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Neither true nor beautiful

June 26, 2014

A project I have worked on for more than two years has just gone public, and I am enjoying the pleasure that always comes with publication.

A special issue of Journalism: Theory, Practice, Criticism (July 2014; Vol. 15, No. 5) looks at literary journalism, in particular the insights it brings to ethical issues.

I was honoured and happy when Dr Julie Wheelwright invited me to join her in a rewarding stint as guest editors of the long-established journal. The thinking behind the issue, and a summary of the different contributions are provided in the introduction ‘Literary journalism: ethics in three dimensions’.

The experience has fed not just one but two of my obsessions – editing, and the writing of narrative nonfiction.

It has reminded me that the reward of editing comes not just from putting texts out into the world, but also from presenting work in a way that helps it to join a conversation and advance the debate. A text is not just a text: it is changed by the forms and conventions of publishing. A journal article is different from a blog post; an article conceived as part of a larger set is different from a random collection.

It also gave me a chance to think even more deeply about the nature and practice of nonfiction writing, which I teach at the University of Roehampton. In the wider culture, narrative or ‘literary’ nonfiction can be presented as an oddity; it is ‘not’ fiction and ‘like’ fiction. Fiction is the reference point for artistic writing, and any attempt to include narrative nonfiction is perceived as a distortion of its core principles.

My own argument, in one of the journal’s essays, is that the Ur text for these discussions – Aristotle’s Poetics – explicitly does not exclude storytelling that makes a truth claim when it defines the principles of written art. Going further, I say that the telling of true stories can offer the most demanding test of those principles; demanding, and therefore exciting.

Ethics enters into the debate in multiple ways. I am not the first to argue that there can be an affinity between ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘doing it right’. For me, the search for fresh and precise language is a form of detailed reporting and verification and the impulse to avoid cliché has an ethical dimension. Truth and beauty do not have to be opposites.

In passing, as an illustration, I apply the argument to conspiracy narratives. The ethical grounds for criticising conspiracy thinking focus on its unfalsifiable resistance to reason. In Aristotle’s Poetics, reason serves artistic plausibility. Aristotle himself warns that ethics and aesthetics can come into conflict: in life as in art, people tend to prefer the ‘plausible but impossible to the implausible but possible’. But even when the priority is aesthetic, not ethical, the question of what makes something ‘plausible’ is fraught. Conspiracy narratives are saturated with what Aristotle calls ‘false enthymemes’, premises that do not support the conclusion; incomplete chains of logic; exaggeration; confusion of precedence with cause; and a tin ear for ‘relation, aspect and manner’.

There is another aesthetic basis for criticism. For writing that aspires to some sort of success, the Poetics says, it must also create ‘astonishment’ and this requires sophistication in the portrayal of plot and motive. The problem with conspiracy narratives from this point of view is that when they are looked at together as a genre, they are wholly predictable and implausible. If the conspiracy theory is a genre, it is a hoary potboiler.

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