The New York Times recently did a profile/review of author Katherine Boo and her new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity
Since 2005 Boo has visited a slum near Mumbai and documents life there in the book. The Times review ends with this passage:
Another thing that makes her uncomfortable is policy wonkery, and by design “Beautiful Forevers,” a book as depressing as it is memorable, has no summing-up chapter full of recommendations. “I respect the division of labor,” she said. “My job is to lay it out clearly, not to give my policy prescriptions.” She added: “Very little journalism is world changing. But if change is to happen, it will be because people with power have a better sense of what’s happening to people who have none.”
I was Skyping with a group of students the other day and one of them asked me, “What do you do and what has your work done to help the people you write about?” I’ve been asked this question many times. It hits me hard each time.
I usually say something like Boo said, “I’m just the storyteller. It’s not my job to do, but to show.”
Am I copping out?
Typically I’ll confess that the lives of the garment workers I met, who are now suffering a cruel global economy, have gotten harder since I met them, and that I haven’t changed their world, but I hope to have changed those who have read my work. Maybe my readers have the skills and focus to do something that can change the world and my writing inspired or encouraged them to do so.
I’m just the writer.
That said, I do end with a prescriptive last chapter in Where Am I Wearing? (The new edition out in April has even more of this) because I’m also a person who has changed and wants to make a difference.
What’s a journalist’s or a writer’s job?