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.