You are browsing in the bookshop, and have a book in your hand: is it art, or just merchandise? Why is J. M. Coetzee's work literature while Dan Brown's isn't? To find an answer, let's look into a real story, about which Emmanuel Carrère has just written in the Le Monde literary supplement (useful reading, if questions such as this one puzzle you).
It begins in 1970, in North Carolina, when an army doctor, Jeffrey MacDonald, who stands accused of murdering his wife and two young children, claims complete innocence. So he is either the victim of a conspiracy, or a lying monster. Enter Joe McGinnis, whose track record in the world of letters is a pretty deplorable one. He is the author of a trashy novel conceived with the ambition of being a bestseller. But unfortunately (for his own finances) it has sold hardly a single copy. At the top of the bestseller list, in those days, was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and the formula looks like a sure thing. With MacDonald, he signs a contract promising him a third of the royalties in exchange for an exclusive on his secrets.
The accused doctor and the writer get along on the best of terms for some time and, when the accused is sentenced to life imprisonment, the writer sends him a moving letter expressing his belief in his innocence. But when the book, Fatal Vision, comes out in 1983, the convict is surprised to read in it that McGinnis is absolutely certain that MacDonald is a psychopath who killed his wife and his young daughters. MacDonald's reaction is not long in coming: he accuses the writer of breach of contract, and takes him to court.
The writer of bestsellers uses language to obtain an effect, and exploits an immoral formula of camouflage
Enter a journalist from The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm, who follows McGinnis's trial. Later, in 1990, she publishes a book, The Journalist and the Murderer. It's a fine work of non-fiction, offering a detailed analysis - in the psychoanalytical sense - of the virtues and the perversions of investigative journalism.
Emmanuel Carrère, himself a master of non-fiction narrative, has high praise for Janet Malcolm's book, which has just been translated in France. But he disagrees with the author's proposition: that journalists who involve themselves in real stories of this nature, and are honest with themselves, are necessarily conscious that what they are doing is morally indefensible, because they function like the thief who feeds on the vanity of others, their ignorance, their solitude: they win their confidence, and betray it without remorse.
For Carrère these words of Janet Malcolm are valid enough in the McGinnis-MacDonald case, but not in others. He himself, he says, has been working for 15 years with real events, and has hurt some of the people involved, but never deceived anyone. Carrère's words suggest a sort of moral fascination, the frisson of an exciting game played out on the very edge of danger, which adds a new attraction to the task of writing about reality.
Carrère considers that there is a red line in these relations, and that some never cross it. He prefers to believe that you can still distinguish between the journalist (half-smart, superficial, pitiless) and the writer (noble, profound, with moral scruples); the same difference he observes between superficial McGinnis and the profound Janet Malcolm.
This is the same difference I think I see between a novelist like Dan Brown, who works with the superficiality of the worst sort of journalism, and a writer of reflective profundities like J. M. Coetzee - perhaps the same difference that exists between the writer who knows that in a well-made description there is something moral, the will to say what has not yet been said, and the writer of bestsellers who uses language merely to obtain an effect, and always exploits the same immoral formula of camouflage, of deception of the reader. It's good to think there are still writers in whom an ethical search governs their struggle to create new forms.