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Non-Fiction Parasitism

Narrative Non Fiction as Parasitism? – The Relationship of Author to Subject Analysed According to Four Classifications of Symbiotic Systems

It’s a scary world out there. It’s even scarier when you put it under a microscope. If you want to see the creatures that will populate the nightmares you haven’t yet had, I recommend the photographs in Carl Zimmer’s ‘Parasite Rex’ [1 – see bibliography]. Zimmer’s text is perhaps even more frightening. Try this for size: ‘When an infected male mayfly matures, he never forms his claspered genitals or even his high-domed eyes. The nematode makes him not only look like a female but act like one, too. Instead of flying away, he drops down to the stream, even going so far as to try to lay imaginary eggs as the parasite bursts out of his body’. Ouch! Next time you look at a supermodel just consider that she may actually be a man in the throes of a dreadful parasitic infection. (Well, it might explain some of their bizarre behaviour!)

It was while I was pondering parasites that I began to speculate about the nature of the relationship between narrative non-fiction writers and the material they write about. Could these writers themselves be defined as parasites in some sense? But what exactly is a parasite? Parasitism can be regarded as one of four main types of symbiotic relationship. Symbiosis simply means ‘living together’ and has neither positive nor negative connotations. Nowadays, it’s usually associated with a mutually beneficial relationship, but that’s not inherent in the meaning.

Reference [2] provides a set of useful definitions of symbiotic relationships, which I have partially reproduced below:

1) Mutualism – an association in which both organisms derive mutual benefit.

2) Commensalism – this means ‘eating together at the same table’. In this association, one member, usually the smaller, derives benefit from the association, whereas for the other member, the association is neither beneficial nor harmful.

3) Phoresis – this is a specialised form of commensalism in which one organism (phoront), usually smaller than the other, uses the larger organism as a transport host.

4) Parasitism – a parasite is, in simple terms, an organism which lives at the expense of another.

For the purposes of the present argument, I will regard writer and subject as ‘living together’. Accordingly, there are four types of symbiotic relationship with which to analyse and classify the precise association. The narrative non-fiction examples I shall examine will be, primarily, those texts set for the Narrative Non Fiction context module.

Taking Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ [3], this appears to be a clear example of mutualism i.e. author and subject both benefited from the relationship. Capote certainly enjoyed massive critical acclaim and commercial success from his groundbreaking analysis of a shocking massacre in small-town mid-America.

Where some authors would have dismissed the perpetrators as inhuman monsters, the very incarnation of mindless evil, Capote portrays them as almost-tragic victims of their backgrounds. If they are monsters it’s because society has made them like that and not because they are natural born killers. Anyone brought up in similar circumstances, so Capote implies, might be so emotionally damaged as to become capable of what Perry Smith and Dick Hickock did. Sure, Smith and Hickock were hanged for their crime, but instead of becoming convenient shorthand for mindless, sick butchery, they can be viewed with something disturbingly close to sympathy thanks to Capote’s efforts. Just by using the incredibly simple but effective device of referring to the two killers by their first names (Perry and Dick), he was already well on his way to humanising them.

Certainly, I found myself feeling sorry for them rather than hating them. In that sense if no other, they’ve posthumously enjoyed the benefits of Capote’s portrayal. If it’s better to go down in history as a flawed human being who did terrible things rather than a scarcely human beast, branded with the mark of Cain from birth and worthy only of contempt and loathing, then Capote has done the killers a great favour.

If Soham child-killer Ian Huntley doesn’t find himself a Capote there can be little doubt he will enter criminal history as one of the grotesque monsters of our time. Even his girlfriend, who was legally judged to have had no involvement whatever with the murders, is deemed guilty by association and seems fated to be linked forever to the female child-killer Myra Hindley. So, the message to all ‘monsters’ out there is that if you want to escape a damning rep in posterity, get yourself a good biographer.

‘Seabiscuit’ [4] by Laura Hillenbrand seems like another case of mutualism. Hillenbrand wins fame and success by writing about the legendary battling horse that defied all the odds to win the hearts of the American racing public in the late 1930s. Seabiscuit, albeit posthumously once more, is brought to the attention of a whole new audience and is admired afresh by millions who weren’t born when the great horse was racing his way to immortality. A successful Hollywood movie even gets made.

