Monday, August 5, 2013
Like a Novel
Above, a classic 2006 cover of VQR by Art Spiegelman. The summer 2013 issue of VQR (also known as Virginia Quarterly Review) came to me today. Among other good things, it contained a thoughtful review-essay by Jeff Sharlet. He gave the piece an eight-word title – Like a Novel: The Marketing of Literary Nonfiction –
"I recently read Katherine Boo's 2012 National Book Award-winning portrait of a Mumbai slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, with my students in a creative nonfiction class at Dartmouth College. Boo spent a little more than three years in the slum, Annawadi, practicing what's sometimes known as immersion journalism. It's a term she may have taken too literally: "To Annawadians," she writes in an author's note, "I was a reliably ridiculous spectacle, given to toppling into the sewage lake while videotaping." That's close to all we know of her adventures, though, because Behind the Beautiful Forevers is written in a voice that might be called "strictly third person." Besides that note, there's no hint of Boo's presence in the lives of the slum dwellers.
"Dickens," observed one of my students – as in Charles, as in fiction. The word "paternalism" arose, though more as a question than a charge: Did Boo, in assuming the role of an omniscient narrator, inadvertently set herself up to look down on Mumbai from on high? Another student wondered why one of the blurbs on the back was from David Sedaris. "Isn't he, like, funny?" Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not a funny book, but it wasn't the blurb-presence of a humorist that caught my student's eye. It was what Sedaris wrote: "It might surprise you how completely enjoyable this book is, as rich and beautifully written as a novel."
Emphasis mine, cliché Sedaris's. Should we blame him? He liked the book. He wanted people to read it. And Sedaris is nothing if not a savvy salesman. He must've understood that the promise of "enjoyment," married to all that is implied by a novel – characters, plot, resolution, a seamless world – would give Behind the Beautiful Forevers a readership far beyond the market share for true tales of relentless filth and poverty. Especially if the promise is made by a bestseller such as himself. "Reads like a novel" – that's the elevator pitch. That's how you sell suffering for $27."