Sunday, July 01, 2012

Writing Today

I finally decided I had read as much as I am going to of van den Berghe's The Ethnic Phenomenon, which I referenced before in Orphans and Tribalism. (For those who don't want to bother, that was 1970'-80's marxist sociologist who was an early sociobiologist.)

The writing was generally clear but not vivid - only the ideas dragged me forward, such as a discussion of how colonialism was different in tropical and temperate zones, and in Northern European versus Southern European (and thus Protestant versus Catholic) colonies. Quite interesting.

I contrasted this to the books that were accumulating next to my reading chair, given to me by wife and sons who know my reading tastes well. They looked interesting. They looked like fun, especially in contrast to a work clearly intended to be a college sociology textbook for a 400-level course.

Yet as I picked up the first of the newer works, it contained - first page of the prologue - one of the things that irritates me about modern writing, mind reading of political figures*.  It's Robert Draper's book on the 2008 congress, and to all appearances it is the work of a somewhat liberal MSM figure who is nonetheless trying to be entirely fair and is good enough that the conservative figures seem to have trusted him enough to give him info.  Such people are absolutely to be encouraged, and I'll poke at the book again almost immediately.  But he started with a meeting among top Republicans the night of the Obama inauguration and described what they were thinking about the unprecedentedly huge crowd.  Sheer nonsense. But the book looks good.

After, that is, I have read Bryan Sykes new DNA + genealogy book.  I like Sykes's work very much.  Yet right off, he tells a story about a bison hunt in AZ 10,000 years ago (he wants to get to discussions of Clovis Points and when the Amerinds arrived) which includes such details as the children taunting the rattlesnakes with sticks while the band waited in the canyon for the herd. He doesn't know this.  There is no freaking way that he knows this, just as there is no freaking way that Draper knows what the Republicans were thinking at the dinner even if he interviewed them later. I pressed on, because a glance 30 pages in told me it was not going to continue in this vein.  I'm liking the Sykes book, and I imagine I will like the Draper book, and I really hope the David Hackett Fischer book about price fluctuations in history that my other son gave me does not start off with some imaginary conversation or mind-reading.

But - however I rail against it, these things are as they are because we have asked authors to do this.  The books are far more interesting this way, as evidenced by the relative sales of Sykes, Draper, and Fischer versus van den Berghe.  I complain, but I like it.  Or at least, enough people like me like it, and I am content with their leading.

*Apparently happening with talking heads about Roberts now.  Why do we listen to people who assert, absent any evidence whatsoever, why he voted as he did other than the immediate superficial reading of the legal opinion? 


Sam L. said...

People like to guess. Guess right and BINGO! Guess wrong and likely no one will know why, or care. Upside much greater than downside.

Dubbahdee said...

It is a characteristic of modern writing to dress things up to make them *seem* more real, even when (as you note) the observations recorded clearly cannot be real. They add a sort of ghost flesh to the hard bones of the facts of the story -- and you are right -- we like it that way.

I am often frustrated and bemused by the biblical authors tendency to tell stories in such spare, bare prose. At least it seems that way to me, steeped as I am in modern literary forms. I have to constantly remind myself that we tell stories differently today.

Also interesting to compare this to recent flaps over invented memoirs that purport to reveal a broader truth.

Sam L. said...

"Purport"--you know you're in trouble when someone purports...

Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

I want to point out in defense of the Sykes' DNA book (which I gave David for Father's Day) that at the end of the description of the hunt, the author points out that the details of the hunt are imagined.

karrde said...

A good story will cover a few flaws in logic. It will also do a good job of distracting from important assumptions.

But that doesn't mean a good story is the wrong way to write. A good author can use the story to illustrate the point while not hiding his assumptions, and while avoiding logical mis-steps.

The important part is the good author.

However, I do have a slight distrust of an authorial style that requires a good story.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I could plow through a textbook-style tome without a teacher who is willing to tell stories to aid in memory and comprehension...