William Faulkner Is One Tough InterviewWillam Faulkner’s grave, with accessories. Credit Bridgman Pottery, rights reserved.
I’ve been…View Post

William Faulkner Is One Tough Interview

Willam Faulkner’s grave, with accessories. Credit Bridgman Pottery, rights reserved.

I’ve been…

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My TL,DR version of “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”

Many have liked  “Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” my Aeon piece challenging Richard Dawkins “Selfish Gene” meme. Quite a few readers have objected to and disagreed with the story, sometimes sharply. Some readers have both liked it andobjected to it. I thank…

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Maker’s Schedule versus Manager’s Schedules

Clive Thompson, who’s now trying to juggle his book tour with presumably actually doing newer work, steered me toward this gem from programmer Paul Graham. Feel free to substitute “writer” for maker throughout. I feel the maker’s pain.

One reason…

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At first, even Michael Lewis sucked. Here’s how he got better.

At first, even Michael Lewis (science writer!) sucked. Here’s how he got better. @ Neuron Culture

He just refused to do the rational thing and quit. In a longer piece, well worth reading in toto, Brain Pickings describes how best-selling author Michael Lewis (barely) got his start in writing:

Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the…

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The Best New Thing I’ve Read in Weeks

This Anthony Lane homage to Elmore Leonard is not only the best thing I’ve read on Leonard. It’s the best new thing I’ve read in weeks. Every sentence rings. Here’s a prime bit:

One problem was that a single page of him made other writers, especially the…

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“Once you hear the Dutch accent you can’t get it out of your head, and for innumerable readers it became a siren song. I fell prey to it in the mid-eighties. Leonard had a breakout, with “Glitz” (1985), and it led many of us to raid the back catalogue with glee. Some of the books weren’t easy to get hold of, and the hunt only sharpened our zeal. A friend and I ravened through whatever we could lay hands on; there is a strange, barely sane satisfaction in happening upon an author—or a painter or a band—and making it your mission to consume everything that he, she, or they ever produced. You rarely succeed, yet the urge for completeness is a kind of love, doomed to be outgrown but not forgotten. I have often pursued the dead in that fashion, but Leonard may be the only living writer who spurred me to such a cause.”

Anthony Lane hits is spot on. And almost every sentence sings. 

The Dutch Accent: Elmore Leonard’s Talk : The New Yorker

Virginia Woolf as a tough but sensitive plant, via E.M. Forster


A glorious find for any Virginia Woolf fan. For someone writing a book about a scientifico-botanical metaphor about the nature of sensitivity and flexibility, it is a treasure. This is from Forster’s very slim volume, Virginia Woolf, 1942, taken from lectures he gave in Cambridge and London in the year after her suicide.

There are two obstacles to a summing up. The first is the work’s richness and complexity. As soon as we dismiss the legend of the Invalid Lady of Bloomsbury, so guilelessly accepted by Arnold Bennett, and we find ourselves in a bewildering world where there are few headlines. We think of The Waves and say “yes – that is Virginia Woolf”; then we think of The Common Reader, where she is different; of A Room of One’s Own or of the preface to Life As We Have Known It: different again. She is like a plant which is supposed to grow in a well-prepared garden bed – the bed of esoteric literature – and then pushes up suckers all over the place, through the gravel of the front drive, and even through the flagstones of the kitchen yard.  She was full of interests, and their number increased as she grew older, she was curious about life, and she was tough, sensitive but tough. 

How To Pick Apart Great Writing: Joan Didion on Ernest Hemingway

How To Pick Apart Great Writing: Joan Didion on Ernest Hemingway | At Neuron Culture

Can you pick apart the magic in a great piece of writing? Not completely, perhaps. But you can learn a hell of a lot trying. Watch Joan Didion, back in 1998 in The New Yorker, do so with one of Hemingway’s most mysteriously gorgeous passages:

In the late…

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“Another writer, recognizing the necessary and irreducible ambiguity of “what really happened,” might resist stating an allegiance. But that sort of mealy-mouthedness is not an option for Malcolm. “Fairmindedness” and “evenhandedness,” she famously observes in The Silent Woman, are only ever “rhetorical ruses.” The strong views that one conceives about the nature of the Hughes-Plath marriage, or about the family life of the Bells, may, as the critic Jacqueline Rose points out, be “false and damaging”—never quite equal to the complexity and infinite nuance of the reality of the case—but it is a “psychological impossibility,” Malcolm argues, for a writer not to arrive at such views. “Without some ‘false and damaging certainty,’” she observes, “no writing…is humanly possible.””
“In what I have written, in separating my Austenian heroines and heroes from my Gogolian flat characters, I have, like every other biographer, conveniently forgotten that I am not writing a novel, and that it really isn’t for me to say who is good and who is bad, who is noble and who is faintly ridiculous. Life is infinitely less orderly and more bafflingly ambiguous than any novel…. We have to face the problem that every biographer faces and none can solve; namely that he is standing in quicksand as he writes. There is no floor under his enterprise, no basis for moral certainty.”

Paraphrasing Reality: The epistemology of narrative technique in science and other writing

Here’s a session David Quammen and I are proposing at ScienceOnline 2014. For me, anyway, it’s one expression of my conviction that we need to remake the conventional science narrative. 

Paraphrasing reality: Epistemology & technique in narrative

alt title for the -ology-averse: Paraphrasing reality: Vividness versus verity in science and other narrative writing

suggested by David Dobbs and David Quammen, who would like to moderate

We like to tell ourselves we’re relaying reality. But we’re not. We are always paraphrasing reality. How do we write in a way that’s realistic while acknowledging that? 

Popular narrative stories about science typically have two goals: to make a story vivid, and to make it accurate. To do this we often rely on certain conventions of reporting, scene-setting, dialogue, and description common to most narrative nonfiction. We also rely on some narrative conventions peculiar to science writing — ways of describing studies or study results, for instance, or the status of debate-v-consensus within a discipline.

These conventions shape narrative elements ranging from descriptions of simple actions (“She asked him to roll up his sleeve, swabbed his arm, and drew blood.”) to the use of quotes (“She said, “You have wonderful veins.’”) to the results of lab tests (“The gene-expression results that came back made one thing clear: Adrian’s time in Iraq had left its mark deep in the machinery of his cells.”)

Those three sentences are typical of the sort found in many scientific narratives. But how true are they to what really happened? How well do they balance vividness and verity? How does the real trustworthiness of these sentences — and whatever larger conclusions they lead to — vary depending on whether the writer a) directly witnessed the scene or b) constructed it from after-the-fact reporting? Can we ever truly trust three sentences like this? Should we really quote her directly if we weren’t there, for instance? Should we clean up her quote if, as is often the case, she stumbled, rewound and fast-forwarded, or changed her sentence halfway through? Might it be better — if arguably less vivid — to simply say, “She told him he had nice veins.”  

How, in short, can one most honestly write a scene like this and still make it vivid? How do we tell or signal to a reader what we’ve witnessed directly, what we’ve compressed, what we’ve reconstructed, and what point of theory is firmly settled and what still in play? What conventions do we need to challenge, revise, toss out, or amend?

This session proposes to examine such questions, brainstorming them by presenting some short passages from science narratives and pressing them with these questions. We’ll focus particularly, at least at first, on conventions surrounding quotations and dialogue. This will be a heavily collaborative session — a focused but hiveminded exploration, which we (David Quammen and David Dobbs) propose to moderate.