Saturday, July 6, 2013

Narrative Nonfiction is a Scourge Upon the World of Literature

I recently finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a narrative nonfiction (NNF) book by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo about life in a Mumbai slum. It won the National Book Award last year, and made tons of "best books of 2012" lists. The book basically follows a few core characters in their struggle to live good lives amid high levels of material poverty, corruption, violence, environmental deficiency, and economic uncertainty.

From an aesthetic perspective the writing was nice and the book was very enjoyable and readable. From an informational angle the book was thin gruel.

While I appreciated learning about terrible poverty and the dynamics of lives totally at odds with the rich-world experience, I couldn't get past the basic approach to the whole project: that these were stories about real people obtained from years of tireless interviews and research by the author (and her translators). I've developed a mild aversion to the NNF genre over the years with books like And the Band Played On and All the President's Men, but this newest volume really confirms my view. NNF is a manipulative sham, and should be obliterated. Here's why.

All books, fiction or nonfiction, are mixtures of aesthetic and informational values. Most "concept-driven" nonfiction books (theory plus case studies) lean towards the informational end, presenting clear arguments and analysis in plain English. Fiction, by contrast, emphasizes literary beauty, triggering emotion and meaning. Most readers intuitively understand that there exists a necessary trade-off between these two approaches to generating knowledge through books. NNF bugs me because it fails in the informational approach, yet gets represented by authors, critics, and publishers, as informationally-dense. There's an epistemological problem, and a reader-manipulation problem.

According to the popular justification, NNF is a richer, thicker form of description compared to traditional journalistic and scientific approaches. While it certainly contains lots of good details, the demands of constructing a compelling and readable narrative forces the author to compromise on fidelity to the truth. The literary structure virtually guarantees that each page is filled with dozens of minute interpretations and small tweaks to the source material. Cracking open the book to any random page demonstrates this phenomenon (page 216, first sentence):
' "But at least Kasab knows in his heart that he did what they said he did." That had to be less stressful than being beaten when you were innocent. '
Now, it's possible that this minor comment by the narrator is factually grounded in some deeply personal interview that the author conducted. But how do we know? Readers have no way to verify the truthiness of the writing process, which likely entailed months spent "in the kitchen" organizing and experimenting with different arrangements of the source material (wording, ordering, mood, tempo, etc.). By itself this individual digression doesn't matter very much. But taken on the whole, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, we get something that's been so heavily warped and distorted that it basically amounts to a work of masked mockumentary.

Clearly interpretation problems are inherent in any secondary-source material, but the magnitude of those problems in NNF is simply gargantuan. One might respond by claiming that there's no such thing as objective truth, and that according to my quibbling, all books--even non-fiction data-driven timelines--are filled with bias and subjectivity. I agree, but society has by public consensus demonstrated a willingness to accept a certain minimal level of epistemic distortion in different literary genres for the sake of convenience. NNF breaks this norm by not being honest and forthright about the degree to which artistic liberties affect the final text.

This is the second issue that really grinds my gears: the huge gap between what readers think NNF is and what it actually is. That the content is very sensitive to the biases and interpretive whims of the author is, of course, not by itself sufficient justification to condemn the genre to the dustbin of history. After all, pure fiction is entirely author-driven, and has plenty of value. The problem lies with the branding, marketing, and reputational angles of the NNF project.

The genre is parasitic on the good work and identity of the the journalistic method. Readers associate NNF with journalism (many NNF authors are journalists) and all the well-earned positive qualities that go along with it. From the opposite direction, journalists get to differentiate their work from the pile of terrible cookie-cutter nonfiction books by packaging their research in the guise of literary fiction. They get the social and marketing benefits of associating with that more artistic culture and identity. Fiction writers get to be serious and substantive, while journalists get to be literary and cosmopolitan.

To emphasize, there's nothing wrong with constructing counterfactual narratives for the purpose of entertainment--sometimes counterfactuals can even help you understand stuff about the real world. But to portray counterfactual as factual is a massive error that empties the project of all meaningful content while simultaneously abusing the relationship of trust between author and reader. Perhaps there is a place for NNF in our society, but first we must acknowledge its flaws and develop solutions. I suggest we start with renaming the genre. "Real-world fan fiction" has a certain zing to it.

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