The practice of journalism and art of storytelling need not be mutually exclusive, but anyone who has tried to meet both objectives will tell you it’s not easy. Journalists are by trade restricted to telling the story as it happened — if that story involves a city council committee looking at a zoning request, then that’s what you’re stuck with. Unless a committee member pulls down his pants in protest over the decided course of action, it’s not likely to be a great story.
Storytellers, on the other hand, are not as concerned with facts as with developing a compelling narrative. But the further they stray from plausibility, the greater the risk of losing meaning. Even pure works of fiction need a basis in reality to capture and hold an audience.
One of the best examples of a writer mastering both is Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” which chronicles the famously disastrous 1996 climbing expedition that claimed several lives on Mount Everest. What makes it a breathtaking (no pun intended) page-turner is the fact that it’s rooted in reality. The people who die in the book really died; likewise for the survivors, which included Krakauer. He gives readers the next best thing to climbing the mountain themselves: a literary equivalent of virtual reality.
He does so, however, with the benefit of a few narrative twists and turns that were subsequently disputed by others who were there. The strongest of these challenges came from guide Anatoli Boukreev, who documented the event in his own book, “The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest.” As a professional mountaineer accustomed to keeping his wits in the fog of high altitude, his account comes off as more trustworthy, but also more cut and dried. It’s still a great read, just not the gripping tale spun by Krakauer. While Boukreev was highly critical of the moneyed amateur climbers courted by the commercial guide industry, which he blamed for creating the environment for just such a disaster to occur, Krakauer embraced these Joe Schmoes as major characters in his book, because he understood that readers were more likely to identify with them. I’m willing to overlook a few quibbles over minor details, because it’s a superior story.
Krakauer has gone in different directions since “Into Thin Air,” becoming a bloodhound journalist of sorts in the Mormon expose “Under the Banner of Heaven” and, just last year, “Missoula,” which explores a rape scandal that brought national attention on the Montana college town. Both books carry a distinct agenda within the subtext of Krakauer’s prose. His reporting raises troubling questions worthy of our attention, but too often the writing pushes the reader toward certain conclusions. That’s unfortunate, because the facts Krakauer presents are strong enough to perform that function themselves. It’s almost as if he didn’t trust the story to tell itself, which it did so eloquently in “Into Thin Air.” The storytelling instinct, once applied to such perfection, only clutters those later efforts, and in the process undermines some pretty good journalism.