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The literature of our time: Memoirs

2011 September 29
by Ian Welsh

I just finished a little book called  Pandora’s Seed.  It discusses the effects of the agricultural revolution, and how, specifically, those changes are effecting us now and will in the next 100 odd years.  It’s not a great book, but it has some useful information, especially in the first three chapters.  It quickly loses focus after that.

It is also an exemplar of something that I’ve been noticing for the past decade or so.  Virtually every non-fiction book that I read which isn’t a textbook is half a memoir.  They contain huge personal anecdotes, they contain extraneous information which is irrelevant to the subject matter. I don’t care if the guy who discovered X is blond and energetic with wind blown salt and pepper hair and a way of bobbing his head that is reminiscent of macaws.  Nor do I care about your plane journey or the woman who died on it, it’s not relevant.  It does not matter.  Nor do I care about the beautiful aquamarine bay.  It’s not relevant.  Stop wasting my time.

The virtually mandatory writing advice of the day is to make everything “a story” and to personalize everything.  Now, I agree that stories are good, but there are many types of stories.  Stop sticking your personal story into the story of innovation, or agriculture, or whatever else it is.  Anecdotes should illustrate something larger, if used at all.

This is new.  The great books of a generation or two ago, say Jacobs “Life and Death of Great American Cities”, did not do this.

I feel like almost every non fiction book I read these days is a good two or three times longer than its actual, real, content justifies.  They meander, they plod, they slough off on tangents which are, well, tangential.

Again, this is not to say that anecdotes and stories are bad, just that they must be well chosen. It is very rare that a non-biography should include a lot about the author’s life.  And every book should not be a memoir.

Just stop, already.  Say what you have to say, make your story about the subject of your book, not about you or about “the intense green eyed scientist in the rumpled lab-coat.”

It’s padding. It wastes the author’s time and the reader’s time.

Stop.

21 Responses
  1. jcapan permalink
    September 29, 2011

    It parallels the reality TV-ication of the History or Discovery Channels, which actually started out delivering quality material. Or the primacy in recent decades of celebrity newscasters while content has atomized into banal minutiae. Like TV producers who opted for that route, publishing houses are surely encouraging such authorial incursions. Otherwise, editors would chop books down to their proper dimensions. They obviously think readers want to get attached to the author, to get to know him or her as an individual. To the well-read, it’s an insulting ploy, but god knows there are damned few of us around anymore.

    And on some level the practice comforts readers. To see other self absorbed people elides nagging doubts they might have about their own narcissism. They identify with the Greg Mortensons, they see their own tepid life dramas in these authors’ often tedious and maudlin tales.

    In any event, while you offer excellent advice, how many stripped down texts, focusing only on the marrow, would see publication or widespread success in this day and age. This is why I so often turn to the past—rereading Bruce Chatwin or John McPhee or Wallace Stegner is far more enriching than wading through the dumptrack full of rubbish necessary to find one pristinely written text.

    “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”

    Ernest Hemingway

  2. thethirdcoast permalink
    September 29, 2011

    Ian,

    I concur with your observation. Personally, I believe this phenomenon is a symptom of the magical thinking that has come to dominate American society. I work as an engineer, and the sad fact is that, at the end of the day most people I deal with in my profession could care less about scientific observation and data collection. Nope, all they really desire is a good story that leaves them feeling better. Hell of a way to run a business. Or a society.

  3. scruff permalink
    September 29, 2011

    I hadn’t thought about this particular aspect of the problem, but I had noticed that virtually every non-fiction book is about 80% filler useless material. I had assumed it was just because no one publishes essays or pamphlets anymore, and books and bookstores are big business.

  4. Formerly T-Bear permalink
    September 29, 2011

    For 560+ pages “Unreliable Sources, How the 20th century was reported” by John Simpson (ISBN 978-0-330-43563-5) you can get relief from that which you mention, plus, obtain a good history of British press journalism, reporting the stories of that century. Of course it isn’t duhmerican journalism so be prepared to find out something new and different, expand your horizons, “¡LIVE!”*

    * quote from Roslin Russel’s version of “Auntie Mame” by Patrick Dennis

  5. September 29, 2011

    Good observation. And yes, Jane Jacobs was wonderful.

