Sunday, April 09, 2006

all the little hatchets that came up

I've been listening online and on NPR to fiction writers/poets and scientists, trying to talk to each other about how science works in literary fiction and poetry. So far it's been a complete bust. Characteristic was an exchange between a poet and a quantum-computing guy on NPR on Friday. The poet, petulant, demanded to know how quantum computing was going to be fantastic and revolutionary and change her life, and the science guys were so excited a poet had called that they started grasping at how poetic quarks are. Once again: Poet talking about a person (even if herself); scientists talking about quarks.

Also characteristic was a discussion I had with an advisor to the University of Iowa's Literature, Science and the Arts program, during which he kept trying to hook me up with nonfiction and science-fiction writers -- anything that had to do with writing. The idea of literary fiction as a separate discipline wasn't really there. Towards the end he looked sort of baffled and said he didn't really hear much from non-SF fiction people.

It occurred to me that a primary quality of the science writing I've read, by scientists and nonscientists, is of breakneck speed. Terrific enthusiasm, terrific pushing-ahead, and a tangible sense that this is very exciting but there's a lot of work to do, and we're on our way to something. In what I've seen of science, too, there's pressing, pressing, pressing ahead, scheduling the experiments, at the edge of the chair for results for the next paper, the next conference. I don't see that there's time for chewing over the words and making perfect sentence. This is is not, as far as I've known, the mood of poetry and literary fiction writing. Both are contemplative and reflective, and demand perfect sentences, or as close as you know how to make them. And maybe this difference in how we work is a real impediment when we try to talk.

I'm looking at the little bookshelf in my office, and -- well, here are two science writers, two literary writers. John McGahern first, by way of memorial, from his novel The Dark opened at random:
You went the same road back, rage seething, and failure. People had to go among people, they needed other people, yet they couldn't be easy, all the little hatchets that came up. Wouldn't it be better for them to stay alone in the fields and rooms, and let the world come or pass in whatever shape it would? Why couldn't the Ryans listen to you tell them that Joan was leaving and no more, instead of driving knives at you, and why had you the same urge to knife them back? Then you couldn't think when you imagined that meek bastard alone with her in the bathroom.

And here is Wallace Stevens ("The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract"):

This day writhes with what? The lecturer
On This Beautiful World Of Ours composes himself
And hems the planet rose and haws it ripe,

And red, and right. The particular question -- here
The particular answer to the particular question
Is not in point -- the question is in point.

What's important there, the language, not just the vision but the language, because without having the language right the exactness and depth of the peculiar vision won't be there. Here by contrast is Dawkins, using language not to paint but to illustrate:

So what do we mean by a miracle? A miracle is something that happens, but which is exceedingly surprising. If a marble statue of the Virgin Mary suddenly waved its hand at us we should treat it as a miracle, because all our experience and knowledge tells us that marble doesn't behave like that.

(I was going to quote from a book called The Abacus, which a publisher's rep gave me years ago and which I've been carting around ever since, but it's terrible, and I see I ought to throw it out instead of inflicting it on you.)

Anyway. The difference between illlustration and painting might not be a terrible metaphor. Maybe the closest analogue between science writing and literary fiction might be when the science is new and exists only in the mind of the scientist. At that point the scientist is not trying to illustrate something that's already out in the world and understood, if understood in various ways, but is trying to paint some reality which, at that moment, only he can see.

7 comments:

JohnM said...

The breakneck speed thing is definitely a barrier to reflection. James Gleick does a thorough job describing the pervasiveness of that trend in Faster. It's a quick read. ;)

Your post title reminded me of one of the quotes from Diane Ackerman that I posted recently; I think she's an interesting mix of contemplative literary writing and optimism about the progress of science.

I also recently read Dawkins' River out of Eden, and while he is effusively pro-science and relentlessly anti-mystic, the passage I quote here is a good example of some of the inspirational awe and wonder you can tell that he has for nature, and shares with many a poet. Dawkins and Ackerman (here's a good example) often seem to be saying, "Hey! You poets! Get your nose out of your own navel and look at all this amazing stuff in nature! You want truth and beauty? I got your truth and beauty right here! Ever seen a bee dance?"

abramoff said...

