During my most recent library trip (the same one in which I picked up piles of books on pitching books) I checked out “Good Prose:  the Art of Nonfiction” by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.  It had a pretty cover.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’ve read two other books by Kidder, one recently.  (His name won’t seem to stick in my mind.)

Over the summer I read House, and a few years back, I had read Mountains Beyond Mountains.

House, in many ways, is a very strange book.  It’s non-fiction written in third person, which one hardly ever sees outside of newpaper articles.  But, the pacing in the book House is nothing like news:  it’s a story, covering some years, of a couple building a house and the architects and contractors who work with them.  It sounds rather boring, but it’s fascinating.

Writing in narrative nonfiction in that third person voice is so unusual, that it highlights grace and drama in the story with little effort. When I started to read House, I was totally surprised by the texture and tone, though I don’t think I could really put my finger on what was odd about it.  I insisted on reading passages out loud to Daniel, saying, “listen, isn’t this so weird sounding?”  Click through the “look inside” preview on Amazon to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

“Good Prose” is about the history of Kidder, the writer and his editor, Todd.  It’s about writing, and also about how much editing and re-editing happens.

As a non-writer who writes a lot, I thought I might understand a bit more about pacing and flow from the book.  I’m driven to write by wanting to communicate ideas, not by the art of writing.  The books I appreciate most use language to communicate, not as poetry, and present interesting ideas clearly.

But it’s inevitable that one develops a style of writing.  Usually after I write a post, I go back and remove about half of the “conversational elements” –  the intentionally incomplete sentences, the you knows, the I thinks, the hahas, the paranthetical comments.  (I still leave a lot in the posts as well, clearly.)

Kidder and Todd go on to describe four different styles of non-fiction writing: journalese, vernacular, institutionalese, and propaganda.   This blog is, of course, written in vernacular. Tech sites in general use vernacular, fashion websites tend to be written in institutionalese.  Opinion pages in the newspaper- any newspaper- are usually propaganda.

In part because I write only non-fiction-  essays really, as here – I was interested by a passage written by Kidder on the moral implications of writing non-fiction.  He starts by addressing the fact that objectivity can only be but an aim when writing or reporting, but goes on to strongly criticize those who rely too heavily on the intellectual prop of subjectivity:

“So yes, of course, just about everything is subjective. But people who take a particular glee in that idea usually have other agendas.  It is only a couple of steps to the idea that all opinions are equally valuable, that because truth is muti-faceted, and indeed infinite if you slice it finely enough, then all truth is equally valuable and equally suspect. ‘If it’s true for you, then it’s true’ – that whole quagmire of postmodern nihilism. Subjectivity is for some people a disinhibiting drug.  It absolves them of responsibility.”   (p.85 “Good Prose” Kidder and Todd, 2013, Random House.)

It was perhaps first during art school that I was introduced to the idea  that all truth is relative (which I do not believe), and that there is no universal truth.  One quickly reaches a conversation about metaphysics, in the philosophical sense, not the colloquial sense.

Like the stance of victim-hood, the stance of believing truth is only subjective doesn’t seem particularly useful for us either as individuals or as a human community.

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Posted by:brook delorme

Languages & Thinking Patterns www.brookdelorme.com https://www.youtube.com/user/brookdelorme

2 replies on “Prose & Subjectivity

  1. Happy Holidays, Brook! I have not read Kidder, but I enjoyed reading your musings on “subjective truth.” I agree and I disagree with you. There are things that are indisputably matters of fact (1 + 1 = 2) and others that are, similarly indisputably, matters of opinion (the greatest composer of all time, the best ice cream, etc.). But there are things that occupy a kind of middle ground that are increasingly treated as matters of opinion when in fact they belong in the same category as math sums. The fact, for example, that the planet is warming, and that is it largely a result of human inputs. I recall a snarky article – wish I could find it – titled “no, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” in which the author distinguishes between one’s right to believe x, y or z, and one’s right to have that belief treated as a serious candidate for truth.

    So I agree with you absolutely that truth in the big sense is not relative. But I also agree with Kierkegaard regarding those things (obviously I’m not talking about mathematical theorems or climate change) that can’t be subjected to scientific verification, that can’t be proven objectively (here I’m talking about matters of faith, the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus Christ, etc.). Because those things cannot be proven to be true, objectively speaking, does not mean they are not true. Subjective proof can be sufficient. So, does the belief, whatever it is, result in increasing wholeness, psychological integration, etc.? Or does it lead to a withdrawing from the world, to the disintegration and breakdown of the person, etc. I loved this when I found it because I’ve just never been able to explain my belief to anyone, I’m perplexed by it myself, because I am a skeptic by nature, but I know I am happier and more whole when I live it as if true than otherwise. And it’s enough. The subjective truth of it. I don’t really need other proof.

    “Subjective” truth is also very hard to dispute. If you’ve experienced something as true, chances are that no matter what arguments (objective truths, the impossibility of miracles, etc.) I present, you will have a hard time giving up your belief.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s not an either/or. It’s not that truth is relative, rather, that verification is only sometimes objective. Make sense?

    1. hey Elizabeth! happy holidays as well :)

      Yes- subjective truth- i.e. what is true for me- can’t help but be true. Similarly, I too fundamentally believe in spiritual matters and no amount of “proof” could lead me to atheism.

      When I was writing this- and I think what the passage in the book was referring to- was the idea that moral truths could be subjective- that right and wrong are subjective.

      I guess the other thing to always keep in mind, as well, especially with scientific matters, is that what’s considered indisputably true in one era is often superseded by the following era’s discoveries. I personally can’t take any stance on climate change and what might be done to remedy it scientifically- not being a scientist and all, and not really reading much of the current literature on the subject. But I really, deeply feel that human impact on the planet- over consumption of resources – is not going to be remedied by scientific methods- it’s going to be remedied by a change of philosophy, emotional security, and perspective. Trying to fix the problem via improved technology is like a bandaid. It reminds me of this article last week about scientists trying to research solutions to obesity via studying bears. As the article goes on to describe, bears can put on 100 pounds in a quick period of time without suffering from heart attacks! or high blood pressure! What is it that they are doing differently from humans on a biological level and all?

      http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303330204579246003604081632

      To me, this is just nonsense and sciencism. They are bears. Human obesity is caused by overeating bad food and not moving, which are caused by emotional/ purpose-level/ or perhaps metaphysical causes. This is science looking for a solution through science, as opposed to through root causes.

      I have not read Kierkegaard- but I should like to. This year’s reading list is getting longer!

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughts :)

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