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…
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.
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…
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…
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…
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.