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Is it OK to Write Journalism like Fiction?

Sarah Glazer, a fan of Katherine Boo, wonders if her technique is for everyone


“But does it work as a novel?” That question from a member of my London book club startled me as we discussed Katherine Boo’s compelling reporting on slum-dwellers of Mumbai, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

I had assumed we’d be discussing whether the book worked as a book of journalism, especially since Boo breaks all the conventional rules of reporting. There’s very little “he said” or “she said” and none of the common journalistic crutches like “according to” or “allegedly.”

There isn’t even the increasingly popular trope “he told me,” which places the journalist inside the story and lets us know she was there.

Instead, Boo’s book opens like a novel, describing the thoughts of a young boy, Abdul, as he is hiding from police, who are hunting him down as a suspected accomplice to the burning death of his one-legged lady neighbor. We follow Abdul’s thoughts as he thinks back on the day’s events and on his valiant efforts to support his family as a trash-picker—that favorite flashback device of novelists.

The rats scurrying amid the garbage in the shed where Abdul is hiding alone provide a graphic background to the account  of his growing fear about what will happen to him. But it all seems to happen so smoothly that there is never a stark, awkward moment when we as readers become aware that we are leaving the realm of the spoken interview and entering a character’s internal world.

Much like a novelist, Boo becomes an omniscient narrator, and her story-telling skill is such that I dropped my usual skepticism about this kind of journalism and found myself turning each page eagerly to find out what happens next.

Several of my British friends actually thought the book was a novel until they got to the Author’s Note at the back, where Boo describes some of her techniques, including the 168 interviews she conducted just for the incident involving the neighbor's immolation. I could have put their misunderstanding down to cultural ignorance about Boo’s distinguished career as a journalist reporting on poverty in the U.S. for the Washington Post and the New Yorker.

But an American friend in Los Angeles, who was also assigned the book by her book club without knowing anything about it,  told me that she, too, assumed the book was a novel until she was at least halfway through.

There are probably only a few journalists who have the writing chops to pull this off.  And, while I don’t think Katherine Boo meant to deceive anyone, she certainly looks to novelists for inspiration about how to render years of interviews into an economical, easily digested writing style, as she explained in a recent interview with the New York Times: “Where novels come in, for me," she said, "is when the reporting stops and the writing begins, because fiction writers seem to know more than nonfiction writers about distillation — conveying their analytical or psychological insights with economy.”

As one such influence, she cited The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany, a novel where points of view shift frequently—a technique she employs masterfully in her own book.

But what makes many people uneasy is the unanswered question of how it was possible for a blond American to remain a fly on the wall through intense domestic arguments, clandestine romantic meetings and thefts. As she describes in her afterword, she was not the only interloper: Boo required a translator to accompany her everywhere for interviews--and presumably for understanding conversations between family members and friends-- in order to become so familiar with individuals’ private ambitions for escaping the slum.

Is it possible that she could have followed these families for four years without affecting the way they behaved? There are of course precedents in anthropology: Oscar Lewis’ Children of Sanchez, an intimate portrait of a family in the slums of Mexico City, and his La Vida, about a Puerto Rican family, do something similar.

Is there an ethical problem with removing the transparency that is a keystone of journalism? As readers, we expect to be told how the journalist got her information. But the constant “according to” can also slow down the narrative and make it clunky-- as I well know, having sighed often when editors insist on inserting those endless phrases into my deathless prose.

Jonah Lehrer, the former New Yorker writer and confessed plagiarist who has admitted to inventing quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his best-selling book Imagine, recently reminded me-- in his recent mea culpa speech to the Knight foundation-- why we normally require this kind of documentation from reporters.

“What I clearly need is a new list of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures," Lehrer said. "If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted. … Every conversation with a subject will be tape recorded and transcribed. If the subject would like a copy of their transcript, I will provide it. There is, of course, nothing innovative about these procedures. The vast majority of journalists don’t need to be shamed into following them. But I did, which is why I also need to say them out loud.”

If these are the fundamental attribution rules for journalism, should Boo be held up as a model to budding journalists just learning the trade? As a reader who has long admired Boo's work, I was willing to suspend my disbelief while reading the book, especially because she provides  the best description I’ve read of how (and why) corruption becomes inescapable for Indian slum-dwellers. To me, that kind of deep knowledge of a political and social system of behavior could only have been obtained by in-depth reporting over the course of her four years of observation.

Her afterword reassured me that she had done her homework. But would we be willing to accept this kind of novelistic writing from an ingénue?

And then there’s my friend’s question about how good a novel it is. In her view, Boo's book lacked the pathos of a Rohinton Mistry novel like A Fine Balance, in which two of the main characters end up, tragically, living on the streets. Boo's book didn’t make her cry. The characters weren’t as fully drawn. But maybe that’s just the nature of real-life reporting. The ending occurs abruptly in the middle of people’s lives, not as some neat, redemptive finish created by a novelist. We’re not sure whether to laugh or cry because we don’t know what will happen next. And neither does the writer.


* This post was originally published in November 2013.

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  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    This is such a great post Sarah -- I read Boo's book, too, and I felt similarly uncomfortable.  I don't like it when the reporter tries to act as though she isn't there, when you know perfectly well that she is.  It does make you feel forced to evaluate it as fiction, and that does a disservice to the unbelievable reporting that went into the book.

