Monday, March 24, 2014

Great prose

I've moved on from a Ruth Rendell novel which dragged on a bit (maybe more on that later) to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  At the beginning, Pollan spent a little too much ink and energy attacking the poor Twinkie.  I mean, what food writer and non-extrusion specialist doesn't have it in for the Twinkie, it's too easy a target.  I thought he had gotten lazy.  But he hadn't.

Aside from the fact that they're white males, there's one commonality between some of the authors I'm coming to view (and, admittedly, it's a pretty canonical list) as the great non-fiction writers of the last generation or two:  Robert Caro, John McPhee, Peter Hessler, Michael Lewis, Pollan.  They are able to infuse small observations and conclusions within their arguments as not just necessary but monumental:. note how the specific procreative methods of corn destine it for dominance!  Even as a child, Lyndon Johnson had already acquired the devious habits that would carry him to greatness!  How the specific geological properties of the soil in the mountains above LA contribute to the growth of fire-prone brush and the preconditions of massive mud slides!

There's all this little stuff, but it concatenates into a narrative of necessity, as if of its own accord.  Thing is, it's a narrative no one other than the author has ever seen, or at least nobody's ever patched it together. I think that what holds these guys' best work together is enthusiasm, which lets them spelunk into the details and then spin it together in a lovely but robust yarn.

Back to the point on the white maleness of it all.  First off, as Caro fully and repeatedly acknowledges, the success of his enterprise derived from his decades-long partnership with his wife Ina, his sole researcher for many decades.  She's got books of her own, maybe I should check them out, though the subject matter's not so compelling. I do need to look for more women non-fiction writers.

Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed, by contrast, is held together by outrage rather than enthusiasm, and she delves into stuff we already kinda know but don't want to think about, just like we don't want to think about how hamburger happens.  It could be that enthusiasm is just another privilege of which I like to avail myself.

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