  6. Hairhead permalink
    September 29, 2011

    This fluff-stuff comes from, and is getting worse in the visual non-fiction media, i.e. the science documentary. The old documentaries were full of, well, useful FACTS. Now a science documentary will take fifteen minutes to ASK the question, another forty minutes to ANSWER the question, and no time at all to CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES. The intervening time is commercials, shaky-cam, blurry, cheaply-done “re-enactments”, swooping zooms of newspaper headlines, and blurry home photos of the scientists or adventurers in their backyards. Most contemporary hour-long documentaries on PBS or History could easily be cut down to ten minutes to present their information.

  7. peter cowan permalink
    September 29, 2011

    this is why i have never been able to read michael pollan. A dozen pages later in a chapter ostensibly about apples he is still going on about the idiosyncrasies of his driver.

    Cadillac Desert is a great example of nonfiction, heavy on the storytelling, all of which is totally relevant and engaging.

  8. Watson permalink
    September 29, 2011

    Agreed. I have a similar pet peeve with journalism.

    ‘Who-what-when-where-why’ used to be in the first graf of an article. Nowadays the piece opens with an anecdote, usually warm and fuzzy, that’s supposed to exemplify the story. If the anecdote is much longer than a sentence, I move on. Life is too short.

  9. someofparts permalink
    September 29, 2011

    I wonder what it would be like not to read. I wonder what my mind would be like today if it were empty of all the books I’ve read.

    One of the great things I’m getting from working with dogs is getting used to creatures who don’t use language.

  10. Mudduck permalink
    September 29, 2011

    Reading your comment, Ian, I wondered what you think of John McPhee. His major works take readers through mountains of geology by personalizing geologists. Your point about padding remains. Many books result when an editor reads a promising article and persuades the author to expand it into a book. The book gives it permanent form and perhaps more attention, but often adds little to the article. The padding may be the problem, rather than the author’s intrusion into the narrative. Anyway, popular discourse now is infotainment, meant to divert and propagandize the audience. It’s sedation, not information.

    I also find television documentaries unwatchable — all the talking heads and patronizing dramatizations — the content seems to run about one minute of actual information to ten minutes of fluff. Let me go online and find focused information.

  11. StewartM permalink
    September 29, 2011

    My two cents in watching TV “history” is that many times it’s awful. Awful in that they don’t even get the basic facts correct.

    Case-in-point: A Military Channel Show on the Allied bomber offensive of WWII maintained that:

    1) the USAAF early daylight campaigns suffered low losses in 1942-early ’43 because they were within range of fighter escort;

    2) once they ventured beyond that fighter support, they suffered “30 %” casualties “on every mission”, as one of the talking-head professors *emphatically* stated.

    3) the latter was because the German fighters had cannon on their fighters that outranged the machine guns on the B-17 and B-24 bombers, the same historian reported.

    4) The “self-defending bomber” idea thus proven to be a delusion that the AAF command suffered which resulted in a lot of needless US casualties;

    5) Once the US had long-ranged fighters (the P-51 and others with drop tanks) to protect the bombers, the losses dropped.

    All these “facts” are at least misleading, and some are outright false. When you see a historian repeating nonsense that “they lost 30 % on every mission!!” with emphasis when the 8th AAF *never* lost 30 % even *once* (average loss during the worst part of the war–9.3 %) or that the fighter cannon outranged the bomber defensive guns (when in fact the bomber guns outranged the fighter cannon by a factor of 2 or 3, depending on the caliber)–you have to wonder “what’s this guy’s qualifications to be talking about this?”

    StewartM

  12. Histamine permalink
    September 29, 2011

    This fluff-stuff comes from, and is getting worse in the visual non-fiction media, i.e. the science documentary.

    A truly heinous example was a “science documentary” on the Brooke Greenberg case that spent its first 44 minutes on an Oprah-esque telling of the Uplifting Story of the Greenberg family’s Heroic Struggle to Overcome Adversity and at the very end grudgingly set aside about 40 seconds to mention that oh yeah, there’s a few pointy-headed scientist types out there who find something of interest in the case of a child not aging for 15 years.

    It was rather evident that this slant came from the producers and not from the Greenbergs themselves or from the other interviewees–indeed, at several points an interviewee would start to segue from some banal slice-of-life anecdote into something relating to the medical specifics of the case, only to have the program cut away to the third or fourth account of exactly what cheeses Mrs. Greenberg thought should go in an omelette. After a while I got the sinking feeling that they were actually trying to shame the audience–”BAD viewer! BAD BAD viewer! Expecting to find science in a science documentary!” Afterward I found it hard to convince myself that a show like HORIZON had ever been on the air, and wasn’t just something I dreamed after eating a bad western omelette…

  13. polyblog permalink
    September 29, 2011

    Editors used to be professional. It’s a lost art. It’s why I no longer have a job. It’s no longer considered useful.

