Martha Nussbaum has written an interesting review in the TLS of two books about India. They are Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Siddartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India.
I’ve read and reviewed here the former, and haven’t read the latter. Nussbaum shares my caveat about Boo’s book, namely its use of novelistic techniques. She writes in her review:
“The English novel was a social protest movement from the start, and its aim (like that of many of its American descendants) was frequently to acquaint middle-class people with the reality of various social ills, in a way that would involve real vision and feeling. Dickens wrote of child labour, Frances Trollope of the stigma of illegitimacy, Thomas Hardy of seduction and class exclusion. In some cases novels of social oppression had large consequences….. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath had a comparable impact, educating the American public about the plight of migrant workers and producing support for New Deal legislation.
When the poor are in a distant country, narrative that conveys the texture of daily lives is even more urgently needed.”
But she argues that novelistic techniques should be confined to novels, while non-fiction demands analysis and evidence. She concludes:
“Katherine Boo and Siddhartha Deb could easily have included enough historical and economic analysis to permit their readers to come to some conclusions about such matters, but they did not. The result is that their books have great power to provoke emotion, but little to channel that emotion into constructive political action.”
For myself, I think that’s fine – it’s the author’s prerogative to have a book do only one thing. There’s room on the bookshelf for emotion as well as economics. However, I do agree with Nussbaum that – whatever rhetorical approach is taken – one needs to keep the boundary between fact and fiction clear.