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Journalism and the non-fiction novel 25.XII.2005 03:44
This week, I saw the excellent film Capote, which I would recommend solely on the strength of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance, though the film is quite good in its own right. The film concerns the writing of In Cold Blood, Capote's famous 'non-fiction novel' about the murders of a Kansas family and its effect on the town - and the murderers. I'll admit I've not read the book, but its revolutionary insight is clearly demonstrated in the passages read in the film - it takes the very real events of the murders and describes them not in the clipped and dispassionate language of journalism but the fluid and beautiful one of literature. The images of the text are quite haunting, and it's easy to see why In Cold Blood catapulted Capote to fame: the combination of verisimilitude and art combined to make an astounding work.

The catch is that the only events that can be captured in a literary way are ones which are inherently literary; the events of In Cold Blood have full disclosure and a complete story arc, as real events so seldom do. In fact, Capote describes the repeated stays in the murderers' executions as a torture; they deprive his book of its necessary ending, and it is with great (though somewhat guilt-ridden) relief that he hears of their execution. Truman Capote's insight was to show the real world through the gorgeous, empathetic lens of literature, and it is this which made the book so resonant. Unfortunately, much modern journalism has followed a parallel course, not as an after-effect of In Cold Blood, but tapping into the same emotions. Today, however, the lens applied is not that of the great novel, but of the predictable page-turner, and events are not found to fit the moulds of literature, but forced into them. The lens through which we see is adjusted until it shows a specific type of picture.

I remember, in high school history, someone or other gave a presentation on 'film as the mirror of society.' Then, as now, I thought that any such suggestion was nonsense - if anything, film is a reflection of how society wants to see itself. Unfortunately, most people instinctively do see film in this way, to a greater or lesser extent - I can't count the number of social customs I've picked up from film and emulated, assuming somewhat subconsciously that this is how most people actually behave. This instinct, combined with the desire for reality to confirm views you already hold, has had a devastating effect on the media - people are so used to life being portrayed as it is on film, this is now how the news is displayed. In Cold Blood is an anomaly because Capote was able to discover the inherent literary nature of the murders, and understood the necessity to wait for that nature to be complete at the killers' executions. Today, however, the media, especially television news, work on viewers' assumptions that the story-like qualities are already there - and present the real world accordingly.

This all came to mind as I watched CNN today, finding its human-interest stories completely insufferable. The news pieces, despite being completely factual, bore so little relation to reality it was painful to watch. The most infuriating was the 'one year on' coverage of the tsunami - the lead piece was about the women who had had babies since the tsunami hit, demonstrating (apparently) that the Human Spirit had once again Triumphed over Adversity, and these women, imbued with hope, had decided to have children, proving once and for all that the forces of good in the world are the most powerful. The Asian tsunami, whose victims remain in horrific straits, is played in the US media like a disaster movie, with wonderfully redemptive stories of hope and compassion. This is done not just because people want the world to be this way, but because they really think it is - and will suffer no evidence to the contrary. The people wanted to believe and the media gave them what they wanted, and now its a vicious cycle that seems impossible to break. Keats may have written that 'truth is beauty, and beauty truth', but only rarely is truth such that beauty can be seen in it, and it takes a skilled hand to perform the feat. But people have come to expect beauty from truth - and our 'reliable' information sources have no qualms about feeding such a vision.

The most important facet of reality is that it is uncompromising. It does not bow to our hopes, or our fears, or our desires. It is faceless and detached, never benign or malicious but merely indifferent. Truth is not only imperfect, but elusive: it is effectively impossible to truly know the truth of a situation, even though most news organisation's presentations are instinctively dogmatic, events play out one way, just as in a film. In reality, one is left with the same feeling one gets after watching the excellent documentary Capturing the Friedmans - you've experienced the emotional turmoil of horrific accusations of child molestation, but are left with the kind of mystery of their truth that life almost always leaves. Yet films with their simple story arcs have brought us an expectation that most journalism emulates - that facts are relatively clean cut, and that stories are stories with beginnings and conclusions, characters, and progress, and human development. Life isn't like that - deep down, we all know it - but the news is.

The story is a universal human experience, shared by societies since prehistory, and its appeal is shared by the most complex of novels and the simplest of anecdotes. But life is so rarely like a story, because we are not given an omniscient narrator, nor an author painting a picture he wishes us to see. Life isn't always unpleasant - far from it - but it is usually untidy; but while the media will expose us to unpleasant events, it has no patience for complicated and ambiguous ones ones. The news has become like its own reality, sharing facts with the real world but not reflecting their nature. In Cold Blood was a non-fiction novel that brought out the inherent literary beauty of a single true event, and it remains a fine exercise in journalism, but the non-fiction novel of modern news does nothing of the sort: it compromises its truth for its vision, and it is not great literary works that provide the model, but the easy plotlines of modern film and fiction. To try to get the truth from the news is to try to compensate for the effects of the lens through which they insist we view it, and that is no easy task, if it is even a possible one. We've become so used to the styles and affectations of film in non-fiction that I find it hard to imagine the news without it - and perhaps media that portray the world as an ambiguous and complicated place could never find success. Nevertheless, we must recognise that the non-fiction novel is so rarely possible, and our efforts at conforming every real event into its mould leave us with things that are neither true nor beautiful, however much they fit into the paradigms we've become accustomed to accepting.
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