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Saturday, January 11, 2020

James Pogue on "The Decline of Nonfiction in the IP Era"

I quite enjoyed this piece from The Baffler. It may be overstated and over-amped, but that is par for the course for The Baffler and most magazine journalism; it is still enjoyable even if it should be read, like everything else, skeptically. The contemporary tendency, including for legal academics, is to celebrate the multi-platform world in a way that echoes the now purportedly dated and much-mocked earlier burst of enthusiasm about "synergy." Seeing the parallel may perhaps lead us to mock those days a little less, to see some of the undue utopianism and lack of self-awareness of the modern tendency more clearly, and to see more clearly the value of institutions (in the Mary Douglas sense), the downsides of blurring or eliminating them, and the degree to which our current enthusiasms are more consumerism than connoisseurship.

Pogue's piece does not argue that nonfiction is dying or dead. If anything, it is thriving in one sense, as the profusion of narrative podcasts, among other things, suggests. (Although I'm not a fan of those podcasts, and think they are highly mannered--God save me from another post-This American-Life voice, with its uptalk and other vocal affectations, male or female, or another somber-music dramatic pause--and mostly trivial, and are bringing back practices that we rightly came to think of as ethically dubious in journalism.) Rather, he argues that "[w]e are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories—and not for the better." And not just books, of course, but magazine articles, podcasts, and other forms of nonfiction. 

In discussing how the narrative-industrial complex affects nonfiction, he writes:

[T]he book-to-film complex is bolstered by two imperatives that now govern our nonfiction almost without exception: foreground story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work; and do not question too closely the aristocracy of tech and capital that looms over us, the same people who subsidize the system that produces America’s writing....The power of book-to-film in American writing is in how it sits at the edge of the consciousness of every writer, editor, and podcast producer, a dark energy of the entertainment market that drives wealth and reward. You just have to tell a gripping story and leave the powers-that-be unnamed.

And let me quote some more:

This is more or less how most editors I know describe what they want these days. One—clearly hoping to land stories that would get bought for film since he was hardly offering enough money to make writing a feature for him worth it otherwise—recently sent me a call asking for “ripping yarns, stories of true crime, of loves lost and won. Rivalries in sports, tech, and entertainment. Chronicles of dreams realized and broken. We want to take readers on spell-binding adventures, introduce them to powerful jerks they don’t know (or don’t know enough about), weirdos, eccentrics, and folks in search of redemption.”

This email almost made me throw my laptop off my balcony. We all know this kind of storytelling, even if we don’t exactly have a name for it. It is your non-friend’s favorite true-crime podcast. It is the magazine story that the documentary you just watched was based on, and it is the novel that was based on the real event that the even-better magazine piece described and that will soon be a television show. It is the books that now dominate the bestseller lists by writers like [David] Grann or Patrick Radden Keefe or Gillian Flynn, which have all been pre-engineered to read like movie thrillers long before anyone even sat down to start on the script.

We think less about what this kind of writing isn’t. These editors asking you to rip the yarn never talk about politics beyond a possible desultory nod toward wanting stories from writers of “diverse backgrounds.” They do not talk about voice or literary style. They do not ask for excavations of an inner life or the forces of history or any of the things that once would have made a work of writing lasting. A writer may find clever ways to worm these things in, but in the end they are ancillary goods. The desire is always for work that puts narrative ahead of all other considerations, and this is the kind of writing that now dominates our literature: it describes the world without having a worldview. Which is a workable definition of the kind of writing most easily converted into IP....

At least some of my peers are now handing over their working lives to producing cynical content rigged to fit the desires of streaming services, which, when you think about it, is a small tragedy for a world as fucked as ours. Most of the good writers are not. But how could you not at least think about these imperatives when a strange new amalgam of Hollywood and tech offers the greatest rewards for a hit second novel and when magazines pay below rates that were standard three decades ago?...

We have a perfectly good word for the kind of writing and reporting this all encourages: trash. Trash is how we once thought of work designed above all to fit commercial demands and generic narrative forms. The imperative to produce it isn’t going away soon. But I don’t think we have to accept it. 

Very enjoyable. 

  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 11, 2020 at 11:07 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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