Lewis is the best writer in financial journalism by some large margin, and much of what he does when reporting and writing his stories is simply unique. His technique is a labor-intensive one: Lewis talks to an enormous number of people, works out what story he wants to tell, and then puts together various tales and individuals he’s discovered over the course of his reporting in the service of telling that story in the most entertaining and compellingly readable way. It doesn’t matter how important you are, or whether you’ve given Lewis an important nugget of unreported news: if it doesn’t help the structure of his story, he’ll happily leave it out.
There are other financial journalists who are excellent writers, albeit not very many of them. Matt Taibbi and the NYT’s David Segal spring to mind. But none of them are willing to subsume news in service of the story to the degree that Lewis is.
This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. In fact, in many ways it’s admirable. Lewis is an expository journalist by nature, and a master storyteller; he’s not a muckraker or news-breaker. We have far too few storytellers in financial journalism, while there are literally thousands of journalists looking to break incremental pieces of news. It’s clear where Lewis’s value lies — he can explain what’s going on to a broad audience of Vanity Fair readers, and doing so in a way that they love to read. No one else could make them care about Greece’s role in the European financial crisis; Lewis’s article on the country is a veritable master class on how to take a dry and recondite subject and make it thoroughly entertaining.
But Lewis’s incredible facility at storytelling is a powerful tool, and we have to be able to trust the craftsman who wields it. Lewis’s stories tend to be far more deeply reported than they seem at first glance, and in order for us to trust that he stands on the side of the angels we have to be able to trust in his judgment about what exactly the real story is. Because his raw material is extensive enough to support just about any thesis he wants.
And this is why the Germany story worries me. Not because it’s wrong, exactly. Lewis hasn’t suddenly converted to some crazy theory of the European financial crisis which fundamentally misstates what’s going on, or misleads his readers. But when he reaches so readily for the feces and fascists, Lewis does make us question his broader judgment. No honest accounting of Germany’s role in the financial crisis would — or should — include either.
I’m inclined to see the lapse of judgment in this case as being one of style rather than substance, and I continue to be a huge fan of Lewis’s journalism generally. But the lines do blur. Malcolm Gladwell has said that good non-fiction writing “succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you”, rather than on its necessarily being right. The result, at least in Gladwell’s case — and, for that matter, in Taibbi’s, too — is oversimplification in the service of style. Lewis, with his Germany piece, has done something a bit different: he’s demonstrated so little faith in the ability of his subject matter to be interesting that he’s resorted to the laziest stereotypes of all. You could even say he’s the kind of person who files a polished and prestigious article for Vanity Fair, but who, on closer inspection, turns out to have filled it up with excrement.