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Like a Novel

PUBLISHED: April 11, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

I recently read KatherineBoo’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.

Tom Wolfe made the phrase like a novel his own in the introduction to his influential 1973 anthology, The New Journalism. “Like a novel, if you get the picture,” he wrote; emphasis his. Wolfe really did have Dickens in mind, nineteenth-century fiction that derived its “unique power” from its “immediacy.” But immediacy is an illusion, the disguise of the mediation that is the author standing between you and the reality depicted by the story. Immediacy is fiction. It’s what screenwriter Ed Burns, in an episode of The Wire about falsified you-are-there newspaper stories, derides as “the Dickensian aspect.” Offered up by blurbers with the best of intentions, the immediacy implicit in like a novel suggests that the book on hand can be engaged with as art rather than as fact, so realist it’s not real; a story rather than the state of things, a condition in which we might be complicit. The blurber may be speaking of craft—the use of scene, dialogue, character—but publishers traffic in genre, the overstated distinction between art and fact that makes one book “current events” and another “a timeless story”—that is, a book with a shelf life.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx? “Like a novel.”

Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, a hair-pulling anxiety disorder of a book about financial ruin? “Like a novel.”

Sonia Faleiro “brings a novelist’s eye” to another account of degradation in Mumbai, Beautiful Thing; Aman Sethi, author of A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, “possesses a novelist’s ear.” I’ve never heard the nose of a literary journalist compared to that of a novelist, but there’s no shortage of praise within the genre for “pungent details,” the kind novelists are thought to be especially good at producing.

To be “like a novel” seems in many other renderings to be a sort of spiritual condition. In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Anne Fadiman explores a tragic culture clash between Western medicine and a Hmong immigrant family with what Richard Bernstein in the New York Times describes as “a novelist’s grace”; William T. Vollmann rambles through the history and statistics of poverty in his nonfiction Poor People with “a novelist’s grace,” according to Esquire. Powell’s markets Blood Done Sign My Name, Timothy B. Tyson’s astonishing hybrid of history, memoir, and reportage, as written with the “eloquent grace of a novelist.” Grace is a gift, of course, and in this sense it functions as a modern metaphor for the muse, and a romantic conception of writing at odds with reporting.

It’s not just literary journalism. Historian Kevin Boyle’s erudite account of Jazz Age race relations and murder, Arc of Justice—also a National Book Award winner—“holds the reader like a fast-paced detective novel,” according to the Washington Post. Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, a National Book Award finalist, “illuminates the auto industry’s contemporary crisis [and] the problems of globalization,” warns the Los Angeles Times, but don’t be deterred—it’s “recounted with a novelist’s sense of pace.” (Presumably not Proust’s.) Worried that the brutal details of the eighteenth-century slave trade might be too pungent for an enjoyable read? Don’t fret—Bury the Chains, the National Book Award finalist by Adam Hochschild, possesses the “dramatic power of a great epic novel,” says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

These are brilliant books, all, pulled from my own shelf. But I’d dread the novel that delved into the economics of the slave trade with as much cool detail as Bury the Chains; and much of the interest in Beautiful Thing lies in the ways Faleiro’s subject, a bar dancer named Leela, fails to resolve as a “character.” That’s because she isn’t a character, she’s a human being who has been partially documented by Faleiro. It’s no insult to Faleiro to note that her documentation is incomplete, that she can never know her subject as well as she knows the characters in the novels she writes. The best nonfiction recognizes the impossibility of perfect representation, the dream of the 1:1 ratio.

Sometimes that acknowledgment is explicit, as in James Agee’s lament in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that he cannot offer, instead of words, a box full of “lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement.” Sometimes it’s just a nod, albeit a crucial one, as in Boo’s description in her author’s note of her prolonged attempts to draw the unarticulated thoughts of some subjects to the surface, where they could be rendered in approximate English by Boo’s translators.

