In March, I reviewed William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842, for The Christian Science Monitor. Though I knew little about colonial Afghanistan, I didn’t hesitate to take the assignment. Sure, I needed the money, but reviewing a book on a subject I don’t know much about was also a matter of principle. Return of a King is not an academic text; my assigning editor warned me the book was long, but assured me Dalrymple is usually a “very accessible” author. The book is written in English. A reasonably well-educated reader should, I believe, be able to understand and evaluate a non-specialized text written in his native tongue.
When a hefty 514-page galley of Dalrymple’s book arrived on my doorstep, I dug in. This passage appears early:
It was Shah Shuja’s grandfather, Ahmad Shah Abdali, who is usually considered to have founded the modern state of Afghanistan in 1747. His family came from Multan in the Punjab and had a long tradition of service to the Mughals. It was appropriate therefore that his power derived in part from the enormous treasure chest of Mughal gems plundered by the Persian marauder Nadir Shah from the Red Fort in Delhi sixty years earlier; these Ahmad Shah had seized within an hour of Nadir Shah’s assassination.
Very quickly, Return of a King demanded that I know a lot: that shah, a word I associate with Iran, means “king” for Afghans, as well; that Ahmad Shah Abdan (reign: 1747-1772) and Shujah Shah Durrani (reign: 1803–1809, then 1839–1842) existed; that Multan is a city in Punjab, an area of Pakistan; that Mughals are Muslim rulers in India, descended from Genghis Khan, and that, for whatever reason, they have a lot of gems; that the Mughal gems were stolen by another dude named Nadir Shah Afshar (reign: 1736-1747), who isn’t Afghan, but rather Iranian; and that the Red Fort is a military fort built by the Mughals in 17th-century Delhi. Did I know any of these things before reading this passage and Googling along? Unfortunately, I did not.
Return of a King, based on sources unearthed by the author, has established Dalrymple as the leading popular historian of colonial Afghanistan. But his book, at least at first, is damned hard for a layperson to understand. I sweated over the text, struggling with unfamiliar vocabulary and geography; a cast of characters—many secondary or tertiary to Dalrymple’s thesis—much bigger thanthat of a Russian novel; and insider language that made me feel like, well, an outsider.
I wanted to like Dalrymple, but he was not being kind to me.
What makes an author kind? Kindness is a slippery quality, but essential to nonfiction writing. Nonfiction writers are supposed to share information and shed light on the world around us. Unfortunately, some writers are more interested in this endeavor than others.
It’s easy to offer examples, to say that Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion are kind, while Ayn Rand, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer are not. But since fans of The Right Stuff and The Executioner’s Song will likely object to this generalization, I’ll instead define kindness as an author’s ability to signal that the author, like the reader, is human; that the author knows the reader may not be interested in his/her subject; that the author knows the reader has other things to do besides read four hundred pages on monetary policy or the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes; that the author is not idly churning out verbiage, but has something important to say, and is saying it precisely and succinctly; and that the author isn’t crying wolf when suggesting his/her book or article must be read, now. Kindness means writing with the authority of an insider without treating outsiders with disdain.
Kindness begins with journalism’s Ws: letting readers know who, what, where, when and why. Readers must be oriented in time and space. Is a book about Justin Bieber, Attila the Hun, or the U.S. presidential election of 1928? Some nonfiction writers, such as controversial essayist John D’Agata, willfully disorient their readers; others, such as Ronald Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, invent characters and conversations. Such highbrow techniques may be effective. They’re never kind.
Once readers are firmly grounded, a kind vocabulary is also essential. At The Washington Post, where I edit opinion pieces, quantitative easing, soft power, and containment are phrases I hear often, sometimes before lunch. However, the way my colleagues and I discuss post-Cuban Missile Crisis/Cold War détente in an editorial meeting is different from the language we would use in a newspaper piece on the subject. And that’s as it should be. We write and edit a newspaper for general readers.
Of course, finding the right balance is complicated. We have to assume our audience not only can read, but has read. We expect people to know who President Obama is, but should we assume they know Afghanistan is not in the Middle East? And if we miss the sweet spot, it’s on us. Our articles have to make sense to our subscribers, and jargon never helps. If it’s unavoidable, fine; to understand the Challenger space shuttle disaster, you must read about O-rings, intertank structure, and reaction control systems. But technical language, if unneeded, only distances an author from an audience. That’s never useful.
Telling a compelling story, however, is always a good thing. Show, don’t tell is an old writing workshop chestnut because it’s good advice. If I’m to absorb an intricate argument about the need for more water wells in East Africa or why Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd is better than Dave Gilmour-era Pink Floyd, it’s kinder if an author offers a relatable character who, for some compelling reason, must tackle these weighty questions. This is part of the problem with the coverage of breaking news, such as the Edward Snowden affair: as Snowden runs from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow, the public is presented with a lot of information, but no narrative. What’s Snowden’s motivation? Is he a Chinese spy? Did he get picked on in high school? Two months into this story, top reporters may not have a grasp of this narrative yet. However, when they sit down to write their Pulitzer Prize-winning books in six months or a year, they must turn Snowden into the hero or antihero of a story that can be told over a campfire. People like a good yarn more than philosophical figurin’.
A sense of humor helps, too. In his 2009 book Imperial, a 1,344-page doorstop about water shortages in Imperial County, California, William Vollmann prefaces a tedious chapter with the following statement, in all caps: warning of impending aridity. With those four words, Vollmann signals that he’s not a machine spitting information at whoever might be thumbing through his difficult book. He’s a person, too; he understands that his subject can be boring; he knows it’s weird that he wrote such a long book about water leases; he’s not above his readers, but with them; he makes a joke about it. Whenever authors subvert their expertise to make an alien subject familiar, it’s kind. If they’re not afraid to wink, insider creative nonfictionalists can rediscover what they’re writing about as their outsider readers discover it. This is always good.
But beyond such general guidelines—use accessible language, tell a story, be funny—how can writers make sure they’re playing nice?
When writing or editing, I like to think about the reader for whom I am toiling. For me, this is my aunt: a sixty-something-year-old pro-life, pro-union Catholic nurse who (I’m pretty sure) voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and President Obama in 2008 and 2012. A Pennsylvania swing-state voter with unpredictable politics, my aunt doesn’t have a college degree, but she is curious and informed. Would she be able to follow an intricate, jargon-filled argument about counterinsurgency strategy in Kandahar? Maybe not—but neither would I. Would she be able to understand the importance of bribing, not bombing, tribal chieftains sympathetic to the Taliban in Afghanistan if the argument were made in user-friendly English? Definitely.
Language belongs to the people. Writers must consider readers because good prose runs on empathy. Whenever and however a writer can convey the sense that he is with readers instead of against them, he should.
As for Return of a King, I finally caught up with the narrative about two-thirds of the way through, and it turned out to be an engaging epic war book. But it took me hours to understand exactly about whom and what Dalrymple was writing. Okay—this book isn’t about Shah Zaman, but about his younger brother Shah Shujah, I slowly realized. Okay—this book is about the first British invasion of Afghanistan, not the second. There was no reason for Dalrymple to make me feel stupider than I already know I am. And although I made 150 dollars reviewing his book, I hate him a little bit.