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.