The above question needs to be split into (at least) three. First: What is good writing? Second: What is good nonfiction writing? (I discard, at least for now, a distinction between ‘nonfiction’ and ‘academic’.) Third: What is peculiar about good anthropological nonfiction writing?
We each have our answers to these questions. So why not make it personal: Which were the texts that made an indelible impression on you, and why? Any answer to this question has to be biographical. Many of the people I’ve asked over the years, usually in casual conversation over a drink, talk about books they read in their teens or early twenties. At this age, we are intellectually mature but emotionally volatile, and there is still plenty of free space on our internal hard drives. Anything relevant that comes our way is therefore likely to find a privileged place in our memory.
My unscientific findings can be summmarised roughly like this. The lit crit type would be likely to wax lyrical about the great Russians, Joyce or Proust. The natural scientist type might unashamedly speak about Tolkien or Arthur C. Clarke (very fine authors both in my book, by the way), or even a minor Russian like Ayn Rand (but as you know, those types, if unrepentant, are usually beyond salvation) … but what about the crossover, intellectually hybrid anthropologist type? Hmm… as always, it is impossible to generalise about one’s own people – we are so familiar with each individual tree that we fail to see the forest. It would be interesting to conduct an informal survey among the readers of Savage Minds. Q1: What were the books that changed your life? Q2: Which books (or films) turned you on to anthropology? Give short justifications for each answer, and be honest, it’s not a competition.
Uncritically but voraciously, I read all kinds of trash until my late teens, sometimes stumbling over something good without realising it. At that time, emerging from puberty with an audible sigh of relief, I turned to books on anarchism and green fundamentalism, pessimistic philosophy and novelists/essayists like Orwell, Huxley and Koestler, adding Greene and Naipaul as I ran out, as well as the mandatory bit of Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus (you haven’t lived until you’ve read The Stranger as an eighteen-year old!). There was little art for art’s sake in my life at that time. However, come to think of it, I did have a literary hero in my early twenties. Nowadays considered almost a minor novelist and nearly forgotten in practice, Anthony Burgess represented for me the quintessence of the great writer. His language was exuberant and powerful, his plots were clever and often extremely effective, and he was extremely knowledgeable in a casual way. He wrote pageturners about fascinating subjects such as ancient Christianity and colonial Malaya. It was only when I read Ulysses (on fieldwork in Mauritius) that I realised that Burgess somehow orchestrated a meeting between James Joyce and Harold Robbins. I still think that Burgess’ best books contain everything we try to achieve as writers: to enlighten without being boring, to make the world a larger and more interesting place, and to moralise without creating unproductive guilt-traps.
You may well disagree, and you have your own personal favourites. I no longer read Burgess, but I’m glad I spent formative years doing it. When it comes to nonfiction in general, the most important books for me as a twenty-year old were clearly those which followed Marx’ famous dictum about understanding the world in order to change it. In our first-year curriculum in anthropology back in 1982, I liked Roger Keesing’s textbook for this reason; the feeling was that he had his heart in the right place. There is a linear plot in Keesing which I didn’t see at the time – moving from the simple to the complex as the book progresses – which is epistemologically problematic but efficient as a way of organising a narrative: you know how he begins his book with a few chapters on human evolution (which we were not asked to read, by the way; anthropology is not a four-field subject in Norway), ending with horror stories of colonialism and capitalist oppression.
But then, in my second year, I discovered Gregory Bateson, and it was love at first sight. His convoluted style, his oblique way of discerning patterns of regularity and similarity, his strong metaphors and surprising perspectives got me hooked, then and probably forever. Bateson was like a Socrates in search of his Plato (or, better, Platos), stimulating his readers to finish the argument and to fill in the blank spaces. Bateson presented riddles and limited himself to suggesting the answer (unlike someone like Marvin Harris, about whom Sahlins once remarked, drily, that he told riddles, but the answer was always protein).
Yet the kind of irreducible complexity presented explicitly and implicitly in Bateson’s texts do not stand for typical good writing; it’s untypical good writing. (I have similar feelings, by the way, about Edwin Ardener’s intellectual pyrotechnics.) Most of the really memorable texts, in anthropology as in other nonfiction, are those that have a clear message or a potent metaphor somewhere. If something appears to be complex but lacks the beauty of simplicity, it is bogus: it is then merely complicated rather than truly complex. So there is a reason why we return again and again to Geertz’ cockfight, Evans-Pritchard’s poison oracle, Leach’s gumsa-gumlao dichotomy, Douglas’ anomalies and so on. The narrative thread in these texts may be weak, but their symbolism is persuasive, seductive and contagious, indexical of huge problematics. – Why is it that Anderson’s Imagined Communities is the most popular book on nationalism? Because of its powerful central metaphor.
As a writer, you can engage your audience in many ways (and I’ve described some of them in Engaging Anthropology – I’m not going to repeat myself here), but let us say that the most important ones are metaphor and narrative. Anthropologists are generally good at creating metaphors, but bad when it comes to narrative. (With historians, it is the other way around.) At some point in our profession’s history, we chose analysis over narrative. It may be time to reconsider that choice. For one can have it both ways.
As academics, we tend to write for a select audience: people who are either paid to read what we write, or who are forced to because it is on the reading list. I think these two categories of readers would be grateful if we began to have other kinds of readers in mind as well. And it would not necessarily mean losing complexity.
Now this is a slippery slope. A colleague at the University of Oslo, admired for his crystal-clear, simple style, says that if your auntie can’t read it, it is probably not any good. Yet we know from experience that some texts that offer solid resistance give ample rewards at the end – from Aristotle to Foucault and Derrida, not to mention Strathern. On a more mundane note, as an undergraduate, I struggled with Culture and Practical Reason, and never regretted it later. So simplicity is not always the answer. Voluntary readers are perfectly capable of absorbing considerable complexity as long as it is presented in an inviting way. Whatever my feelings about Richard Dawkins’ worldview, few will deny that he is a great nonfiction writer, and he invites you as a reader to join him. He appears to care about his readers. Someone said about Dawkins that he makes the reader feel like a genius. Far too many of us seem to try to make our readers feel like idiots instead. Anthropology is usually not technical in such a way as to exclude, by default, readers who lack a training in the subject. We have an unrivalled supply of metaphors, through our own fieldwork and that of others. But we also have narratives. The puzzling thing is why we don’t use them to better effect. Could it be that the ghost of Evans-Pritchard’s nasty depiction of Mead as representing a ‘rustling-of-the-wind-in-the-palm-trees kind of anthropology, for which Malinowski set the fashion’, is still hovering in the corridors?
Certain texts stick with us, change our world and make our own lives slightly richer and more bearable, not to say meaningful. They have a few things in common, notably strong narrative and/or powerful metaphors, and an active interest in the reader also helps – but what nearly all of them have in common, is that they are not written by anthropologists. Here’s a challenge to all of us!
My postings on this site are so lengthy, I am ashamed to discover, that I fancy you’ve got your fill of Eriksen’s ruminations for now. It has been really interesting to experiment with the blog genre, enjoyable to oscillate between the loose and the tight, and it may well turn out that I’m hooked now, converted as it were from the Gutenberg Galaxy to the Berners-Lee Bonanza [Tim Berners-Lee: The inventor of the World Wide Web] – in which case you’ll hear from me again on Savage Minds. Thanks everybody!