So why, my students wanted to know, would Boo want her masterpiece of reportage, its “pungent details” acquired only with great effort, to be described as “like a novel”? If she’d wanted to write a novel, why hadn’t she? If she hadn’t wanted to write a novel—if the actuality of Abdul the trash sorter and Sunil the scavenger mattered to her—why wouldn’t she bridle at the comparison?

I didn’t have a ready answer. My own work has on occasion been compared to a novel, and whenever it was, I was delighted. I knew that for a book to be “like a novel” meant that it was safe for mass consumption. I knew that to be “like a novel” meant sales, even though nonfiction outsells fiction. But facts like that are beside the point. For Sedaris to say that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is like a novel is to reassure the reader that the suffering documented on every page isn’t what matters. It’s the experience. The reader’s, that is. This book will make you feel close to that suffering, but not too close.

Boo’s reviews are almost uniformly positive, with only one really notable exception at the Times Literary Supplement. TLS assigned Behind the Beautiful Forevers to the legal philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who faults the book for failing to offer a reform agenda in response to the poverty it depicts. Nussbaum seems wholly innocent of the tradition of literary journalism, of which muckraking is just one strand, but there’s a sense in which she’s taken the idea of “like a novel” seriously, and followed with a logical question: “What kind of novel?” Dickens, yes; and what does that tell us? “The English novel was a social protest movement from the start,” she argues, “and its aim (like that of many of its American descendants) was frequently to acquaint middle-class people with the reality of various social ills, in a way that would involve real vision and feeling.”

Along with Wolfe, it seems, Nussbaum feels that such novels possess “a unique power.” But where Wolfe seeks sensation, Nussbaum believes these realist novels should result in “constructive action.”

You may, like me, be wincing: The philosopher seems to have missed the point of fiction, a genre distinct from the petition and the manifesto. “If readers are to be steered in the direction of intelligent action aimed at change,” writes Nussbaum, “the narrative journalist needs to give them not just sympathetic characters, but also historical and economic analysis.”

The idea of Boo “steering” her readers to “intelligent action” smacks of a more troubling kind of marketing altogether, even if Nussbaum’s definition of such action is compatible with all the most high-minded ideals. But in a way, Nussbaum has stumbled backward into the problem with the notion of nonfiction being “like a novel.” In staking its limited representation of the world on a relationship to fact, every work of literary journalism asserts at least an implicit historical analysis, if not an economic one.

Nussbaum compares Behind the Beautiful Forevers to Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, also about an Indian slum. As fiction, Boo’s work couldn’t stand the comparison; as nonfiction, though, her book shines with what Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is.” It isn’t like a novel because it’s true. True not in the abstract sense, the sense in which novels may possess truth, but trued, like a wheel, aligned as closely as possible with arguable facts. That attempt—and its inevitable failure, too—matters more than “sympathetic characters.”

That attempt is one of the two essential facts of any work of documentary prose; the failure of the attempt is the other. We can true a wheel, but to some degree it will always wobble. We can research and fact-check and interrogate every assumption, every mark of punctuation, but the words are not the things they stand for, only coded approximations. That’s what literary journalism is: an approximation. It’s not like a novel, it’s like nonfiction, only it hasn’t quite gotten there. It’s still trying.

So, since like Sedaris I want you to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers even though it’s not “immediate,” even though it’s not illusion but rather documentation—to the best of Boo’s perception—of a reality all too common but perhaps startling to the average American middle-class book buyer, I’ll just say this:  It may surprise you how enjoyable this book is, as rich and beautifully written as if everything in it were true.

That’s the ambition.


About the author: Jeff Sharlet, a contributing editor to VQR, teaches literary journalism at Dartmouth College. He is the author or editor of six books, including The Family, Sweet Heaven When I Die, and Radiant Truths, forthcoming in 2014.