What about an example of commensalism? We probably need look no further than Paul Auster’s ‘True Tales of American Life’ [5]. In this project, Auster selected the best short stories submitted to a radio station by thousands of ordinary Americans writing about a particularly moving or vivid moment in their normally humdrum lives. Each of the winners must have been delighted to be associated with such a prestigious writer as Auster. No doubt they enjoyed a huge boost in their reputations amongst their friends and families. As for Auster himself, the whole exercise was probably neutral, neither enhancing his reputation nor detracting from it. So, very much in accord with the definition of commensalism.

When it comes to phoresis, one book instantly leaps to mind. ‘The Last King of Scotland’ [6] by Giles Foden has its fans and advocates. Indeed it was a prize-winning book. For me, it was an exercise in blatant commercialism. Rather than write a work of fiction about a white doctor working for a black dictator in Africa (such a work could have usefully examined themes such as the end of colonialism, the struggle of whites to find a fresh role for themselves in newly black-dominated societies, the dilemmas of whites serving tyrannical black regimes, points of similarity and difference between white and black dictators, the paradox of a doctor working for a mass murderer), Foden chooses to write about an actual dictator – Idi Amin. By invoking Amin and seeding his novel with actual incidents plucked from Amin’s turbulent and colourful life, Foden was sure to grab media interest. But did he thereby destroy much of the integrity of his novel, causing important themes to be submerged beneath the myths and legends of an infamous tyrant whose escapades would automatically throw all other considerations into the shade?

Some might suggest that he was compelled to write about an authentic black dictator on the grounds that a white man writing about a fictional monstrous black dictator automatically invites an accusation of racism. This argument certainly has force, but isn’t it oddly paradoxical that writing fiction about a genuine monstrous black dictator is judged non-racist while writing fiction about an invented one is an irredeemably racist act? Capote was able to portray cold-blooded killers sympathetically. Why can’t a good writer portray a fictitious dictator as a fascinating, charismatic individual, with as many positive as negative attributes, who just happens to be black?

In any case, Foden certainly appears very much like a smaller organism hitching a lift from a much larger organism (Amin). Without Amin’s name to brandish, and the catchy title for his novel that Amin inadvertently supplied, Foden’s journey up the best-selling charts may have been over a lot sooner, if it began at all. I wonder if Amin ever read Foden’s book and if he concluded that he was a transport host for Foden’s phoront. Well, perhaps not.

For an example of parasitism, we might think in terms of the many books written about Diana Spencer. In almost every case, the motive for producing the book was exclusively financial. Such books contributed to the media frenzy surrounding Spencer that, according to her brother and many others, directly contributed to her early death. Of course, now that she’s dead, the parasites have to find new hosts to infect. Fortunately for them, there’s always an ample supply.

Travel books about untouched paradises can also be regarded as parasitical. For the sake of a travel writer’s bank balance and prestige many of the world’s most far-flung places of unique beauty have been transformed into shabby package holiday destinations where the rare beauty that first attracted attention has been at best badly eroded and at worst lost entirely. The host has died, while the parasitical travel writer moves on to a new victim.

P.J. O’Rourke’s ‘All the Trouble in the World’ [7] may also qualify as an example of parasitism. When you see the subtitle – ‘The Lighter Side of Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death’ – you can begin to smell the reek of a carcass laid waste by a parasite. That’s not to say that a writer should be prohibited from taking an irreverent look at serious issues. However, if they choose to deploy so-called reasoned arguments then they had better ensure their case stands up. On P.69 of [7]O’Rourke tries to persuade us with the following point: ‘The modern era has witnessed an enormous increase in food, an enormous increase in people being fed – and an enormous increase in famine. This would seem to defy physical law.’ He then says that this must be because of politics. In 1900, the world’s population was 1.6 billion. In 2000 it was 6.1 billion. Isn’t the fact that an extra 4.5 billion mouths are being fed a staggering tribute to both science and politics? Sure, there can be devastating famines causing millions of deaths, but isn’t that usually a result of infertile regions groaning under the weight of a population expansion that they could never possibly have sustained? Clearly, the larger the population of an area, the more people are likely to die if famine strikes there. That’s a Malthusian consideration, not a political one.

O’Rourke also uses the trick of quoting absolute numbers rather than relative percentages, so he tells us, ‘William A. Dando, in his 1980 book The Geography of Famine, estimates that, worldwide, about two million people died of starvation in the seventeenth century, ten million in the eighteenth, and twenty-five million in the nineteenth.’ He goes on to quote apparently damning twentieth century statistics, using these to substantiate his case that politics, particularly Marxism (which, as a right-wing American, he clearly loathes) has led to an increase in deaths from famine.

