Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Katherine Boo, _Behind the Beautiful Forevers_: Virtue Porn?

LATELY I WORRY about something I think of as "virtue porn," e.g., the film versions (not necessarily the original books, which I have not read) of Schindler's List and The Help. Both films encourage us to identify with a lonely, brave individual who is holding out against the imperatives of his or her community by in some way refusing to participate in the oppression of of a marginalized group. Such people deserve our admiration, certainly.  But in getting us to identify with Schindler and with Skeeter, the films open up room for us to flatter ourselves that we, too, would be lonely and brave and would resist, etc. Identifying with the brave, lonely resister becomes a kind of imaginary credit in our own moral accounts, as if we too had held out...although we, of course, ran none of the hazards of doing so.  All we did was watch the movie--but the movie gave us a kind of permission to imagine ourselves as having done a brave and virtuous thing.  Hence, "virtue porn."

To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is not virtue porn, I would say, because of the distance created by our having Scout's perspective. We as readers bear witness to Atticus Finch's bravery, but are not allowed to flatter ourselves that we are Atticus Finch.

Three Cups of Tea, I think, is virtue porn. The book invites us to identify with the author and the fine thing he is doing (or supposedly did--I guess there are some doubts in this case)--to share, vicariously, the moral credit accruing to the author's account.

I'm less sure about Dave Eggers's What is the What and Zeitoun, but here too I think there is a readerly temptation to feel virtuous just for having paid attention to the sufferings of others by reading the book. All due praise to Eggers himself for calling attention to these sufferings.  What bothers me is something I succumb to myself, the illusion that I am doing something virtuous just by reading the book and learning about how desperately hard some people's lives are.

So--is Katherine Boo's book about "life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity," to quote her subtitle, an instance of virtue porn?

What worries me most about the book is that she is not in it. She spent a lot of the time over several years with the people she writes about, but in describing their lives, she never mentions that they happen to have an acquaintance with a famous, prize-winning American writer, even though her presence must have made a difference in their lives.  These people have to be acutely alert to anything that looks like a threat or an opportunity, after all.  They live on the lip of annihilation; anything that might keep them from tumbling into it has to be seized upon. Yet in a book that gives us a novelistic intimacy with the subjects' thoughts, fears, and hopes, not one of them ever wonders, apparently, what it will mean to have an American write a book about them.  That can't have been true, can it?

But still--is the book as good as so many reviewers said it was? Boy, is it ever. Amazing.  Indelible. I don't know what having been written about will do to better the circumstances of any of these people, but Boo has made them immortal. As with Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, people will be reading about Abdul, Fatima, Sunil, and Manju for long after they themselves, Boo, and you and I are dead. It's that good.

And if I delude myself that just reading this book makes me a conscientious and caring person, that's my fault, not Boo's.

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