Notes from the field:

Why I don’t read non-fiction from Barnes and Noble, and why that’s a problem for public scholarship; or, what I learned in third grade about epistemology and essentialization

posted by Jeffrey Guhin

I have not been interested in the Barnes and Noble non-fiction section for a long time. There might be a few history books that catch my eye, or a few recent works of book-length journalism that show me how to do what I claim to do—which is ethnography—with an eye for detail, insight, and refreshingly clear prose. Yet most of the stuff that’s there—particularly in the social sciences section—is pretty basic, often uninteresting, and available for free (to me) in more rigorous form on JSTOR.

Forgive me for being such a snob, but I know many other academics would agree. We get our books from Amazon, from college bookstores, from specialty shops, or—oh source of so much credit card debt!—used book stores. When I’m at a Barnes and Noble now (or, RIP, Borders), I go to the Social Sciences and History sections first, where I’m usually disappointed, and then I wander over to the novels, which were my first love anyways. So then I start to wonder about why, no matter how skilled I might become as a writer and reader of fiction (and I have various rejection letters that assure me I am not), I would still profit from books that other folks much less skilled than this imaginary skilled version of myself would also profit from. In contrast, as someone at least somewhat more skilled in reading and writing non-fiction than I was four years ago (when I started my Ph.D. program in sociology), I find most trade (as opposed to academic) non-fiction in my subject areas boring, fairly obvious, and often varying degrees of wrong.

I think it’s about what the books are trying to do—and this goes back to my third-grade lessons about different kinds of books. The kind of non-fiction I’m interested in seeks to convince or to inform, while the fiction seeks to entertain. That entertainment might come from truths about the human condition and the beauty of a well-made phrase as much as from various forms of swashbuckling and melodrama, but the point is the same. As Edward Said unapologetically insists in Culture and Imperialism, part of culture’s raison d’être is pleasure. So, to the extent that the non-fiction is also pleasurable, to the extent that journalism and history (and, every once in a while, a trade-book in the social sciences) can pleasure me with new truths, or lovely writing, or—zounds!—something actually funny or wise or achingly sad, then, sure trade non-fiction is entertaining and worth perusing at the bookstore.

But then there’s the problem of the book being obvious or even wrong, and this, I think also explains why it’s not often that entertaining.  Non-fiction is written to inform or to convince, and often both at once. This is precisely how I was taught to write a sociology article: Everyone thinks X caused Y, but wait, see, actually, Z caused Y! Let me provide you with information to convince you that this is true. And this is where the books being wrong comes in, because it’s incredibly difficult to write about anything—let alone a social group—in a way that does justice to the immense complexity detailed research inevitably uncovers.

All writing about real people is a violent act. Even in cultural anthropology, the field most sensitive to the problems of representation, ethnographers are constantly aware that they ignore most of what they see when they take field notes and then ignore even more when they turn those field notes into articles and books. While they try to challenge “ethnographic authority” in countless creative, inspiring ways, the problem is largely intractable. But even when we do find ad hoc strategies to write about others without doing unforgivable violence to them, those strategies usually produce books dense with nuance and  subtlety, which spend so much time on just a few aspects of a certain group or body of literature or historical era or what-have-you that we wind up being forced to assume the reader already has a pretty substantial background knowledge. And that substantial background knowledge is itself acquired through countless other big books about a few small things.

But what if readers don’t have that background knowledge? I ran into this problem when I was writing an article about how American Christians talk about American Muslims. There are very simple ways to talk about this (e.g. “American Christians don’t like American Muslims”) but, well, that’s not really true. I was exhausted by trying to write a one paragraph explanation of the problem before I got into the real purpose of the article, which was an interview with a noted professor who had written a book on how Christians ought to respond to Islam. I found myself terrified at the idea that any of my colleagues would read the article, and I was disgusted by my inability to express these complicated relationships in approachable prose. Here I was writing a work of non-academic non-fiction that, to my horror, was boring, fairly obvious, and varying degrees of wrong.

To be fair to, well, me: I think I eventually got the paragraph in pretty good shape, even if, unfortunately, the article was canned.  But the whole process got me thinking about the perils of public scholarship. If writing is violent anyways, then public scholarship is potentially even more violent, as scholars are forced to explain complicated ideas with long histories and various iterations in approachable, captivating prose to non-specialists who can’t be assumed to have the background knowledge necessary for subtle distinctions. It strikes me that there are two solutions to this, neither of them particularly attractive to me. The first is to go the route of density, simply writing prose so unapproachable—“at the margins” as Stuart Hall would say—that readers are forced to think through the carefully-placed “interstitial” moments of insight and come to some sort of Nietzschean self-realization. This is obviously a strategy of various theorists, and while I don’t share it, I appreciate the absolute lack of compromise with what I’m calling the violence of writing.

