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Novels 'better at explaining world's problems than reports'
November 13, 2008 3:21 PM   Subscribe

Novels are 'better at explaining world's problems than reports'. According to the study "The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge" (HTML or PDF), people should read best-selling novels like The Kite Runner and The White Tiger rather than academic reports if they really want to understand global issues, such as poverty, migration and other issues.
Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner "has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and thereafter than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research", said the report. It also praised the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, for its "passionate depiction of the perils and pitfalls of rampant capitalism in contemporary India". The novel "deftly highlights the social injustice and moral corruption that underpin the country's apparently miraculous economic development during the past decade," it said.
posted by stbalbach (60 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
According to friends who have read the book, you should read The Kite Runner if you want to see graphic ass-rape treated as a plot device and puzzle over the implausible actions of main characters who seem to exist purely as agents of unearned pathos.
posted by klangklangston at 3:31 PM on November 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


**Nerdy English major vindication dance**
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:32 PM on November 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


Or, you could always do what most people who are interested in these issues do: Read good non-fiction books, often written by journalists. But this comes across as like saying that people should read XKCD instead of Fermat's Theorem to understand the lives of nerds.
posted by klangklangston at 3:33 PM on November 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'd like to think we learned our lesson about using fiction as a basis for global understanding during the Bush Administration.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:34 PM on November 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I agree. And with klangklanston. Unearned pathos vs. cartoonish evil characters in re: Kite Runner.

For historical fiction, I prefer Anthony Burgess. Or Leon Uris. Or Nikos Kazantzakis for ancient times. But I don't read much of it.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:39 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think that if the choice is between academic reports and good fiction, many readers ARE going to get more out of a novel; the average everyday person is not going to go anywhere near an academic report, whereas presenting world issues as the background to a good story is a painless way for people to learn something... and maybe even to become empathetic towards people they formerly felt they couldn't identify with.
posted by OolooKitty at 3:42 PM on November 13, 2008


If you want to persuade people of your argument, use narrative. Humans think in narratives.

If you want to understand the truth yourself, consume non-fiction information and analysis. Study facts and statistics.
posted by alasdair at 3:43 PM on November 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


Unfortunately, The White Tiger has been roundly criticized for it's broadly stereotypical portrayal of Indian life.
posted by Brittanie at 3:46 PM on November 13, 2008


Ah, this takes me back to university and my non-Western History requirement. I, Rigoberta Menchú: Fact or Fiction?

Answer: realistic fiction that won Menchú a Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, but if I want to know what's really going on in Guatemala, I'll ask my mother-in-law and read a good non-fiction book.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:51 PM on November 13, 2008


We find that not only are certain works of fiction ‘better’ than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development, but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential. (Emphasis mine.)

Good luck making sure everyone picks the right works.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:52 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


The final paper at the Journal of Development Studies is here.

Not sure how Fermat's Theorem--or any other mathematical theorem--could be construed as a better window into the "lives of nerds" than XKCD, klangklangston, although I agree that Kite Runner is perhaps not the best novel out there.
posted by col_pogo at 3:53 PM on November 13, 2008


The Kite Runner is a straw man. Yes, it's not the bestest example evar -- it was chosen not because it's a good novel, but because it's topical. Please put it out of your mind, and consider instead novels like, oh, I don't know, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, or Midnight's Children. My experience has been that good novels are unbelievably great at:

- getting me interested enough in another place/time/culture to actually go do some additional research
- giving me a sense of that world -- a mental model which helps me to better understand and remember the additional factual knowlege which I find in my research

They don't need to be completely factually accurate to do this -- they just need to be vivid, and roughly true to some kind of essence of that world. Sometimes, a really well-written non-fiction book can do the same thing (for instance, A Savage War of Peace definitely gave me that world-sense), but at its best, a novel is the best way to get it. Actually, I'm kind of shocked that somebody had to commission a study to "discover" this fact.
posted by ourobouros at 3:56 PM on November 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


But stereotypes make stories easier to understand! If I can't comprehend hundreds of years of the the history that went into making a place or a people who or what they are today from some dusty professor of dead stuff, how do you expect me to care enough about all the different people who inhabit a region today?

