The cultural value of reportage

I don’t read much imaginative literature, i.e. fiction, not because I don’t like it, but because a little goes a very long way for me. I first read Joseph Conrad’s short novella Heart of Darkness nearly twenty years ago, and I am still working through the many fundamental lessons it taught me. I don’t see how it is possible to read a good work of fiction in any manageable period of time without out leaving most of its ideas unconsidered, much less explored. But that may be simply because I don’t absorb ideas quickly or easily.

In John Carey’s introduction to Eyewitness to History he claims that reportage is at least as culturally valuable as imaginative literature, possibly superior. That’s an argument I don’t care to engage in, and I leave it to the interested reader to go read for himself how Carey makes his case. Along the way, though, he makes some interesting points about the role that literature plays for the reader.

Imaginative literature habitually depends for its effect on a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in audience or reader, and this necessarily entails an element of game or collusion or self-deception. Reportage, by contrast, lays claim directly to the power of the real, which imaginative literature can approach only through make-believe.

It would be foolish, of course, to belittle imaginative literature on this score. The fact that it is not real—that its griefs, loves, and deaths are all a pretence, is one reason why it can sustain us. It is a dream from which we can awake when we wish, and so it gives us, among the obstinate urgencies of real life, a precious illusion of freedom. It allows us to use for pleasure passions and sympathies (anger, fear, pity, etc.) which in normal circumstances would arise only in situations of pain or distress. In this way it frees and extends our emotional life. [Emphasis added]

My only quibble here is that I think readers look to the passions and sympathies of imaginative literature as much for instruction as for pleasure. We want to know how other people tick, how they respond to extreme situations, not just to be entertained but to be instructed in how to behave, or how not to behave.

Carey points out that for most people these days this need is mostly filled by reportage.

It seems probable that much—or most—reportage is read as if it were fiction by a majority of its readers. Its panics and disasters do not affect them as real, but as belonging to a shadow world distinct from their own concerns, and without their pressing actuality. Because of this, reportage has been able to take the place of imaginative literature in most people. They read newspapers rather than books, and newspapers which might just as well be fictional.

The mixed blessing here is that both imaginative literature and reportage let us approach reality from a distance, with a certain critical detachment—a detachment that can be good, in that it allows us to look deeply into matters that would be intolerable in real life, or bad, in that it encourages us to trivialize and dismiss matters that are in fact weighty and significant. The same distance that spares us the pain of reality also puts us in a position to deny that the pain is there at all. When we read an account, fictional or reported, of a person who is suffering from the consequences of bad choices, it is difficult for us to appreciate the suffering and learn from it without lapsing into pious moralizing about how the suffering could have been avoided if only the right choices had been made—or, worse, smug satisfaction that we would never have chosen so badly.

Carey claims that good reportage avoids this shortcoming by slipping past the reader’s defenses to convey a situation in such a way that there is no denying its reality.

However enjoyable this is, it represents, of course, a flight from the real, as does imaginative literature, and good reportage is designed to make that flight impossible. It exiles us from fiction into the sharp terrain of truth. […]

When we read (to choose the most glaring example) accounts of the Holocaust by survivors and onlookers, some of which I have included in this book, we cannot comfort ourselves (as we can when distressed by accounts of suffering in realistic novels) by reminding ourselves that they are, after all, just stories. The facts presented demand our recognition, and require us to respond, though we do not know how to. We read the details—the Jews by the mass grave waiting to be shot; the father comforting his son and pointing to the sky; the grandmother amusing the baby—and we are possessed by our own inadequacy, by a ridiculous desire to help, by pity which is unappeasable and useless. [Emphasis added]

This I think is the real power of reportage. It takes us out of the realm of pat answers, reminding us that there is far more to the world than is encompassed by our philosophy, no matter how refined. Facts are stubborn things, and when we are confronted with one that we can’t explain—and when we find ourselves unable to deny its reality—then comes the opportunity to understand the world more deeply.

Or not quite useless, perhaps. For at this level (so one would like to hope) reportage may change its readers, may educate their sympathies, may extend—in both directions—their ideas about what it is to be a human being, may limit their capacity for the inhuman. These gains have traditionally been claimed for imaginative literature. But since reportage, unlike literature, lifts the screen from reality, its lessons are—and ought to be—more telling; and since it reaches millions untouched by literature, it has an incalculably greater potential.

I like this final paragraph because I think Carey points to the only sphere in which significant change is possible, namely the human heart. More and more I return to this famous observation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

Another Russian, Leo Tolstoy, once lamented that “everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” And thus the world remains unchanged.

