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.
3. Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America – Barbara Ehrenreich. Famed for her book Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich has more tricks up her sleeve. In Bright-sided she begins with what now seems like a prescient critique of the “pink-ribbon industry” championed by the likes of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, where women are told to stay constantly positive if they want to be cured. This cues Ehrenreich to trace the history of an American optimism that is now all but mandatory. “Hope is an emotion … optimism is a cognitive stance,” she writes. Her investigation moves through the history of Christian Science healing to the prosperity gospel at today’s mega-churches. She looks at how positive thinking is dubiously located in academia as “positive psychology.” Most urgently, Ehrenreich questions why motivational speaking and self-help books skyrocketed in popularity just as corporations made downsizing a habit in the 1990s. In her inspiring call for clarity and realism, she points out the high stakes: it was the tendency to shut out opinions that were anything less than sunny, that led to the Wall Street financial crisis.
4. The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media – Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld. Styled as a graphic novel – er, illustrated journalism – The Influencing Machine is a collaboration by the co-host of WNYC’s popular “On the Media” and the acclaimed artist of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. The Influencing Machine is a fascinating narrative that takes the bipartisan blaming of "the media” for all our woes and puts it in context of two millennia of journalistic history. Gladstone takes us through Mayan public relations to ancient Rome’s political newsletters, from England’s newspaper ban in the 1600s to Revolution-era subsides for journalism in America. We move at a quick clip right on through the 1917 Espionage Act, McCarthyism, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and beyond. Along the way, Gladstone, who serves as the smart and wry narrator of the book, introduces us to provocative ideas, such as the seven kinds of media bias we should be thinking about. (Hint: liberal/conservative bias is not included.)
5. “Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?” – Atul Gawande, The New Yorker. In this 2010 article, Gawande looks head-on at the moral and physical struggles of end-of-life care. It’s a matter that’s personal for him: he is a Boston surgeon who is perfectly typical in his difficulties talking about death with terminally ill patients. How does a physician balance the effort to prolong life with the fact that most of us would prefer a death that is peaceful and non-medicalized? Gawande brings scrutiny and intelligence to a story that moves through the experience of several different kinds of patients, from a young woman who learns she has cancer when she is 39 weeks pregnant to a 72-year-old woman with multiple health problems who relies on an oxygen tank.
6. “A Murder Foretold: Unraveling the Ultimate Political Conspiracy” – David Grann, The New Yorker. This 2011 story of assassination and corruption reads like a thriller. The focus is on the death of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a high-profile lawyer in Guatemala who passionately investigated the death of one of his clients and the client’s daughter. After receiving a series of death threats, Rosenberg is shot in the head while riding his bike. At his funeral, one of Rosenberg’s friends – a famed spy – announces that the dead man left behind a video that was intended to air only if he had been killed. In that video, Rosenberg announces that he has been murdered by President Álvaro Colom, with the help of the president’s secretary. Is this true? Grann’s narrative of what happened next is full of surprise reversals and profound beauty, set amidst a nation’s teetering lawlessness.
7. The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World – Michelle Goldberg. More relevant than ever in a political season defined by backlash on reproductive rights, Goldberg’s groundbreaking investigation puts the political stakes of women’s health in full context. The Means of Reproduction spans four continents and five decades in a concise book of about 250 pages. Goldberg takes a storyteller’s stance, following the complicated people at the center of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, female circumcision, overpopulation, infant mortality, and abortion rights. She is interested in how the struggle to control reproduction intersects with the struggle for political and global power: global family planning, after all, was once a celebrated policy when the U.S. wanted to stave off population growth in poor countries during the Cold War. But when the political winds shifted, so did policy. Both eye-opening and entertaining, Goldberg captures the lives of women caught at the center of the power grabs. “What’s at stake are not lifestyles but lives,” she writes.
8. "The Intelligence Question: Are Black People Stupid?" -- Flora Johnson, Chicago Reader. This 1980 article with the provoking headline may be one of the most insightful pieces the Reader has ever published. A federal court is examining whether or not IQ tests are racist, and thus whether schools are inappropriately placing too many black students in special education classes. Johnson combines the drama of a courtroom with a nuanced history of IQ measurements, the real-life experience of kids attending all-black schools in Chicago, and the condescending expectations of white reformers. This is an article that refuses the safety of taking sides. Johnson has a fiercely thoughtful ambivalence that makes for uncomfortable reading. Who are the stupid people? Who are the smart ones? Are IQ tests useful? What do we want to measure in each other? Are all these questions the same question?
9. The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Death, and America’s Dilemma – Alex Kotlowitz. One of the small towns in the title, St. Joseph, is where I grew up. I first read this book on the defensive. Who was Kotlowitz to use my town as a lens to examine the unsettled and mortal stakes of modern-day racism? But in all the important ways, I had to admit that Kotlowitz gets it right in The Other Side of the River. He investigates the tension between St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan. St. Joseph is a relatively prosperous tourist town famed for its Lake Michigan beaches. Benton Harbor is nearly all black; St. Joseph is nearly all white. When the body of a Benton Harbor teen is found in the river that divides the towns, Kotlowitz goes to work examining the mysterious cause of Eric McGinnis’ death – a death shrouded by the very different vantages held by citizens on either side of the river.
10. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – Michael Pollan. Don’t let its popularity push you away; Pollan’s most celebrated book is a brilliant account of the how, why and where of American eating habits. He traces the political, social, moral, and – lest we forget – joyful stakes of our dinner choices. Pollan follows each link on the fast food, organic, industrial, hunted, and foraged food chains to create this absorbing narrative. He travels from food science labs to hunting grounds, feedlots to grass farms. Pollan’s humor and engaging cast of characters lightens the book’s provocative questions and meticulous research.