  • Kaitlin Ugolik

    Natalie that was more what I meant with my comment, actually. I was saying that it was more acceptable that Boo had been able (if this is in fact true, I'm not sure) to get Abdul to recount his experience than if she had done what I believe Capote did, which was to create scenes that didn't necessarily take place but helped color his narrative. It was my understanding that Capote did purport to be writing a work of nonfiction but he created many of the scenes in a novelistic fashion, causing quite a controversy and bringing up many of the questions that Sarah asks here.

  • Natylie Baldwin

    I always thought that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was a novel loosely inspired by a real crime.  Ditto for The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer.  Am I wrong on this classification?  Joyce Carol Oates also writes many of her stories based on real crimes or famous/infamous people, but makes it clear that her work is fiction, which I think is a very effective and different angle to approach real events long as the author and publisher acknowledge that it is fiction and not meant to be a non-fiction or journalistic account. 

  • Pamela Olson

    Definitely keep us informed! Looking forward to reading more from you...

  • P.S.  I'm heading back to Baghdad this August and hope to be employing more multi-media journalism.  In the meantime, I'm trying to secure paid assignments in the mainstream media using my writing style of "journalistic memoir."  I'll keep you posted on how I do!

  • Great post!  For me the answers are simple:  Tell the truth.  Make up nothing.  But the execution is a bear.  As a freelance journalist, I abhor the phrase "creative journalism," as it implies poetic license.  (Think Tony Kushner's lame defense of rewriting history in the screenplay for "Lincoln.")  

    Like Pamela, I, too, am writing a journalistic memoir -- which I feel is fairer than straight journalism in that I'm a "character" in the story with expressed biases and fears that make my reporting more transparent.  Readers know where I'm coming from and can follow my own emotional arc.  For an example, i invite you to visit my web site, sign up and download a reading of my first chapter (5 min) about a beggar in Baghdad I met before the US-led invasion.

    This style of writing also makes me a better journalist.  As I interview people, in the back of my mind I'm noting details about our setting that I will use to help "set" my essay.  I've become more observant and aware.

    I hope this is the trend for straight journalism.  

    Pamela, "Fast Times" arrived from Amazon a few hours ago.  Looking forward to a great read!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

  • Connie L. Stambush

    I agree with you Kaitlin. It's creative nonfiction a la Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

  • Pamela Olson

    I'm in a somewhat similar boat, as my book Fast Times in Palestine is a journalistic memoir that uses techniques of fiction to make it a quick and engaging read, while at the same time educating readers not just with facts but also with deeply human frameworks that are necessary to understand what's really going on.

    Facts and figures can only take you so far where politics goes. At some point you have to start talking about human motivations. "Straight" or "traditional" journalism isn't equipped to handle that very well. It takes a skilled storyteller to inject that kind of understanding into readers who are (mostly) starting from scratch on a given issue.

    It also takes a skilled storyteller to make people want to keep turning the pages (what I call a "cake" book) rather than sigh and look around as they feel like they should keep turning the pages (what I call a "spinach" book).

    A healthy cake book? Yup, it's possible. And potentially very powerful.

    Which leave us, of course, with an enormous responsibility: To tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even when a little white lie here or there could spice things up or skew things toward our favorite ideologies. Lots of "nonfiction" writers have been caught writing fiction, which damages the credibility of all of us.

    Publishers aren't acting as gatekeepers very well -- it's up to us to police ourselves. To have enough of a conscience to believe our goal is genuinely to try to increase the knowledge set of the world, and to understand that we're not performing that service if we try to fool or mislead our readers. Reality is reality, and our job is to report what we see, not what we expect to see or wish to see. The world is awesome and complex enough on its own!

  • Connie L. Stambush

    Very interesting post Sarah.

    I recently read a FB post from Cheryl Strayed on how people are calling her book Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail a novel. She wondered is the term "novel" had taken on a new meaning. It seems that readers struggle with the difference between fiction and creative nonfiction. From my perspective as a journalist and creative nonfiction writer, I feel nonfiction writers have two main duties to the reader: 1. tell the truth, and 2. do so in a creative way that in NO WAY attempts to FOOL or MISLEAD the reader. It comes down to building an honest relationship with readers, and that is borne out of the author's intention. 

    Creative nonfiction, for me, uses the tools of fiction, such as character building, scene setting, dialogue, story arc, and so on to create a narrative based on a true event.

    Thanks for starting the dialogue Sarah. It's one writers and readers need. It asks us all to look in the mirror to see our true intent. 

  • Kaitlin Ugolik

    I think it's wonderful, and it's exactly what I want to do. But I know why it makes people cringe, and with so many examples of "fictionalized" reporting being literally unbelievable, it's becoming harder and harder to do. Boo seems to not be trying to hide anything or hold anything back, she explains how she got the information. If she was able to get someone like Abdul to recount his feelings and the things he saw and heard hiding from the police, without having to recreate it in the way she thought it must have played out (a la Truman Capote), it's an inspiration.

  • Julie Luek

    I am reading Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd's book, "Good Prose". They tackle a lot of great questions about style, voice and ethics of nonfiction. Of course, both Kidder and Todd are seasoned veterans in journalism and Kidders books are the bar on how to write nonfiction accounts well. Creative nonfiction certainly has a place on the shelves (think Krakauer for example). And interesting example of the author insertion question was in Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  For me, that was an extreme that almost became distracting, or detracting, and yet the book did extremely well. Not sure there's a right or wrong here.