  14. beowulf permalink
    September 30, 2011

    Though speaking of a memoir worth reading, last week I downloaded Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography. That Colonel Roosevelt was just a double dose of awesome.
    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3335

    Not for nothing he is the first (and I am certain, last) American President to earn both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor. I don’t know what was more surprising to learn– that his mother was the daughter of slaveowners here in Atlanta, or that if he were any farther ahead of his time in his own social views, he’d be a time traveler (as governor, he desegregated New York public school in 1899). His fundamental decency shines through on every page.
    By this time, as I have said, I was getting our social, industrial, and political needs into pretty fair perspective. I was still ignorant of the extent to which big men of great wealth played a mischievous part in our industrial and social life, but I was well awake to the need of making ours in good faith both an economic and an industrial as well as a political democracy. I already knew Jake Riis, because his book “How the Other Half Lives” had been to me both an enlightenment and an inspiration for which I felt I could never be too grateful. Soon after it was written I had called at his office to tell him how deeply impressed I was by the book, and that I wished to help him in any practical way to try to make things a little better. I have always had a horror of words that are not translated into deeds, of speech that does not result in action—in other words, I believe in realizable ideals and in realizing them, in preaching what can be practiced and then in practicing it.
    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3335

  15. September 30, 2011

    Ian,

    You have such great readers. Thanks to Beowolf, Histamine, Jcapan and others for adding–relevant–embellishments to your thoughtful and well-taken point.

    Other examples of this good-idea-grossly-overdone trend include: tv news stories which always have a “personal example,” campaign speeches which always feature a personalization of an issue (Joe the Plumber, widow-sitting-in-congress-visitors-gallery during State of the Union).

    In politics, it’s an old technique; remember Nixon’s Checkers speech? But I agree, it’s reached new heights in the era of twitterized e”Books” promising to make you a great communicator by improving your story-telling capabilities.

    When is enough too much? It may only be apparent in the rear-view mirror, which you have now described well.

  16. September 30, 2011

    Concerning the ” lead with an example” style of news. When I was in journalism school, that was called “feature writing” and specifically “Wall Street Journal style”. Start with an example person, couple, plant, factory, etc. that illustrates the trend. Tie it to the larger subject of the piece. Spend the piece actually reporting the facts and issues at stake, and then tie it back to that original example. It’s very effective and very informative when done well. It also isn’t the best approach for EVERYTHING, and done badly is extremely irritating.

  17. Mudduck permalink
    September 30, 2011

    Polyblog –

    It’s economic, of course. People buy a book because of the author, the topic, an attractive dust-jacket. Typos and garbled sentences don’t affect sales one whit. Corporate publishers want books that can be sold like beans — series, known authors, or genres that have a ready-made market. The well-written, ground-breaking book not on a hot topic falls into no-mans-land commercially.

    I do get the feeling that the more people there are, the fewer smarts there are to go around. Things have gotten too big. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/25/crisis-bigness-leopold-kohr

  18. PestCon permalink
    September 30, 2011

    While I agree with the statement that there is a lot of filler, I would argue that the style change has been a boon to the nonfiction author and market in general – and perhaps even to readers. Information is understood by a larger group of people when disseminated in a story format; non-academics are provided more access to information when non-fiction books aren’t all written in an academic way. Not incidentally, the publishing industry must be encouraging the trend as they will sell more books.

  19. Adam permalink
    October 1, 2011

    Anyone here read Eating Animals by Safran Foer? There was a lot of ‘padding’ around facts and arguments I had heard countless times before. However, if that leads to a more interesting and moving book whose central point stays with you then … bring on the fluff!

    Been veggie now for over a year :)

  20. beowulf permalink
    October 1, 2011

    “Start with an example person, couple, plant, factory, etc. that illustrates the trend. Tie it to the larger subject of the piece. Spend the piece actually reporting the facts and issues at stake, and then tie it back to that original example. ”

    That reminds me of James Humes’s formula for political speechwriting. E-A-S-E:
    Exemplify — give an example
    Amplify — explain the larger issue
    Specify — here’s the reform we need
    Electrify — let’s go kill the bastards

  21. Quentin permalink
    October 2, 2011

    That’s most journalism of our time. Atmospherics and personalities.

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