In defense of ignorance: Rob Nixon at the MLA on making room for readers
Can less be more? The value of ignorance came up this week at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference in Philadelphia during a session titled “Literature and Journalism.” Rob Nixon, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, talked principally about nonfiction writing and scholars making forays into journalism. But some of his ideas are instructive for narrative journalists as well.
“Typically, in scholarly writing, we feel the need to stamp our authority from the outset rather than leaving room for movement and change. That’s a major reason why scholars often struggle to adapt their expertise to more journalistic contexts. We let research smother ignorance.”
You don’t have to be a Ph.D. to have too much information. Journalists who spend even a few weeks on a story at some often point wonder how to put their own understanding of the story in reverse and go back to pick up readers. According to Nixon,
“It’s critical to try to tap into the spirit of that initial ignorance to make dramatic narrative possible. Moreover, allowing space for that initial ignorance can draw the reader into a journey of shared discovery rather than feeling that he or she is being lectured at. In public writing, ignorance is too valuable a dramatic resource to throw away cheaply.”
Nixon also talked about the history of nonfiction in academia, where “for so long, the novel and poetry were treated as the peaks of imaginative work, while nonfiction was seen as the valley of the shadow of death. Hopefully, those days are over.”
Offering some inspirational examples of writers who have fused scholarship with literary nonfiction, Nixon mentioned Michael Pollan as “someone who reads widely, tapping into the zeitgeist and looking for a way to find narrative energy to bring fields together.”
For his New York Times Magazine piece “Power Steer,” Pollan followed a steer—which he bought—from insemination to the dinner table (his own). Nixon says that as Pollan was doing the story,
“[He] found research was the easier part. The difficult part was finding a character to convey the story to the reader. In his case, it was a cow. Research for many of us is easier than the hunt for a cow.”
So are there times it’s better to know less? Not exactly, but we can all work harder to find the right cow and be willing to create space in our stories for the reader to enter, even if it means we can’t share everything we’ve learned.