The other night, when Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award for nonfiction, a couple of friends emailed and tweeted at me immediately, because I’d been bugging them to read it for months. I have had a small campaign going since I spent one long night about two years ago reading Boo’s entire archive at the New Yorker.
Among the sort of people who can recite the coming fiction titles in the publisher’s catalogs from memory, she doesn’t have much of a profile. Obscure is the wrong word for it: her non-fiction had the New Yorker and a Macarthur genius grant behind it. But until now she hasn’t been quite the household name that say, Susan Orlean is. People haven’t made movies from Boo’s articles, perhaps because generally (though not universally) her reporting is on poverty and lacks uplift of the tidy-ending variety. Awards are as awards do, but here they’ve done well, I’m telling you, by perhaps finally bringing you into her arms.
Anyway, if the NBA and my vouching for her is not enough for you, I suggest you read the long excerpt the New Yorker ran earlier this year here. Or this older piece, about a high school in Denver. Or, my favourite, this one about the lived effect of marriage incentives.
Reported non-fiction is a bit of a stepchild in the fiction world, I find, further away than memoir or even opinion/essay from the source of what most “literary” writers want to do — write novels. I can’t seem to discover the root of the aversion. In the best articulations I’ve heard, it’s some combination of (a) non-fiction is easier and therefore lesser and (b) it’s hard to make the real world interesting. The inherent contradiction there seems to be lost on most people, and that’s not to mention the fact that a fair amount of fiction is derived from — if not precisely a mirror image of — the real world anyway. And anyway who wants to live in their own head exclusively? I certainly don’t.
Elif Batuman, awhile back, had that anti-MFA piece in the London Review of Books, the gist of which was: the problem with writing school is that it doesn’t engage writers with the literary tradition, to learn something other than how to learn about writing. In the years since that came out I’ve thought she was half-right and half-wrong: we’d be better off if we all looked outside, yes. But reading a book isn’t the only way to do that. Walking out and looking around is another.