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Mya Frazier's picture
Mya Frazier · 10 years ago
“Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” This is a question a source once posed to Katherine Boo. In the same interview, Boo touches on issues of representation, sharing how she’s come to terms with it: “My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced.” But what is lost in how Boo chooses to represent the world? In the recent essay, “A Subtle Alignment,”[] in n+1, Anand Vaidya critique examines Boo’s failure to find evidence of collective action in Mumbai, even though “no Indian city has seen collective action on the scale that Mumbai has.” He writes: “Of course, collectives make trickier objects of study than individuals. They don’t exist in every moment, for one thing, so they can only be observed when their members are brought together. Collectives also don’t experience the world as individuals do, so when a collective acts, it’s meaningless to speak of its intentions. For this reason, so-called “methodological individualists,”… argue that the basic unit of social-scientific explanation must be the acting individual……We have yet to see a form that both conveys collective agency and tells an engaging, empathetic story.” Vaidya’s critique follows another by Sunalini Kumar […, who questioned Boo’s “subtle alignment with the neoliberal narrative.” “… I find it astonishing that in the 250-odd pages of this otherwise insightful book, there are no examples of sustainable and constructive political relationships, among the residents of Annawadi, or between the residents of Annawadi and the outside world. How odd, for this is Mumbai, a city famous for its vigorous housing rights movements, sex workers’ unions, and small vendors’ associations. For a ‘single, unexceptional slum,’ Annawadi seems exceptional indeed.”
Jeff Sharlet's picture
Jeff Sharlet · 10 years ago
I’m so glad Mya Frazier has brought these two pieces into the conversation. Clearly I admire Boo, but I considered trying to find a way to incorporate the critiques of Vaidya and Kumar, which we also discussed in class. I decided that they were another story themselves, a question of what Boo might have done differently rather than the question of how what Boo did is represented. But those are, of course, linked questions. Frazier’s comments complete the post.
Maria Margaronis's picture
Maria Margaronis · 10 years ago
Jeff, I really enjoyed your post. But I had deep reservations about the book (which I could not finish), which are not the same as the ones raised in Myra Frazier’s very interesting post. I felt that Boo’s attempts to imagine her characters’ thoughts (because they do become her characters, even though they are based on people in the world) were at best presumptuous and at worst exploitative, and that her own invisibility in the book was disingenuous. Together, these two things made me mistrust her reporting. Why does she never interrogate her own role in the world she is describing but write as if she were a god-like observer privy to people’s inner lives? And why does she not have enough respect for the people she writes about to give them their own voices and their own boundaries?
Meera Subramanian's picture
I agree that the lack of wider perspective caused my hesitancy in fully applauding Kate Boo’s book. The writing was phenomenal. Her methods of using deep and diverse means of reporting to create the narrative were stellar. But the end result of a nonfiction book that can be read so easily as a novel is that the reader can perhaps too easily close the book after the last page, breathing a sigh of relief. “Well, at least I don’t have it that bad.” Like Jeff writes: “This book will make you feel close to that suffering, but not too close.” Redemption came in some way through the Author’s Note at the end, which clarified the dozens of questions that had formed in my head as I read the book, but I was still left wanting her to say something in the text itself. She was our guide, who led us intimately into this fascinating world of Annawadi, but she made it too easy to walk out again, in search of a place to wash our hands.
Victoria Noe's picture
As a nonfiction writer, I find this painful. First of all, the ‘compliment’ that a work of nonfiction reads like a novel implies that nonfiction is boring and fiction is not. Look, this is the ‘good’ kind of nonfiction! Can’t you just say it’s well-written, fascinating, compelling (though I hate that word) or some other superlative? It makes me uneasy to hear of nonfiction writers who imagine their characters’ thoughts. Is that the definition of creative nonfiction, that we insert our own interpretations into someone else’s head? Is it not enough to write from a point of view? Do we have to force the people in our books to agree with us, with no evidence? I try my best to let the people in my books speak for themselves, explain their actions in their own words. I don’t feel qualified to make assumptions about motivation.

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