The announcement of the finalists for the National Book Award has prompted me to do some thinking about my craft, and my field. As I mentioned in my last post, I sincerely feel humbled by the honor, because there are so many outstanding nonfiction books that have been published this year. The judges can only select five finalists, and then can only select one winner. That is a staggering challenge—and I would be an idiot if I didn't feel humility at being selected for the final five.
That's probably a good sign for the long-form narrative—that is, the book. The culture of the written word faces challenges on all sides, yet it remains robust. The process of winnowing the field down to five naturally calls to mind the scores of remarkable works that were not selected, reminding us that the field is strong, that the art and craft of writing is healthy.
I've been pondering why this is so, in our age of the famously short attention span. My answer, in terms of nonfiction, is that the book offers an almost infinitely flexible, expandable form for combining truth and beauty. Here, intense scholarship can be combined with literary art, and each can enhance the other. Honest and searching analysis can be combined with narrative entertainment; probing questions about the world can be asked amid a fast-paced, suspenseful story. The full and complex humanity of real characters can be developed alongside hard-headed examinations of larger issues—the structure of society, or the emergence of new technology, or the changing natural world.
In the fathomless depths of a few hundred pages, a scientist can be a poet, an entertainer can be a scholar, an artist can be an analyst, without sacrificing one role for the other.
Like every other nonfiction writer, I have been asked if I ever plan to write fiction. I guess it could happen—but it is hardly necessary. When I look around at other writers, I see that I have hardly scratched the surface of what can be accomplished in nonfiction.