As ourobouros noted, (well-selling) books of fiction set in foreign lands tend to make things easy to understand by making daily life more basic and easy to follow. Hopefully, someone who is vaguely interested in Afghanistan will read The Kite Runner then want to know more and look for engaging works of non-fiction. Not everyone wants to get pulled into the real details of a place, otherwise Kite Runner and White Tiger wouldn't sell so well. These books might also sell because someone might think they look more "worldly" when reading a well-known "worldly book" (nothing sells books like selling book).
posted by filthy light thief at 4:03 PM on November 13, 2008


klangklangston, I was going to make the same point. It's a silly book that has received so much attention because of its topicality (life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule!), as already noted in the thread. Although I am slightly interested in seeing the movie adaptation for the surely comical rape scene. Fuck The Kite Runner, fuck it right in the ass!
posted by Curry at 4:06 PM on November 13, 2008


Ourobouros, they're not so much "discovering" this as trying to convince development professionals "to include fictional representations of development issues within the scope of what they consider to be ‘proper’ forms of development knowledge." I think they have an uphill struggle ahead of them, since I suspect most people's reaction will be closer to alasdair's than yours, but maybe I'm underestimating all the development practitioners out there.
posted by col_pogo at 4:07 PM on November 13, 2008


I'd like to think we learned our lesson about using fiction as a basis for global understanding government policy during the Bush Administration.

FTFY.

I haven't read The Kite Runner, but it's certainly possible for a novel to be hokey, melodramatic and simplistic while also contributing to readers' sympathetic understanding of the world. No one (well, almost no one) would put Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jungle on a list of the world's greatest novels, but on a list of novels with the greatest and most positive social impact they would rank pretty high. Informing people about the world is one of the many things that fiction can do; succeeding as well-crafted works of art is another. Those goals aren't incompatible, but it's probably better not to use art as a stick to beat education with (even if that education is often simplistic and sentimental).

Or, you could always do what most people who are interested in these issues do: Read good non-fiction books, often written by journalists.

Or, you know, both. Different kinds of books convey different kinds of knowledge.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 4:07 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am sorry, but I don't agree with this. For every one person who reads a novel and chooses to pursue an interest in a cause/culture/country they previously didn't care to know about, there are hundreds of readers who just take what they read as a true representation of the cause/culture/country and then are potentially misinformed for the rest of their lives.

Or: the amount of people who took this book to be a true represenation rather than pure bs.
posted by Megami at 4:11 PM on November 13, 2008


Why of course this is true, for example Michael Crichton's "State of Fear" was much better at explaining global warming than the IPCC reports.
posted by sien at 4:20 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Curry, that comment made me sick.
posted by lazaruslong at 4:20 PM on November 13, 2008


Does this include books with dragons on the cover?
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:20 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


For all you non-fiction purists: do you really think non-fiction is exempt from the same risks of misinterpretation? I've read hundreds of long-form journalism articles and non-fiction books with definitive slants, biases and plain old lies. The only difference is that the reader is divested of any mental precautions and caveats they would take with an imagined story and can now haplessly mistake the writer's errors and leanings as an objective account.
posted by zoomorphic at 4:21 PM on November 13, 2008


I learned a lot more from the The Road than a powerpoint presentation. Al Gore just doesn't have the fire.
posted by ageispolis at 4:25 PM on November 13, 2008


Just read the Telegraph account. As usual, they miss the point rather spectacularly, as does their pet expert from the Adam Smith Institute. I don't think the authors were ever arguing that "fiction should replace factual, evidence-based analysis," but that more forms of knowledge need to be addressed and made use of in conjunction with those reports--for much the same reasons as Ourobouros outlined.