Yet the problem with this lack of compromise is, like all forms of purity, I’m not sure how much it gets done (I’m not sure how pure it is, but that’s another post). Most people—even other academics—don’t read these theorists. And we can complain about it, or we can write something most people will read. But compromised writing is, well, compromised, often maintaining the essentializations that the above theorists rightly warn us about. So what to do? Do we just abandon the public? I would say no, but I feel embarrassed to say the best advice I can give right now is to be careful and to write well.

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7 Responses to “Why I don’t read non-fiction from Barnes and Noble, and why that’s a problem for public scholarship; or, what I learned in third grade about epistemology and essentialization”

  1. avatar Hector says:

    What is the public singular presupposed here? Is it people like us? People who read books? American people? People in general? If everyone wrote for people in general, American people, or even people who read books, no-one would ever “get anything done”. Don’t “we” take it for granted that ‘the public’ is differentiated along social, cultural, economic, regional, and intellectual lines? If I had the power to so do I’d ask you to clarify your main term, and ditto “violence”.

  2. avatar Loraine says:

    Does it occur to the author that if “all writing about real people is a violent act,” he is doing exactly that? Also, such absolute terms tend to be fallible.

  3. The question of the public intellectual haunts those of us making our way through doctoral programs with all of its looming demands, as well it should! I cut my academic teeth on some of the great public intellectuals of our time, like John Dewey. I agree that we all face the dangers of reductionism and inaccuracy but I do not see how academic writing escapes these fates. We just get things wrong with a different vocabulary and a different set of tools. So, if all writing is compromised, why vilify popular texts for the very same dangers even the most highfalutin academic texts face?
    Perhaps, to draw on Hector’s comment above, the real resolution lies in the “public” at stake. Michael Warner might tell us that we call certain publics into being through address by texts. I don’t think that means I can write dense, unapproachable prose and expect a crowd who listens carefully. But it does remind me that when Michel Foucault, grand master of all things dismissed as unapproachable “theory,” stood to give his public lectures at the Collège de France, thousands came to listen.

  4. Hi Brandon, Loraine, and Jenna. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

    First, as to Loraine’s question about violence. She asks if it occurs to me that I might be doing violence in my post, to which I respond, yes. I am. And I was, actually, as becomes fairly clear right away from Hector and Jenna’s helpful clarifications about “the public” and Jenna’s pointing out that I don’t need to “vilify” popular non-fiction (which I don’t intend to do). There are obviously many kinds of violence out there, but the kind I’m interested in has something to do with misrecognition—I’m drawing on Frantz Fanon and Charles Taylor here, both of whose reflections on recognition are explicitly Hegelian. There is a kind of psychological violence in the misrecognition itself, when someone sees herself represented in a way that feels untrue and unfair. So, for example, if a writer of popular non-fiction were to read my post and think I was making unwarranted assumption about her, leaving valuable pieces of information out, not telling the story in a fair way, even vilifying her, then yes I would have done violence to her. And I apologize for such actions.

    The problem is that I think such actions are basically unavoidable. The only way to make the problem tolerable, as I see it, is to be amenable to criticism and sensitive to how those you’re talking about will hear and receive what you’re saying. And to be clear: I’m not here calling for everyone to be nice. We should call out racism, warmongering, and rampant injustice. We should speak truth to power. But we should also be careful about how we’re saying that truth—following Edward Said in tracing who that truth serves, how we profit by saying it, and why we say certain things certain times and don’t say other things other times. In short, we ought to be reflexive not only about what we say but how and why we say it. And that reflexivity—and forgive the brazen idealism here—should be driven by a hope for greater equality, justice, and truth. Again, my model here is Edward Said’s later work, in which he draws on Gramsci in being able to simultaneously believe in something like the humanist project of truth and beauty alongside a deep awareness of the problems of power and power’s relationship to culture.

    And also like Edward Said, I’m not entirely willing to give up on the idea of a public writ large. Of course, Jenna’s right to point to Michael Warner (I would also add Nancy Fraser’s valuable criticism of Habermas) and Brandon raises an excellent point about the public being “differentiated along social, cultural, economic, regional, and intellectual lines”. Michael Burawoy’s work on a “public sociology” is also aware of the problem of multiple publics. But like Burawoy and Said, I guess I’m not entirely willing to give up on the idea of a larger public which contains all of these counterpublics (for that matter, I don’t think Warner or Fraser are either). Certainly we need to be sensitive to all the differentiations Brandon points out, and I’ll admit my post was not sufficiently sensitive to these. And Brandon’s right that these publics are generally differentiated by—if nothing else—language and nation. Yet aren’t these conversations and debates that should extend beyond counterpublics? Isn’t something like a public sphere—even if an inaccurate descriptive claim that ignores marginalized groups and the relationship between power structures and “voice”—still something we ought to strive for? Don’t we want lots of different people—from many different counterpublics, even different nations and languages—to engage in debates and conversations? I again draw from Taylor and Fanon in being sensitive to how such inclusion in the public sphere might well lead to a cultural dilution and a misrecognition as the price of entry. I’m not denying the problems. I’m just asking that we not give up on the dream.