I want to know how people tick, that I might find ways to effectively adjust my own internal mechanisms. And so for awhile now I’ve spent my time studying the line Solzhenitsyn speaks of, sifting through accounts of how that line manifests itself in the lives of different people, treasuring especially the stories of how a select few have managed to shift the boundary within themselves.

The best of imaginative literature can certainly provide such accounts, but in the end those accounts are imagined, used by the writer to convey his own conclusions about the nature of reality. The advantage of solid reportage is that it provides us with the truth; the disadvantage is that, being unprocessed, we may not be able to grasp it.

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4 thoughts on “The cultural value of reportage

  1. I may have missed something in the above post but I would quibble. You are assuming or at least the writer is assuming that reportage is true and fiction is false. The real beauty of fiction is that it can get to the truth when reportage merely states facts while often missing the truth. Very often reportage is merely the reporter’s fiction. In other words reportage is just as imagined as literature but dangerously disguised as truth.

    For instance, right now I am reading a work of non-fiction titled The Zookeeper’s Wife, a book about the Polish zoo’s role in saving Jews during WWII. The book is a story and a compilation of facts and yet not even the writer of the book knows if she really captured the truth of the situation. She has tons of facts and accounts and all of it make a fascinating story and she tells it like a story which I think is wise. It is a story and the power of it does not lie in the facts and accounts but in the story. The true story is essentially lost forever but the account or fiction of it remains powerful.

  2. Cindy,

    Imaginative literature is properly positioned to tap into the power of story, and when reportage tries to do so it does a vastly inferior job. I think this is the great flaw in modern journalistic writing, that journalists think their writing is weak when it strictly recounts the facts; rather than placing the blame where it belongs, namely on their inadequate presentation of the facts, they try to beef things up by adopting the techniques of fiction.

    But good reportage is powerful precisely because it is not required to tell a good story, but instead to give an accurate account of what actually happened. The account is naturally incomplete—unlike a story, and just like our experience of reality. With a good story, we work to understand it because the writer is using it to tell us something. With good reportage, we work to understand it because it actually happened.

    For example, at the end of Heart of Darkness Kurtz’s beloved asks Marlow to tell her what Kurtz last said as he died, and Marlow replies, “Your name.” But what Kurtz actually said was, “The horror! The horror!” I’ve spent twenty years thinking about that—not because I wonder what sort of man Marlow was to say such a thing, but because I wonder what Conrad was trying to tell me in having Marlow say that.

    Meanwhile, I have spent just as many years pondering the exchange between the father and his elder son in the parable of the prodigal, where the son complains that the father has given him nothing and the father replies, “All I have is yours.” I think the power of that short passage comes not from Jesus’ artful construction of a story to make a point, but from making His point by pointing to an exchange that a father and son once actually had.

    I appreciate the ability of a story to convey a truth that an author understands. But only reportage can convey a truth that an author doesn’t understand, beyond suspecting that it is there.

  3. Yes, that would take a terrible amount of unselfconsciousness which is barely believable in the current state of the world. I can see what you are saying but I am also wondering if that is ever possible. Even when I am just taking a picture of what is actually there, I still set up the camera angle.

  4. All,

    Here’s an example of what I meant when I said that reportage gains its power from not having to make its account into a story.

    In stark and sad contrast to the story of Abby Johnson is the story of a doctor in the Midwest who wrote about her own moment of disillusionment. It came as she performed an abortion on a woman eighteen weeks pregnant while she herself was eighteen weeks pregnant. “I felt a kick — a fluttery ‘thump, thump’ in my own uterus. It was one of the first times I felt fetal movement. There was a leg and foot in my forceps, and a ‘thump, thump’ in my abdomen. Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes — without me — meaning my conscious brain — even being aware of what was going on. I felt as if my response had come entirely from my body, bypassing my usual cognitive processing completely. A message seemed to travel from my hand and my uterus to my tear ducts. It was an overwhelming feeling — a brutally visceral response — heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics.”

    Horrifyingly, for this woman, unlike Abby Johnson, that was not the end of it. Her illusion was gone, but she continued to perform abortions. “Doing second trimester abortions did not get easier after my pregnancy,” she said. “In fact, dealing with little infant parts of my born baby only made dealing with dismembered fetal parts sadder.” [Emphasis added]

    That last sentence would not haunt me nearly as much if it had come from the mouth of a fictional character, no matter how carefully drawn. But it stuns me to think that some woman actually said that.

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