I am not the first person to lament the decline in book readership. Regular readers of this blog will also know that I have, more than once, addressed the cultural value and importance of serious reading and serious texts for a variety of reasons. Fear not: this won’t become an after-school special, a soporific good-for-you message. This isn't going to be a rant on the decline of reading. Not precisely, anyway.
Let's review the title of this blog. "A journalist and a novelist walk into a bar…"
The thing is, there isn't a punchline. The set-up presumes a hierarchy, a preferential position of one over the other, waiting to be defined by the end of the joke. Instead, I think the two professionals named in the headline serve different purposes and those purposes are not precisely what you're thinking. I’ll explain.
Journalism matters. It matters so much that it requires a special pride of place in culture. Reporters are witnesses to things that most of us do not have an opportunity to experience or analyze for ourselves, but nonetheless require proper observation, analysis, and retelling. Reporters have huge responsibilities, and live lives that the rest of us must respect and appreciate. The fourth estate has passed through many phases to arrive at a moment where just a handful of exemplary news outlets are even capable of doing what they do so well. High quality news is like ballet: merely owning a ballet school and catering to casual students does not confer choreographic greatness on all who pass through the doors.
News is the rudder to free societies, and the instigator of curiosity, motivation, and ethics. It’s sad and disturbing that only a handful of news outlets these days are truly superb and motivated to pursue exemplary journalistic craft. I’m not about to launch into a review of their elite number here. But the thing is that news and it's sibling, scribbling academic enterprise called history describe only one type of recorded truth. They both purport to trade in facts, or at least a set of facts refracted through mature and professional lenses, with images and ideas placed in appropriate context.
That brings me to novelists. Or more accurately, that’s why there are novelists. That’s also why there’s a reason news and novels must be regarded in tandem. One does not exist without the other.
Just as not all food is nutritious, not all journalism is equivalently informative or insightful. The same applies to fiction. The ideal value of fiction overall is to provide synthetic truths once circumstances and mores have passed into culture. It's impossible to write fiction without working knowledge and experience about the narrative terrain of a story. Fiction demands specificity. It requires an understanding of place and character, mechanics and motivations. While fiction is always a depiction of somebody’s imagined reality, that imagination can only spring from exposure to the real world. Fiction refracts culture, thus enabling us to better understand the truth about the world in which we live. It’s only by reading fictional accounts based on astute observations and synthesis of the world that facts take on any substantial value. Where reporting plays the vital role of collecting data about the world, fiction becomes the experimental laboratory for understanding it. Journalism chronicles life and it’s implications; fiction presents life’s value and meaning. Where reporting demands doctrinal integrity to bring stories to light, fiction presents one of the only safe places to actually push and pull the world into shapes we want to safely test.
Homer’s ancient tales are fictional depictions. Jason and Troy and the Aegean Sea may have narrative hooks in real events and places, even if the central plot concerns a narratively embellished war at a historically hazy city. Doesn’t matter at all: the epic tales themselves have a heft and relevance because they describe similar events. They tell stories that audiences understand with clarity and perspective and relevance. As a synthesis of war and conquest, Homer tells news even as he offers a safe place to consider the the implication of that news. To claim that Homer’s story “isn’t true”, that it’s just “made up”, is to miss the value proposition. Sure: it’s made up. But it’s also as real as anything else we think we know.
That experimental space of narrative invention is simultaneously the great dividing line between fiction and journalism, as well as the bridge between the two camps. Where journalism trades in carefully considered observations, backed up by sources and evidence, fiction makes sense of how received information fits into a larger cultural context. Where journalism digs up hard-to-reach raw minerals, fiction polishes them into jewels.
Purity in each camp presents challenges. I come from a family of journalists and I worked as one for a time, too. As they say, news is in the blood. I regard reporting and it's many components as vital to a healthy culture. It’s essential and it’s noble. But as a close critic of the news world as well as a devoted consumer, news by itself is inadequate to understand the world in which we live. The old saying is that journalism is only the first chapter in history. I’ll agree. That said, fiction fills in many of the gaps. It does not tell history per se, although it certainly has a role in recounting historical events, but fiction has the ability to synthesize. In holding up a mirror to ourselves we don’t see ourselves. We see a reflection. Where journalism tells us about events happening in the world, fiction depicts the implications. Where fiction posits alternative solutions to present circumstances, news reports on the influences of those thought experiments.
A healthy culture cannot long survive without a rich, resourceful, and reliable engine for both.