Last night my men’s reading group met to talk about Daniel Okrent’s Last Call http://tinyurl.com/2dum37p — a new book on Prohibition. We all felt pretty much the same way — the book brings many new inights (in particular how the move for Prohibition was closely tied to two other key reforms of the era: women’s suffrage and income tax), and line by line it was well written, but it was also disappointing. That was because the author marches ahead profilling key players (always very nicely and with compelling anecdotes), explaining what happened next. But all of those moments, those points of description, rarely lift up into a bigger picture — a sense of the nation, the time, what it all meant. One of the readers felt that the book was lacking what only fiction can, he believes, bring: that artistic mastery, that deeper insight into humanity, that goes beyond yet another profile, yet another interesting actor, yet another step in the relentless march of chronology. I completely disagreed. To me the problem is not one of genre — fiction vs. nonfiction — but of ambition.
The book announces on the cover that it is one of the key sources for a new Ken Burns documentary, and that is exactly how it reads. As I read each profile I could already hear the music (and as one of the guys said last night, the tinkle of ice in glasses and the sounds of women’s laughter) that Burns will use as he fades in an out on a photo of that person, leading into the next quarter hour episode. As it happens, HBO is also doing a big Prohibition era series this fall, Boardwalk Empire: http://tinyurl.com/yfgl4lt and doubtless it will avoid the leaden progress from profile to profile to go inside characters. But I still feel that it is quite possible to write nonfiction that is fully as rich, deep, artistic, experimental — in short, ambitious, as any novel. The problem is too many nonfiction authors and their editors settle. They find an interesting, engaging, timely topic. The author makes sure to write nice, clean, well-crafted sentences, and to begin each chapter with captivating incidents. But there is no bookmaking — essentially you get research poured into the form of chapter-opener plus details. Topic replaces depth.
That is the heart of my objection to this book — and to the argument for fiction. Depth is not the result of genre, it is the result of approach. You can go as deep in nonfiction as fiction — if that is your aim. If you set out to explore character, motivation, time period, you can do that in nonfiction. But if you set out to write many entertaining bits about a cool topic, then you won’t slow down to go deeper. That is a difference in approach, not a difference in genre. I notice that in my own writing I am drawn to write about magnificent and magnificently flawed people: Sir Walter Ralegh; Oliver Cromwell; Robert Clive; RFK; Bill Gates; J. Edgar Hoover — I like digging around inside their psyches, trying to make sense of their darkness and their soaring accomplishments. That is all pure nonfiction, but the challenge is quite as great as in writing any novel about a towering, complex, person. And the bonus extra is that in trying to make sense of such a person I also get to understand something more about us, our world, our time, how we got to where we are.
That was last night’s Great Debate — what do you think?