Nonfiction’s Slippery Slope

December 17, 2013 § 6 Comments


5602206494_06f71b2b43_zIn a recent Salon essay, Alex Pareene takes Malcolm Gladwell (and others) to task for slapping together books filled with theories that “sound good,” but are not in fact supported by the evidence at hand.  The discussion touches on our ongoing conversation about truth in nonfiction and what constitutes fact. Here is an excerpt followed by a link to the Salon article:

An author, according to Gladwell, can put forth arguments he doesn’t necessarily believe, because his books, while labeled “nonfiction,” are actually meant not to inform readers of what he believes to be the truth, but rather to “start conversations.” What if he’s right? What if we took it even further?

Maybe an author can even misinterpret other people’s research, and misrepresent scientific findings, if doing so makes a book read better. Maybe saying what you mean, and believing what you say, don’t actually mean believing what you say and saying what you mean. Could it be that anyone can justify writing any bullshit at all if they feel like it will start conversations, sell books, and set up high-priced speaking gigs?

We all agree that good writers are better than bad writers, and it logically follows that good books are better than bad books. It may seem like an author’s best bet is a write a good, well-written book that respects its readers’ intelligence. After all, isn’t that true of most of the most famous and successful books throughout history? We assume that a good writer is more likely to be successful at writing professionally than a bad one. No parents would wish for their children to be bad writers.

Or would they?

Read the full Salon essay here.

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§ 6 Responses to Nonfiction’s Slippery Slope

  • Thanks for reminding me about the skills of critical thinking. I wish they were better taught in schools.

  • rbshea says:

    “Maybe an author can even misinterpret other people’s research, and misrepresent scientific findings, if doing so makes a book read better. Maybe saying what you mean, and believing what you say, don’t actually mean believing what you say and saying what you mean.
    Could it be that anyone can justify writing any bullshit at all if they feel like it will start conversations, sell books, and set up high-priced speaking gigs?”

    It seems Pareene has captured the essence of D’Agata’s approach as well as Fox “News”.

  • Kathleen says:

    Gladwell’s work is receiving the critical evaluation any work deserves, and for more of it see John Gray’s review in the November 25 issue of The New Republic. That one may even revive the discussion of how to deliver a negative review.

  • nextline says:

    The great Barbara Tuchman in her book “Practicing History” wrote, “…we who write about the past were not there. We can never be certain that we have recaptured it as it really was. But the least we can do is stay within the evidence. I do not invent anything, even the weather.” I think her commitment is the compelling one. Have you read “The Guns of August”?

  • Lyn Fenwick says:

    Once, I complained that people should be better informed by making the effort to learn more about current issues, and the person with whom I was speaking used the analogy of the daily news amounting to a dump truck emptying a mountain of information on our doorsteps every morning. Apparently some people believe it is OK to load the dump truck with garbage.

  • I’ve enjoyed a couple of Gladwell’s books but have also been perturbed at his interpretations of the scientific research, which seem to make a lot of assumptions unwarranted by the evidence itself. Gladwell is certainly not the only one who does this. There seems to be a tendency among pop social science authors to overgeneralize: to make sweeping statements about human nature based on one very specific experiment, the details and methodology of which are largely ignored. I would hope we could make science engaging for a general audience without sacrificing attention to such important details.

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