he'd have been doing readers a disservice. Offered two articles — one that opens on a false anecdote of a man driving golf balls into an impoverished neighborhood below, and another cleansed of this fabrication but consequently less revealing about the psychology of gringos abroad — I prefer to be lied to as a matter of technique.

    For me as a reader, instances like this tend to accumulate, and the weight of them confounds any set of literary or journalistic criteria by which I might award or withhold the label of "nonfiction" (which is to say, truth). I imagine that if you're John D'Agata, that kind of arbitrary conferral and forbearance is a bit maddening. By what right do we permit David Foster Wallace to invent dialogue on a cruise ship, even while blasting D'Agata for assigning Vegas thirty-four strip joints instead of only thirty-one?

    I'd feel less compelled to answer this question if my silence didn't seem to open up space for people like Rafael Correa to assign truth by fiat. The El Universo case isn't Correa's first libel suit. Earlier this month, a pair of journalists were ordered to pay $2 million in damages after quoting the president's brother, who told them Correa knew about several state contracts he'd received under a sketchy bidding process. The punished journalists didn't themselves make this allegation, mind you — they simply reported the quote.

    "Nobody has the right to tarnish the truth," Correa told reporters after last week's verdict. On Monday, when I arrived at the National Court, there was nobody there protesting.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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