Without knowing what the average world population was in the seventeenth century, it’s impossible to know whether the figure O’Rourke quotes is a high or low percentage of the total population. For all we know, it could be a catastrophically high percentage, much more severe than the twentieth century figures. O’Rourke also blithely skips over the glaring problem that his own quotation has revealed: that there was a four hundred percent increase in famine deaths in the eighteenth century compared with the seventeenth. This is a very steep rise and there was of course no Marxism to blame in that century, but plenty of capitalism. According to O’Rourke’s thesis there should be some obvious political transformation in the eighteenth century that made famine more widespread than in the seventeenth. He makes no attempt to analyse what this was, because, fatally for the credibility of his case, there wasn’t one.  

Like most polemicists, O’Rourke is never one to let a counter-argument stop his flow of invective. Facts problematic to his case are conveniently ignored while as much life as possible is sucked from anything that appears to support his rant. By the time he’s finished, the cause he’s advocating is dead, stripped of all its substance because of his selective use of facts and arguments. The parasite has again destroyed its host.

In fact, is the relationship of narrative non-fiction to the truth always a parasitical one? Does the need to tell a page-turning compulsive story put too great a strain on an author’s desire to present us with the facts and end up killing the facts, or distorting them so much that they no longer mean anything? After reading Giles Foden’s work of fiction about Idi Amin, would we be able to reliably state a single certain fact about Amin?

The movie Braveheart had a tremendous impact, especially in Scotland, but much of it was historical hogwash, made to fit the template of a Hollywood blockbuster. If such a movie inspires millions of people to study the Scottish wars of Independence then perhaps no damage is done. But in all probability most people’s knowledge of William Wallace will reside solely in the mixture of fact and fiction that comprises Braveheart. In that case, what is fact? Perhaps fact and fiction are merging into something else – faction. There’s another word that might do the trick: factoid. This is defined as [8], ‘Having the spurious appearance of fact; plausible enough to be fact but lacking substantiation.’ Nowadays, are we being submerged beneath a sea of factoids?

‘There are no facts, only interpretations,’ says Nietzsche [9]. Increasingly, that seems difficult to deny. Guy Debord of the Situationist International declared [10], ‘In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’ Narrative non-fiction, like everything else in modern culture, is under pressure to be as spectacular as possible. Facts, it seems, are no longer good enough. Entertaining stories about facts are what is now required.

How have such considerations affected my own writing? There’s no doubt that in the midst of a narrative about supposedly factual things, I’ve felt a desire, for the sake of the story, to embroider a fact here, exaggerate a detail there. Get a bigger, better laugh – no problem, just add something consistent with the story that might have happened (but, crucially, did not). Story not quite compelling enough? Something missing? Well, add whatever it takes (even though it’s imaginary). Story, although true, seems illogical and confused (due to life not being a nice and tidy thing with easy answers)? Well, manipulate story to remove illogicalities.

I’ve found it challenging to tell compelling stories while sticking strictly to the facts. Therefore, if I wanted to rigorously present facts, I’d avoid any story component and use the dry expository style of many ‘popular’ physics books. For me – and my reading this semester has reinforced this impression – there is always a tension in narrative non-fiction between the narrative on the one hand and the non-fiction on the other. ‘Parasite Rex’ had the least narration and seemed the most credible source of hard information.

But if I’m an unreliable narrator, why believe anything I’ve just written?


[1] Carl Zimmer, Parasite Rex, Arrow Books, 2003, published in Great Britain. 

[2] Parasites and Symbionts:http://nsm1.utdallas.edu/bio/Gonzalez/Lecture/Parasite/introduction.htm

[3] Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, Penguin Group, 1966, published in Great Britain.

[4] Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit, Fourth Estate, 2003, published in Great Britain.

[5] Paul Auster, True Tales of American Life, published in Great Britain.

[6] Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland, Faber and Faber Ltd, paperback edition 1999, published in Great Britain.

[7] P. J. O’Rourke, All the Trouble in the World, published in Great Britain.

[8] Universal Dictionary, Reader’s Digest, 1998, published in Great Britain.

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachlass, A. Danto translation.

[10] The Society of the Spectaclehttp://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/1.htm