    Which then gets to my next question. Jenna asked if I was being unfair to non-fiction writers, as we academics “just get things wrong with a different vocabulary and a different set of tools.” She goes on to ask “if all writing is compromised, why vilify popular texts for the very same dangers even the most highfalutin academic texts face?” It’s a good question, and I guess my answer is that the stakes aren’t as big, at least for these problems. What I’m thinking about here are very broad surveys, the kind of books with ambition that ask great big questions like “What is Islam?” or “What has been the history of India?” Academics used to write books like this and some still do (There’s this book y’all might have heard of called A Secular Age….). Yet, in general, a popular book can get away with “An Introduction to Islam” while an academic book would basically be about, say, Sufis in the contemporary Sudan. So it’s not that we don’t make mistakes—that book about Sufis will certainly have errors too. It’s just that the book about “Islam”, by trying to take on so much more, is going to run into a lot more opportunities for errors, and therefore more misrecognition.

    So even if run into the “very same dangers”, I think we actually have less problems with them, if only because our ambitions are so much smaller. There are other problems specifically for academics though, and I believe they are just as serious. The first is a lack of ambition to ask big questions even if one might run into possible errors. Said’s sort of “amateur intellectual”–who is interested in many things and unafraid to enter conversations in which she is not specialized—is a precarious occupation in the contemporary academy. The bigger problem—for which Said’s voice provided the most eloquent and insistent warning—is that even minor errors or lacunae (or intentional omissions, or outright fabrications) might become recognized as official truth because they come from an authority like an academic press.

    How to deal with these problems? Again, I’m not entirely sure. Said certainly has his strategies, and so do many others. (I’ve found the soul-searching done by anthropologists in the past thirty years especially instructive.) I’d like academic books to take on a bigger scope, but I think it’s appropriate to be nervous about misrepresenting people. Be careful. Be open to correction. Be ambitious yet humble. And talk about it with friends and colleagues and even, dare I say it, with the public. And remember, as Jenna reminds us, that there are scholars like Dewey and Foucault (I would add Said and Warner) who can move between the highest levels of what Burawoy would call professional (pointed to the academy) and public (pointed outside the academy) scholarship. I’d hope we could all do that too.

  5. avatar Will says:

    I just wanted to point out that if you can’t find enjoyable, entertaining, informative, or amazing non-fiction books than I believe it reflects your inability to have your imagination captured by reality and not the fault of the subject matter. It appears that while you may have a depth of knowledge regarding your specific area of research (and a very pessimistic view of the value of that research process I might add), you lack the breadth to understand that the non-fiction world spans many vast regions of the mind. If you perhaps took a moment to open your mind to the possibility that there are countless vistas of undiscovered knowledge to peruse, explore, and delight your curious, inquisitive mind you would understand that non-fiction offers a lifetime of fulfilling and entertaining insight and enjoyment.

    I have no problem with fiction, I love fiction. It is amazing and every fiction book I read I fall in love with. But I primarily read non-fiction because I find it more personally fulfilling, and the stories of the writers, their pursuits of knowledge, their struggles, and their perspectives seem to be more fundamental to my existence than a fiction book no matter how great the writer is.

    Both capture my imagination and lead my mind to amazing places, but non-fiction more frequently provides a structure and value to my thoughts and mind that extends far beyond the contents of a single book. It is all interconnected.

    Also, from a completely technical perspective, fiction is really just non-fiction experiences and explorations of the mechanisms of the mind, similar perhaps to a diary of recorded dreams. In my purist view of the world all writing is non-fiction, only the “non-fiction” genre typically has better formatting and is easier to digest.

  6. avatar Will says:

    My previous comment is more directed at any non-fiction detractors. I was just exploring why people don’t read more non-fiction and for whatever reason my propensity to comment threshold hit expression capacity on this blog.

    After reading over your particular article again it seems that you are more focused on the specific quality of non-fiction available at mass retail bookstores, but considering the challenge of stocking a physical location with non-fiction books that can appeal to the general public, this is not surprising. I also find most of my books on Amazon or through other sources (never college bookstores due to their extreme and horrible pricing mechanisms) but the argument still stands that there is enough valuable (decent to good quality) non-fiction even in Barnes and Noble to last a lifetime of discovery if you’re willing to explore outside the bounds of history and the social sciences.

    Good luck with your reading. Any reading is good reading, even if it is in the social sciences.

  7. avatar Ed Guzman says:

    I liked this article very much, but I will not unpack “liked” so as to stay accessible. Seriously though, you have succinctly and excellently expressed the particularities of writing with clarity and good scholarship in the contemporary context. As a writer, one almost feels tempted to willfully distort or fall short of doing justice in order to engender interest.

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