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The Last Chapter Problem

Writing in the NYT Sunday Book Review, David Greenberg explains “Why Last Chapters Disappoint.”

[The] experience will be familiar to almost anyone who has written a book aspiring to analyze a social or political problem. Practically every example of that genre, no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book. When it comes to social criticism, no one, it seems, has an exit strategy.

[…]

The weakness of last chapters is in large part a function of the sheer difficulty of devising answers to complex social problems that are sound, practicable and not blindingly obvious. Besides, those who give the most subtle diagnoses may not have the problem-solving disposition needed to come up with concrete, practical recommendations.

But if the rousing what-to-do chapter is usually so disappointing, why do so many books include them? One reason is that editors expect them. The journalist Michelle Goldberg conceived her first book, “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism” (2006), as a work of reportage on a subculture of growing political influence. She hardly felt qualified to lay out an agenda for curbing the power of the religious right, but “one of my editors insisted I do it,” she recalled in a recent interview. Inevitably, reviewers called her on it, with one mocking her proposal that liberals seeking to maintain church-state separation should “win their neighbors over, not just beat them in court.”

But in the end, most authors have themselves to blame. Having immersed themselves in a subject, almost all succumb to the hubristic idea that they can find new and unique ideas for solving intractable problems. They rarely do, and even works that do usher in specific reforms or broad social transformations — from “The Jungle” to “The Feminine Mystique” — do so by raising awareness about an issue, not by providing ready-to-go blueprints.

Kevin Drum synthesizes this further:

[A]ny social or political problem that’s hard enough to be interesting is also hard enough to have no obvious solutions. In fact, most of them are hard enough not to have any short-term solutions at all, obvious or not.

He also hints that the “problem” isn’t unique to books, citing his own experience writing long form pieces for Mother Jones.

All of the foregoing is accurate. But even more fundamentally, while a competent writer can research the past and analyze cases, predictions are hard–especially about the future. So, an author spends the entirety of a book or article ensconced in his comfort zone and is then forced to put on a prognosticator or policy guru hat to wrap up the work in a neat bow, which he’s likely unqualified to do.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Brett #2 says:

    But even more fundamentally, while a competent writer can research the past and analyze cases, predictions are hard–especially about the future.

    Definitely. In fact, I think it’s rare for someone identifying a policy problem and doing all the historical research work to have the same skills and knowledge needed to come up with practical policy solutions to those problems.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    There are no second acts in American lives.

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  3. JLarson says:

    The solution to this problem is a last chapter of questions regarding how (and whether) to solve the problems as well as examples of those attempting to do something. People do want that resolution at the end, but that resolution doesn’t have to be the answer… It can hand the responsibility over to the reader.

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