There are of course novels that don't give us any useful understanding of the world (Crichton, books with dragons on the cover), but that's not to say that all novels are useless.

At least one of the authors has substantial experience at the World Bank and with quantitative work, if that helps persuade anybody that they probably have some idea what they're talking about.
posted by col_pogo at 4:30 PM on November 13, 2008


"Not sure how Fermat's Theorem--or any other mathematical theorem--could be construed as a better window into the "lives of nerds" than XKCD, klangklangston, although I agree that Kite Runner is perhaps not the best novel out there."

Of course it couldn't. Even reading Wiles final proof wouldn't necessarily tell you much about Wiles. But that doesn't mean that the best way to learn about mathematicians (or dweebs or goobers, groups that are not congruent but do overlap) is by reading XKCD.

The best way is by watching Revenge of the Nerds.
posted by klangklangston at 4:31 PM on November 13, 2008


The difference between fiction and nonfiction is that nonfiction has no obligation to tell a story or conform to narrative conventions. Which is nice, because reality doesn't conform to narrative conventions.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:36 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'd like to think we learned our lesson about using fiction as a basis for global understanding during the Bush Administration.

Well, oddly enough I think I've gained quite a bit of insight into the workings of the Bush administration by reading Woodward's books on the subject. Although they are nonfiction they are written in the sort of narrative form that gives the reader information as though he/she were a fly on the wall, as opposed to explicitly engaging in deep analysis.
posted by clevershark at 4:36 PM on November 13, 2008


"For all you non-fiction purists: do you really think non-fiction is exempt from the same risks of misinterpretation? I've read hundreds of long-form journalism articles and non-fiction books with definitive slants, biases and plain old lies. The only difference is that the reader is divested of any mental precautions and caveats they would take with an imagined story and can now haplessly mistake the writer's errors and leanings as an objective account."

Pish tosh. Creating a hypothetical reader who is sophisticated enough to look for bias in fiction but not in non-fiction is a red herring. But then, I think that there are fewer non-fiction purists than people who argue that non-fiction is a superior way of REPORTING LIFE AS IT IS than fiction is. I don't argue that fictions and abstractions and analogies and allegories can all help improve comprehension and understanding, but the point that reportage is inherently fact-based should trump the fact that fiction isn't.

Also, I'm a journalist, so take that as you will. ;)
posted by klangklangston at 4:40 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sorry klang, but "The Big Bang Theory" has usurped "Revenge of the Nerds" as definitive information source. Monday Nights on CBS, right before "How I Met Your Mother", the definitive source of information on spouse detection.

And if there are two words that refute everything that has been said about the informative value of fiction, they are "Ayn Rand".
posted by wendell at 4:41 PM on November 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


And if there are two words that refute everything that has been said about the informative value of fiction, they are "Ayn Rand".

Oh, this will... never mind.
posted by clevershark at 4:46 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


This article failed to persuade me, but the novel Paton's Plea, a coming of age story set during an informative reading of Cry, The Beloved Country, managed to bring me around.
posted by Iridic at 4:47 PM on November 13, 2008


I'm sorry, I can't understand this article. Can someone point me to the short story version?
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:03 PM on November 13, 2008


Curry, that comment made me sick.

My point precisely. Does reading a topical novel help me empathize with the horrors of ass rape? No, I have a butthole and an imagination. I get it.

BTW: "fictional narrative" = redundant.
posted by Curry at 5:03 PM on November 13, 2008


I was going to get all pissed off at this Thread for smoking the Red Herring sauce so hard, but then I realized that the OP is to blame for mischaracterizing the subject of his or her own post. The article is totally not about fiction being better at explaining the world than reports... This is a possibly helpful selection from p. 5 of the PDF:

"The argument that we are trying to make here is not that academic or policy
approaches to development are necessarily wrong or flawed, nor is it that we think novelists should be put in charge of development ministries. Rather, our point is that the policy and academic literature of development often constructs development problems in a way that
justify the response of the particular policies they advocate (Ferguson, 1990; Escobar, 1995; Mitchell, 2002), and that the way this literature is framed therefore makes a significant difference."

