Thursday, March 8, 2018

Balancing Narrative and Analysis

In my two previous posts (here and here), I described one challenge of book writing: how to speak to two audiences with divergent interests and background knowledge about your topic. This post takes up a different writing challenge: how to balance narrative with analysis.

I am drawn to narrative history for a few reasons. For one, I understand storytelling as one of the key ways that human beings make sense of the world. As historian William Cronon observed decades ago, narrative is “our best and most compelling tool for searching out meaning in a conflicted and contradictory world.” Indeed, it is very hard to describe the past without organizing people, places, and events into a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. Narrative is nearly unavoidable. But even if it were possible to avoid storytelling, I would not. Stories serve an additional purpose in my work, which is to ground legal abstractions within lived experience. I have no interest in wage assignments, the “holder in due course” doctrine, or usury – apart from their impact on the daily lives of people struggling to make ends meet and the lenders who serve them. So, when recounting the birth of the organized small-dollar lending industry, I wanted to tell a story that put people at the center.

This story appears in Chapter Two of the book, which begins shortly before World War One and the ends in the Great Depression. In this period, when the anti–loan shark campaign was increasing the pressure on the industry, small-dollar moneylenders had two options. They could either continue seeking out legal loopholes that would allow them to operate profitably in a hostile legal environment, or they could rewrite the rules to give legal sanction to their business. In my telling, these two paths generate two narratives: one that follows Jacob Brodie, the “king of the moneylenders,” and another that focuses on Clarence Hodson of Beneficial Finance and Frank R. Hubachek of Household Finance. Brodie followed the first path, running and hiding from the law, while Hodson and Hubachek took the second, charting a path to legal legitimacy by writing new lending regulations through the national trade association that they formed.

Brodie, Hodson, and Hubachek’s stories serve a few purposes. First, they help carry the reader from the beginning of the chapter to the end. Second, the stories themselves are a form of argument. By including only some events and people (and leaving out others), as well as by beginning and ending at certain moments in time, these stories presented a particular view of the past. In another telling of this same tale, Jacob Brodie might play the hero, fighting valiantly against restrictive and outdated lending regulations. But in my telling, Brodie is a foil for Hodson and Hubachek; Brodie’s legal evasions contrast with Hodson and Hubachek’s embrace of law reform as a path to legitimacy.

But I wanted the book to go beyond telling these stories. I also wanted to state explicitly the broader conclusions that my narrative supports. In Chapter Two, for example, I concluded that business has often embraced its own regulation when in search of stability and legitimacy, and that this embrace has the potential to shape the whole culture of an industry. (Subsequent chapters then explored other instances where the lending industry sought out legal controls, as well as those where it rejected new regulations because it no longer needed the legitimacy that state oversight can provide.) The puzzle was figuring out how to state my conclusions in the text of the chapter, without interrupting the narrative flow or abruptly switching into a different authorial voice in the middle of the chapter.

My imperfect solution to this puzzle was to use the chapter introduction and conclusion to state my analytical conclusions, situating my story within the literature on regulatory capture and regulatory arbitrage. As a result, the text of the chapter leans heavily towards narrative and is light on analysis – aside from the beginning and ending. (A different, and perhaps superior, solution would have been to thread the analysis throughout the chapter, inserting break paragraphs that stepped out of the story to analyze events and situate my findings within the context of ongoing academic debates.) I finished the manuscript wondering if I had gotten the balance right and still worried that I had not.

Now that the manuscript is in print, the balance that I selected is set. But I know that this is a challenge that I will surely confront again in my next project. So, LHB readers, if you have advice on the art of balancing narrative and analysis, please leave your thoughts in the comments.