30 October 2018

Has Non-Fiction Become Dumber?

Over the past few years I've been reading fewer new books. New fiction is, for the most part, self-indulgent, meaningless narcissism wrapped inside a veneer of pretentious twattery. And non-fiction has taken to become more like fiction.

Take a look at books from a few decades ago. Greats like Isaac Asimov wrote great fiction, and also great non-fiction, and you could tell instantly which genera you were reading. Today that line between fiction and non-fiction has blurred to the point where memoirs contain largely fabricated material and novels contain pages of footnotes and references to news articles and scientific papers.

One great example is The Great Hedge of India by Roy Moxham. You start with a fantastic premise: the second largest man-made barrier the world has ever seen was once a giant thorny hedge that ran across India and today almost no one knows anything about it. Then you read the book and 80% is the author talking about himself, his travels, and his research in writing the book you are now reading. Almost nothing about the book is about the hedge itself, the book is little more than a self-referential exercise in seeing how recursive a book can be by referring to itself and the process of writing it as much as possible.

Or The 37th Parallel by Ben Mezrich. The premise is fantastic: UFO sightings and animal mutilations cluster around the 37th parallel, which is the same area where most secret US military bases are located. You then read the book and you find absolutely nothing on the phenomenon of the 37th parallel until the very last chapter. You find very little about UFOs either. Almost the entire book is about a crazy man who lost his job because he was obsessed with UFOs, the furniture he bought his wife to get her to stop nagging him about his obsession with UFOs, the misadventures he had with his equally crazy sister, and the billionaire frenemy he has who started a top secret corporation that works with the government to build private spacecraft. And it's not even written like a biography, it's written like a novel where the author injects his personal opinions throughout. About 10% of the book is fact, the rest is a story with a plot and characters and a twist ending and melodrama concocted to sell books.

Michael Drosnin's Bible Code series contains a handful of intersting facts about a statistical study of the Torah woven together with a whole heap of narrative about how the author is Indiana Jones and has to save the world. Elaine Pagles' books on early Christian history similarly contain as much narrative about the author's own quest to research and write the books as actual history.

New non-fiction has being transformed into some sort of quasi-fictional "thriller" where a kernel of fact is sewn into a narrative with characters and settings and PG-13 dialogue in order to appeal to the dumbed down twitterati and snap-crackle-and-pop chatters with three second attention spans and fifteen word vocabularies who like mass-market corporate "edgy" comedy vomit. Ten page magazine articles are expanded with loads and loads of filler to create 250 page books so wannabe Hollywood screenwriters can keep their heads above water.