This Thread needs to make a nice batch of cookies then sit down and read the darn article.
posted by facetious at 5:26 PM on November 13, 2008 [7 favorites]


Nonfiction has no obligation to tell a story or conform to narrative conventions.

I've read plenty of fiction writers who similarly feel no such obligation. Not saying they were always enjoyable to read . . .
posted by thivaia at 5:27 PM on November 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Does this mean it no longer matters if The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge was completely fabricated or not?
posted by maxwelton at 5:27 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would snark about this, but... The Wire.
posted by Benjy at 5:30 PM on November 13, 2008


people should read best-selling novels like The Kite Runner and The White Tiger rather than academic reports if they really want to understand global issues, such as poverty, migration and other issues.

Richard price's Lush Life can likewise tell you more about the state of our cities than any essay or report. But then again that's one of the functions of art and literature, to help explain the world we find ourselves in.
posted by jonmc at 5:36 PM on November 13, 2008


BTW: "fictional narrative" = redundant.

BTW: wrong.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:50 PM on November 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Personally, my view of the world is informed almost exclusively by Clive Cussler's Inca Gold.
posted by brundlefly at 5:52 PM on November 13, 2008


Ezra Pound once said "Literature is news that stays news."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:53 PM on November 13, 2008


Fiction can tell you things that reports can't? People who read fiction don't need this report to tell them that.
posted by painquale at 6:02 PM on November 13, 2008


facetious, what you've quoted is the argument of one of the paper's four sections (well, five if you count the "Recommended Reading List of Literary Fiction on Development"). The larger point of the paper is better represented by the passage col_pogo cited: "to lay down a challenge to practitioners and academics within the field to include fictional representations of development issues within the scope of what they consider to be ‘proper’ forms of development knowledge" (p. 2).

In the service of that goal, they argue that the formal literature of social science has its own narrative conventions and that "the line between literature and the social sciences" can be "a very fine one" (p. 3). So I don't think the discussion here is too off-base, though as usual there is more talk of anal rape than one might hear at an academic conference (at least the ones I frequent).
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:14 PM on November 13, 2008


I thought Michael Crighton died last week...
posted by mannequito at 6:18 PM on November 13, 2008


Bringing up DaVinci code before someone else does...
posted by 7segment at 7:07 PM on November 13, 2008


Yeah my impression was simply that (some) fiction has a role and purpose in real life issues and is not just escapist entertainment. As another poster said, this is not news for people who read fiction. Perhaps a better example is Say You're One of Them (2008). This NPR review (audio) by an academic sort of shows the idea in action.
posted by stbalbach at 7:19 PM on November 13, 2008


BTW: "fictional narrative" = redundant.

Except for the part where no, it isn't redundant.

On preview: what Saxon Kane said. drat
posted by tzikeh at 7:23 PM on November 13, 2008


As a guy who does ethnographic / anthropological work, this is sort of the why do things the way we do. Ever since the "crisis of representation" in anthropology in the 80s, there's been an increased emphasis on explaining people and culture through "moments" rather than systematic generalizations. Mind you, these anecdotes aren't (usually) fictional. But the idea is that it's more useful to tell a short story from a moment in a culture/group/scene/whatever, with all of its contradictions and messy details, and then puzzle about how it works at a larger, societal level.

How this applies to the above article, however, is probably a more general point. You can apparently be very "efficient" by packing a whole bunch of issues into a story that the reader can comprehend and hold together in her/his head, and then explain it afterwards by unfolding its details. Kinda like....what's the word?....Parables.
posted by LMGM at 8:11 PM on November 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Most of the time my interest in a work of fiction is inversely proportional to how "realistic" or "topical" it is.
posted by wobh at 8:53 PM on November 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Yes, because fiction exits to show us the world's problems. Exactly. The ghost of Nabokov is telling me to garrote you all.
posted by Football Bat at 9:06 PM on November 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


So they're saying we should be reading Ivanhoe for foreign lands?

