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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why long-form narrative journalism is important for all of us

A work of non-fiction about a slum in Mumbai is a leading contender for best book of the year. But you are unlikely to read it, says Prashant Agrawal, writing in today's Mint.

The book in question is Behind the Beautiful Forevers by American journalist Katherine Boo. Agrawal writes:

[It] has won praise from India’s leading historian Ramachandra Guha, as “Without question the best book yet written on contemporary India. Also, the best work of narrative non-fiction I’ve read in 25 years.” Shashi Tharoor, an MP and best-selling author, has sung similar praises. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others have also been effusive in praise. East or West, Katherine Boo’s India book has emerged as the best.

But Agrawal also says that statistics point to the fact that not many of us are going to pick up this book and Boo will be lucky to sell 50,000 copies in India.

Agrawal does not actually give us any statistical data; he does give his reasons, though, for his concerns and I share those concerns. Long-form journalism (Boo's book is a good example) is not for the faint of heart, Agrawal writes. It takes time and effort to read long-form journalism, and we in India are just awakening to its power.

Agrawal explains why we should not underestimate narrative non-fiction books or long-form journalism:

The stories illuminate the world around us, make us think and feel about the issues in a relatable human manner. And often the stories impact and influence public policy. ... Atul Gawande, the best-selling author, wrote a piece in The New Yorker on the rising cost of healthcare costs in the US and how to control them. President Barack Obama had his entire healthcare team read the piece and some of the outcomes were adopted in his landmark healthcare reform.

 We also get some encouraging news:

Today, in India, we are witnessing the birth of non-fiction. Meenal Baghel wrote Death in Mumbai about the Neeraj Grover murder. Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro explores the dance bars of Mumbai; the book has been praised in the pages of Vanity Fair and The Economist.

Every Saturday, our paper [Mint] puts out among the best pieces of narrative journalism in India. Last Saturday, readers were led into the workings and prospects of India’s female boxing team.

Mint’s partner publication, The Wall Street Journal, recently ran an in-depth five-part series on the heinous murder of a nun in Chhattisgarh.

The Caravan magazine is trying to fill the gap of long-form journalism in India and become The New Yorker of India; The New Yorker, along with the Atlantic, are institutions of long-form journalism in the US.

As we grow as a democracy, we will see more long-form journalism — for there are many stories to tell.

Agrawal's article is a good trend story that helps us to understand how long-form narrative journalism can impact our lives. Read the piece in its entirety here: "Birth of long-form journalism".
  • Also, visit Longreads for the best long-form stories on the web.
  • ADDITIONAL READING: "MATTER styles itself as "the new home for in-depth, independent journalism about the ideas that are shaping our future". The founders say it isn't quite a website, it's not really a magazine, and it's not exactly a book publisher either: "Instead, MATTER is something else — a new model for high-quality journalism...." For details, check out "Heart of the MATTER".
UPDATE (June 30, 2013): I have just placed a copy of Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the Commits library.

UPDATE (July 25, 2013): Natasha Rego (Class of 2013) loved the book so much, she has bought a copy for herself so she can read it again. Read her comments below.

UPDATE (June 25, 2014): Read up on the latest journalism cooperative, whose aim is to produce in-depth stories, here: "Deca".