I don't agree. Look at Nabokov, the literary writer / scientist if any, who was very meticulous in his choice of how he painted his sentences. A scientist who also writes literature, as Nabokov, is very different from and not at all a scientist using science in his or her writing. Which is where some of the confusion may come from.
And science writing is nothing if not reflective and intertextual: if I write a paper, every word, every comma, every inflection, has to be based on either something written somewhere else (true) or something observed. And that what is observed and cannot be based on something written somewhere will be by necessity only a very small part of the paper. And this small part you would describe by 'breathneck speed and immediacy'. While on the contrary, one step too fast or too far, one comma, one inappropriate word, and you have lost the reader or reviewer.

Amy Charles said...

I don't agree. Look at Nabokov, the literary writer / scientist if any, who was very meticulous in his choice of how he painted his sentences.

OK, but that's his literary writing. Did he do science writing of that quality, too?

And science writing is nothing if not reflective and intertextual: if I write a paper, every word, every comma, every inflection, has to be based on either something written somewhere else (true) or something observed. And that what is observed and cannot be based on something written somewhere will be by necessity only a very small part of the paper. And this small part you would describe by 'breathneck speed and immediacy'. While on the contrary, one step too fast or too far, one comma, one inappropriate word, and you have lost the reader or reviewer.

I should clarify; to me, "science writing" generally means "popular or layman's science writing" rather than scientific papers.

Apart from that, though, yes, that's what I've seen, the papers I've been able to read have been exceedingly careful, precise, and constrained. I think there's a similar quality in judicial opinions, where the most exciting ones have small parts that are very carefully written and new, and there they spring to life.

Oh -- I see some of the problem. I'd written, in the context of doing science: I don't see that there's time for chewing over the words and making perfect sentence. And yeah, I'm wrong there. The language is not poetic, but it's intentional and precise, and reflective -- though I would argue there's also a quality of pressing toward a point, however deliberately, that you don't often find in fiction or poetry, and I think that has to do with inherent differences between argument and art.

I'm thinking now of very good science writers who are also scientists, and while the writing is precise (but not often poetic), again, that quality of speed is back. That perception may come from not being widely-read enough. But the only science writing I can think of that falls into the recursive, reflective wonderings of fiction and poetry -- which differs from speculation in the willingness to wander into a swamp and simply sit with what's there, without searching for tools or arguments, emerging after some while with images and rich propositions -- the only stuff like that I know are nonscientist essays on ecology. I will look around, though. If you know other science writing that fits the description, let me know.

Amy Charles said...

John -- I think one thing that's missed, maybe more by observers than by either scientists or poets, is that there's a difference between awe and poetry. Confusing the two generally leads to people trying to "be poetic" and strain to gussy up whatever plain thing they might see (including their own awe) or paste cliches all over it.

Excitement at bee dance is not necessarily poetry, either. Poetry -- the written kind -- is a recognition of bee dance. If the poet digs, fine; if not, no bee dance poetry.

Brad Hoge said...

I think your metaphor of illustrating rather than painting is similar to the literary writer's adage of show, don't tell. As a scientist I must learn to tell my story convincingly. As a poet I must learn to show my meaning through metaphor rather than didactically stating my point. It is difficult to master both approaches in their unique arenas. To combine the two in a single arena is perhaps even more daunting. The best popular science writers are able to capture the beauty of language as a tool for exposing deeper meaning while maintaining clear language that explains a scientific principle. While perhaps not antithetical, the balance of these two approaches cannot be completely satisfactory. This may be why science writing has not gained the popularity of nature writing. A reader must be able to keep the same balance as the writer, and most will tend to focus on one aspect or the other.

Brad Hoge said...
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JohnM said...

'there's a difference between awe and poetry'

Right. I guess my point was that many scientists I've talked with express frustration with those authors and poets who seem so self-absorbed or jaded that they miss the wonder of nature. Not only is there no recognition that bees communicate via what we anthropomorphize as 'dance', but there seems to be no curiosity about that kind of phenomenon, either. Scientists often see writers and non-scientists in general as overly absorbed with mundane human interaction and oblivious of the natural world and their affects on it. The rare teacher of writing who does recognize the non-human texture of life gets frustrated. Is this sympotomatic of an urban, electronic culture where kids often don't spend much time outdoors? Do they not collect rocks and leaves and play with bugs? I think that's where a lot of awe for nature comes from, especially if their science teachers are only a chapter ahead in the warning-stickered textbook. :)