Given the insistence I find in making nonfiction adhere to (often silly) narratives, we may already be reading Ivanhoe anyway.

I was at a conference given by a journalist on "election coverage". He gave out some good tips, but the one that impressed me most was how he insisted that we needed to find the "turning point" of an election.

I've seen Ranke accused of the same thing (I haven't read Ranke) about the history of France: making up a turning point (during the wars of religion, if I recall) because it was narratively convenient.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:20 PM on November 13, 2008


BTW: "fictional narrative" = redundant.

BTW: wrong.

posted by Saxon Kane at 7:50 PM on November 13

I respectfully disagree with your disagreement. In my opinion, any narrative is inherently a fiction. Let me be clear that when I refer to fiction I am not drawing a distinction between established facts and invented details, but am maintaining division between subjective perception and truth, capitalized or not. To say it another way, any story we make up to describe the world as we perceive it is exactly that, and thus a fiction. A narrative or "story" is a linguistic construct that describes a sequence of events. A narrative is a form superimposed over a contingent world to make some sense out of it. I think another definition of narrative would be the projection of meaning onto events. And meaning resides solely within the self-referential loop of language. Yet another way of defining narrative (as I mean to use it): a subjective, artistic interpretation of existential experiences. The narrative(s) you ascribe to the events of your life are similarly fictional. The identity you construct for yourself and your “life” is an invented story, and what is the objective "truth" of this story? There is none to be found, it is a fiction.

Yet another way: a narrative is comprised of symbols, and any absolute truth would necessarily reside outside of the symbolic domain, being the referent of symbols.

Language is self-referential; it is a closed system, and "reality" is not included in the system. Language is self-contained, it has a circular nature. There is no extent connection between language and the reality that language attempts to describe. All language or a narrative can do is point or refer to the perceived "truth" of the situation. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal. We lose sight of this because we dwell daily in language; we have been conditioned to confuse symbol for substance.

There are limitations inherent in narrative and language. Various philosophers have posited that "to say everything is impossible." Jacques Lacan and Robert Anton Wilson are two that I am familiar with. Can a “true” narrative contain omissions, thereby being incomplete? How much factual detail would be required to have a “true” narrative of a sequence of events? I have found that certain levels of experience demonstrate the futility of using intellectual/linguistic constructs to describe the ineffable experiences of existence. Rational mind can only take you so far. Philosophy buffs, please school me if I am mistaken.

But my main point is, fuck the Kite Runner, fuck it right in the ass.

Nothing is true. All is permitted. - Hasan i Sabbah
posted by Curry at 9:26 PM on November 13, 2008


But isn't this why campaigns against poverty often have ads or sections on their website telling the story of an invidual person? eg "Mandula was 16 when the floods hit her town - instead of going to her high-school dance the way you would have done at her age, she was saving her 3 younger siblings from their flooded village" or what have you.

Dry statistics are hard to take in - millions of lives lost, hundreds of cattle gone, a billion particles of greenhouse gas emissions. A story gives the numbers some life - we can put ourselves in another person's shoes to understand their lives in relation to our own. We comprehend the problem and the solution better when it's distilled to something manageable.

I don't see why this is so laughable an idea - it's worked before. In the same way that getting to know a gay person can help a bigot lose their misconceptions, but for situations where you might not have a village of poor people on your doorstep, or might be too scared to talk to a refugee or a migrant. So you read a book set in a war-torn country and learn a little more about it - not enough to become an expert on international diplomacy, but maybe enough to have some compassion and be supportive of efforts to help.
posted by harriet vane at 9:42 PM on November 13, 2008


Step 1 for improving reports' ability to explain the world's problems:

Make the damn things browser readable!


