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 essentializationposted 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.