A few weeks ago I found myself at a party talking to a woman with whom I seemed to have nothing in common. But it turned out she wrote for a New York fashion magazine, and although I never shop, am at best a threadbare ragamuffin and it wouldn’t be unfair to call me a slob, I knew we had one thing in common: we’d both dealt with fact-checkers.

‘Oh, they’re just so thorough,’ she said.

‘Yes, they really clean things up if you’ve been sloppy,’ I said.

‘And they call every place you’ve been and figure things out you never even thought of. They fix the prices of all the dresses. They figure out that the shampoo has some completely different name. They’re so smart,’ she said.

‘A lot of the time they’re smarter than the writers,’ I said.

‘And so nice,’ she said.

‘The job drives a lot of them mad though,’ I said. ‘If they take the job too seriously, they start to think they’ve written the story themselves.’

‘I know! They just take over!’ she said.

‘I used to call it the auteur theory of fact-checking,’ I said.

‘You’re very clever, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘They get diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. They have to go on medication. They burn out. Soon enough they go to business school or become pastry chefs,’ I said.

‘It was so nice to meet you,’ she said. I must have been boring her. She went off to freshen her drink.

If I were writing this for an American publication, I’d be under the burden of revealing the woman’s identity, and a fact-checker would call her to confirm what she said and what I said, what magazine she wrote for, whether our conversation ended with her going to get a new drink, what sort of drink it was, whether we were talking alone, whether I might have left anyone out of the conversation. Some people I’ve known a long time might be called to confirm that I am, in fact, a slob. My mother could confirm it, and my father could too, though it would break his heart: he was voted best dressed in high school. A real go-getter, the auteur type, might go so far as to figure out what bar we were at, at what time, the colour of the woman’s hair, what she was wearing, her height, whether she had written any books, how they were received, how many they sold, her marital status, the dress she wore to her wedding, the names of her children, what sort of horses she rides, what sort of crowd it was, the level of anxiety in the room, whether we were upstairs or downstairs and what colour the wallpaper was.

Lots of things are different here, I’ve learned since I arrived from New York last May. You don’t tip as much, and I often bump my head getting on the tube. In London, I’m told, fact-checking’s not much done: the facts are the burden of the reporter. But at the LRB we do check facts, which are for the most part conveniently located in the books we review, and facts that seem to be off can be rechecked against books from the library. Sources on reported pieces and characters in memoirs aren’t usually rung up to confirm what they’ve said, the way they are in New York, but if someone is quoted at a garden party saying something that might get the paper sued, he’d be asked to sign a letter saying he’d say the same thing in court.

But nobody at the paper fact-checks full time; that’s an American thing. It comes out of Henry Luce’s taste for ‘relentless “departmental” organisation’, according to his biographer Alan Brinkley. Time was first to be called Facts, and its research department ‘was the only non-clerical area of the magazine to hire women … and for many years it hired only women.’ An editor wrote the young ladies a cheering memo:

Checking is … sometimes regarded as a dull and tedious occupation, but such a conception of this position is extremely erroneous. Any bright girl who really applies herself to the handling of the checking problem can have a very pleasant time with it and fill the week with happy moments and memorable occasions. The most important point to remember in checking is that the writer is your natural enemy. He is trying to see how much he can get away with. Remember that when people write letters about mistakes, it is you who will be screeched at. So protect yourself.

So the fact-checker was born to be a cheerful scapegoat, keeping roguish writers in line and protecting editors from vigilante readers, anonymous and grateful for a week full of happy moments of correcting misspelled place names. Luce’s rival at the New Yorker, Harold Ross, set up his own department in 1927. He made a habit of mocking other magazines’ errors and couldn’t leave himself open to the same. In his 2007 book, Regret the Error, Craig Silverman says Ross was humiliated after a profile of Edna St Vincent Millay implied the poet’s father might be dead and said ‘her mother appears to remember little of her own biography.’ Millay’s mother wrote a letter: ‘both of these parents,’ she said, ‘are living, and in full possession of their faculties.’

By the 1940s the fact-checker had entered popular culture. Ray Milland’s long-suffering girlfriend in The Lost Weekend works in the Time research department, where checking dates might be a reprieve from minding an alcoholic. In The Big Clock, Milland edits a magazine where the researchers collate seemingly irrelevant clues to catch murderers before the police do, a case of fact-checkers as advance guard rather than back-up squad. By 1984 you have the fact-checker hero of Bright Lights, Big City, who takes cocaine nightly to keep those happy moments coming.

I miss New York sometimes, but I don’t miss its schizophrenic obsession with facts, or the puritan hysteria that attends the discovery that a memoir should have been called a novel or that someone saying something silly in a newspaper story turns out to be as real as Huck Finn. The zealotry of the shaming has a lot to do with journalists’ anxiety about their own influence as purveyors of fact. They can try for years and fail to stir people up about a foreign warlord the way a viral video like Kony 2012 has been able to do. And they can’t get people to feel bad about Chinese working conditions the way Mike Daisey has done in his Off-Broadway show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. But then when Daisey’s act was broadcast on the radio, a reporter figured out that some of the details – a man who mangled his hand working on an iPad assembly line, for example – were fictions.

While Daisey is being reprimanded, a writer called John D’Agata has been promoting a book, Lifespan of a Fact (Norton, $17.95), about the way he changes or makes up the facts. D’Agata and David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), are the leaders of a movement that believes the most interesting things to read present fact and fiction in an unstable mix. It’s also supposed to be the most thrilling sort of writing to do, now that computers make it so easy to blend borrowed text with your own stuff, as Shields does in his manifesto. As avant-gardes go, this one’s fairly tame: a rebellion against marketing labels. These guys don’t like novels because ‘they just aren’t as central to the culture as they once were.’ Poor novels. My friend’s agent wants the next one to be a memoir so they can make more money.

In D’Agata’s tedious book, every page has a few lines of essay surrounded by a forcefield of tiny red and black type showing an exchange between him and a fact-checker called Jim Fingal. The essay, about an actual boy who threw himself off the top of a Las Vegas casino, is full of unhappy moments and occasions D’Agata doesn’t entirely remember – which is where the art comes in. The odd thing about D’Agata the earnest essayist is that he never makes a subjective statement; everything has to sound like a fact. He’s a prisoner of facticity, and in all this you start to feel pity for Fingal – D’Agata seems to be a bit of a bully. Then again, they have both admitted that the exchange is ‘amped up’, so maybe it’s all just an act. Unless the author photo has been doctored, one thing’s certain: D’Agata has very impressive biceps.

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