Why the hell can't people co-release papers as html and pdf? It would make it easier to read and quote, especially for bloggers, at the loss of a bit of formatting. pdf's have their pluses and adherents, but sometimes I'm just curious and want to follow up on a quote or factoid; if I have to load a pdf, that's a inconvenience cost I'm sometimes not willing to pay.

This study is a prime example. pdf, and google html-cache of pdf rather than real html.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:21 PM on November 13, 2008


Curry:

You are basically arguing that the notion of truth is incoherent, because there is no objectively verifiable similarity between the "external world" and the linguistic world of symbols. You are saying that the "closed world" of language is conceptually incomparable with the "external world."

I think this a flawed interpretation of the notion of truth. You are trivially correct that our words refer only to other words, and that we cannot "prove" any similarity in structure between language and reality. We can also trivially say that we never deal with the external world, but only with our subjective perceptions of the world. (See Cartesian doubt.)

But to say a symbol or statement is "true" is not to say that it is analogous to some chunk of "external reality" under some objective similarity between the world and language. That "relation of similarity" is not at all objective, and is instead a vast agreement or consensus between a linguistic community.

Everyone's symbolic model of the reality they perceive is unique. And everyone's model is always being refined and tweaked. We say that statements or words are "true" if they hold in enough people's individual models. Severely delusional people are said to have "untrue" beliefs because they statements they make about their symbolic model does not hold in other people's models.

Here's another example. Is the following statement true or false? "Football is a sport played with a spherical ball." It's true in the linguistic models of certain individuals (British folks, for instance) and false in the models of others (Americans).

Ultimately, though, I think it's fruitless to bemoan that we really only deal with symbols and perceptions, and not with "absolute reality" as such. The "purpose" of a linguistic model is not to meticulously catalog the structure of perceived reality, but to enable us to alter that reality in the ways we want, which usually means in a predictable way. We usually say that a symbol or statement is "true" if we can use it for this purpose. For the most part, human languages are good at doing this -- we worry much more about WHAT we want to do instead of whether or not our language will allow us to do it. Thus our linguistic symbols, though distinct from the universe they attempt to model, can be largely said to be "true."

Don't know what this has to do with the fiction vs. nonfiction debate.
posted by DLWM at 6:10 AM on November 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Will no one come to the defense of posey?

(ducks)
posted by The Whelk at 8:25 AM on November 14, 2008


a narrative is comprised of symbols, and any absolute truth would necessarily reside outside of the symbolic domain, being the referent of symbols.

posted by Curry at 9:26 PM on November 13 [+] [!]


What is this "outside" you speak of?
posted by kaspen at 11:38 AM on November 14, 2008


Simple solution. Format every report thusly:

The old man hefted the document, feeling the smooth plastic cover cool against his skin. Pausing for a moment, he opened the thick report and began to read.

::300 page report on water resource management in India::

Gently turning the last page, the old man leaned back in his chair. Gazing wistfully out over the calm green sea, he sighed.


posted by Sangermaine at 1:46 PM on November 14, 2008 [4 favorites]


What is this "outside" you speak of?
posted by kaspen at 1:38 PM on November 14


The place where that question comes from is "outside" the symbolic realm. It cannot be quantified, and defies categorization, but it can be known or experienced.
posted by Curry at 1:00 PM on November 15, 2008


Curry:

Ah. I misunderstood your comment. I thought you were drawing a simple distinction between fiction and non-fiction, as though a fictional narrative were untrue while a non-fictional narrative were true; or that you were saying that non-fiction does not rely on narrative, but fiction does. I do agree with you that every narrative, whether based on "facts" or not, is fictional.

Peace out.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:08 PM on November 16, 2008


"Ah. I misunderstood your comment."

I also misunderstood it. I thought he was piecing together a piss-take pastiche of lit crit bullshit…
posted by klangklangston at 2:13 PM on November 17, 2008


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