10 Examples of Literary Nonfiction That Make Facts Compelling
In the field of journalism, facts are not always sexy. They complicate plenty of great pieces. Background details can weigh down graceful copy. Clarifications may crowd out the heart of a story. Qualifications take away from the urgency. What’s more, a lot of facts are plain old hard to find. And for many little details – was it the sixth house on the right, or the third? – it is a lot of work to settle a point that most readers don’t care about anyway. But somehow, even in this glory age of commentary, people do still care about facts.
We’re all a-flutter about the difference between literary journalism and art, what with Mike Daisey’s fictionalized investigation of Apple’s labor practices. We’re provoked by John D’Agata’s well-publicized wrangling in The Lifespan of a Fact, which captures the back-and-forth between D’Agata and his fact-checker at The Believer as they negotiate what counts as truth. The heated conversation about this reveals a fundamental public valuation of true stories: They matter.
Both Daisey and D’Agata, and their supporters, argue that it’s worth blurring the facts in order to tell a truer-than-true story that moves and motivates the public. (D’Agata has been much more upfront about his methods than Daisey.) They are right that there are true stories that can’t be told with precise regard to the facts: that’s why we have art. Meanwhile, journalism remains a way of practicing skepticism and self-questioning to tell stories grounded in the world we share. This doesn’t necessarily mean that stories don’t have a point-of-view, but if they do, it comes after the journalist views the facts with scrutiny and empathy. Even small details matter: journalists must be honest about what they see and don’t see. Anything less exhibits a lack of respect for the places and people whose stories they tell, and who they tell them to. We need both art and journalism to change the world, and we need to know which is which.
Here is a rundown of some of the best literary journalism you’ll find. Not only is there great storytelling in these books and longform articles, but there is also rigorous and revelatory investigation that keeps the facts straight. This is literary journalism at its best – proving that you don’t have to make up your facts to tell a meaningful and important story.
1. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing -- Ted Conover. Conover spent a year working undercover as a guard in New York’s Sing Sing prison, considered a model facility when it was built in 1826 and now a maximum-security warehouse that is the least coveted place for guards to be assigned. Conover’s nuanced take shifts between his personal story of figuring out how to do his job on the prison gallery, and the broad picture of how Sing Sing was built by prisoners and became New York’s go-to execution site. Conover wrestles with how to be an ethical journalist while trying to stay safe and sane as he spends his waking hours behind the wall. His self-questioning raises the stakes of Newjack, bringing a fraught human center to a story of how prisons dehumanize both inmates and guards.
2. Salvador – Joan Didion. Salvador is crafted out of a series of essays Didion wrote for The New York Review of Books, narrated from the heart of El Salvador’s civil war in 1982, a particularly terrifying war that was directly linked to U.S. foreign policy. Didion is interested in how murder and torture – locally and abroad – are used as a political lever. For the U.S., El Salvador was one of the final sites for the war against Cold War communism. Didion brings her sharp eye to how this played out, where the “dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted….” She looks at both the “ghost resorts on the empty Pacific beaches,” and the “body dumps” that have materialized – for those who haven’t disappeared entirely. Less detailed history and more eyewitness reporting, Didion brings heft to Salvador by interviewing the country’s puppet president and analyzing what democracy looks like, compared to what it actually is.