Book by Mary Roach
Non-fiction is a strange thing. (All right, fiction is probably a stranger thing.) New journalism has been around so long that it seems like the standard thing in popular writing. Every essayist worth ten minutes of attention embeds themselves in their subject, transcribes conversations verbatim, and writes in the first person. Really, you have to be something special to sustain a career and enter the zeitgeist.
The history of manuscripts and books goes that all that word stuff started with a big emphasis on religion and a smattering of math, engineering, and medicine. Then again, there were plays, which dramatized popular tales. It’s a question that you can ponder just how much people believed Oedipus Rex or The Iliad were true in a strict sense.
Way, way back, Herodotus was the father of history and lies, which tells you how quickly doubts crept into the critiques. For that matter, critics seem to have appeared about five minutes after the first words appeared on papyrus. So, what was a poor writer to do? Wait around for Daniel Defoe to invent fiction?
The answer was obvious: take a trip and write about your travels. If your audience hasn’t been there, well all the better. Record local legends as fact. Embellish, embellish, embellish. Mix in some high adventure. Don’t bother learning the local language. Maybe lose your notes and write from memory. Never forget that your viewpoint is one of superiority, perhaps benevolent.
We can laugh
at absurd descriptions of rhinos and monsters. We might cringe at remarkable displays of racism. But John Mandeville and Francisco Álvares and many others had major best sellers with their accounts of their travels in the Middle Ages. Readers may have grown a little pickier, but Richard Francis Burton and Mark Twain were still documenting travel adventures to great success centuries later.
My point here is that embedding yourself in the non-fiction story goes way back. We love to hear about discomforts endured and discoveries made. Mary Roach does this as well as anyone. You look over her shoulder. She turns and whispers in your ear. The two of you nod knowingly, perhaps sharing a brief chuckle.
Going back to the Middle Ages, the other obvious matter is that everyone thinks that they can pull this off. Anyone that has been inflicted with a photographic sideshow of a recent vacation might get by on good manners and personal investment in the presenter, but you know that you would never pay money to read about it. Writing non-fiction, even the kind that is good for a person, requires a never-ending awareness that your reader is only one quick glance away from checking the clock and wondering how much longer the current chapter can last.
Sure, Roach’s subjects may get us in the door (sex, death, Mars, etc.), but the magic is in the way she builds that relationship with the reader. Art is not in non-fiction writers embracing the tropes of fiction, but in recognizing the power of their subjects and bringing the reader into that same sense of wonder at this world of ours.
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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 193 more to go.
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