At first Steven Pinker was my new hero. Within the first few pages of reading his widely acclaimed “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” he debunks the long-standing myths about the evils of passive voice and killing one’s darlings.
We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should . . . push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naive style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.
Finally! Someone is speaking my language.
And he doesn’t stop there.
The classic manuals . . . try to take all the fun out of writing, grimly adjuring the writer to avoid offbeat words, figures of speech, and playful alliteration. A famous piece of advice from this school crosses the line from the grim to the infanticide: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetuate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (Though commonly attributed to William Faulkner, the quotation comes from the English professor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1916 lectures On the Art of Writing.)
I was thrilled. My top two pet peeves on bad writing advice soundly tromped by the latest style guru.
Pinker goes on to say what most writers would readily agree with, that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader. What’s more, you should acquire “the habit of lingering over good writing wherever you find it and reflecting on what makes it good.”
That’s what he proposes to do in his book, to teach the principles of good style by “reverse-engineering examples of good prose.”
By now, I’m bubbling with enthusiasm, and eagerly turn to his first example, the opening lines of “Unweaving the Rainbow” by Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer.
That’s when my giddy glide toward Pinker fandom comes to a screeching halt, because this paragraph is a ghastly example of good prose.
Shouldn’t, above all, good prose make sense? Failing that, what good is “style”?
But this example is so full of logical inconsistencies and pure nonsense, I’m amazed that a scientist (the supposed epitome of logical and rational thought!) would write it, let alone that a stylist would recommend it. Surely Pinker could have found a better example of good prose.
Don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. It’s not so much the style I object to as its substance:
We are going to dies, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Okay, he has an intriguing premise in his opening line. It makes you sit up and take notice. It makes you want to find out more. I’ll give him that.
But the next sentence is clearly nonsense, and rather than intrigue me, it makes me question the author’s intelligence: not a good sign of good prose. He says, “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” But if “most people” are not born, “they” are not people. His sentence makes no sense. He’s referring to something that doesn’t exist and calling it a person. His terminology is all screwed up. He goes on to call these non-people “potential people,” “unborn ghosts,” and “possible people,” when, in fact, “they” are nothing, non-entities.
What he’s really trying to say, in what he thinks is a clever way, is: “We’re lucky we’re alive.” Because in the bijillion possible ways our DNA could have been strung, it was strung in the way peculiar to us, thus making me “me,” and you “you,” and not someone else.
Fine. I get that. I’m lucky I’m going to die because I’m lucky I was ever born. I’m also lucky I was born a person and not an ant, or algae, or a cancer cell. I’m lucky my daddy’s sperm beat out all the other sperm to penetrate my mother’s egg, and that it was that particular egg, and not another, or I could have a sister I never knew existed because I never would have been born. I’m lucky in a bijillion ways that doesn’t include a specious argument comparing me with “potential people.” Which makes me wonder what caused him to choose that clumsy and rather irrational example?
But let’s move on. Next he claims those potential people (or potential ways of stranding DNA) “will never see the light of day.” Never? Really?
Who is to say that one of those potential people, as he calls them, or possible DNA strandings is not being born as we speak, or will not be born next week, next year, and next century? In fact, aren’t all people pulled from that pool of DNA possibility, including future generations, which will go on peopling our planet onward to eternity, or at least the end of the human race?
If you really think about it, based on his logic, it’s not so much that we “actual people” are luckier than those “potential people,” but that while we are lucky now, at this point in time, they will be lucky later on when our luck has run out.
So, that sentence about “the light of day” makes no sense either. But the next one is even sillier.
He says “certainly” the set of as yet unborn potential people includes poets and scientists greater than the set of already produced people. Certainly?
There’s two things wrong with this sentence.
First he’s presupposing that DNA alone is responsible for poetic and scientific greatness, when certainly our parentage, education, place of birth, economic status, and any number of other criteria is equally important. We could almost certainly say that people who had the potential to be greater than Keats and Newton have already been born, are alive this moment, but sadly for them and us, they were born to a Pygmy tribe in Africa, a female in Afghanistan, or a crack baby in the ghetto. None of which would have had the education or opportunity to reach her or his full potential as poets and scientists.
The second problem with this sentence is that it does not belong in this paragraph. It does not support his topic or strengthen his argument about how lucky we are to be alive. A good editor should have deleted it.
But his most stupefying statement is his last, remarking on the “stupefying odds” that “you and I, in our ordinariness” were ever born. How strange he would come to the conclusion of how “ordinary” we are, for it defies the very point he was making all along. In the terms of his own argument, the very point he is advancing, our very lucky and exceptional birth would qualify us as extraordinary; indeed, far surpassing all those innumerable unlucky, unexceptional, unborn ghosts.
Pinker claims that Dawkins’ purpose, as an “uncompromising atheist and tireless advocate of science,” is to explain how “his world view does not, as the romantic and religious fear, extinguish a sense of wonder or an appreciation of life.”
If that was his purpose, then he failed miserably. For all he did in that opening was to irritate this reader with all his non-logical arguments. The only “wonder” of it for me was how a scientist could write it, and how a stylist could praise him for it.
If I could rewrite his paragraph to remove the logical inconsistencies and yet retain what Pinker claims was Dawkins’ purpose–to move the reader to marvel at the wonder of existence–here is how I would do so:
We are lucky to be alive. That joyous fact should far outweigh any grief in the knowledge of our eventual death. We are lucky because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people containing you and me. Our birth is an exceptional and extraordinary accident. Out of all the innumerable sand grains among the sand dunes of time, the winds of chance happened to pick up the ones producing you and me and spun us into being. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, you and I, in all our uncommon glory, won the mother of all lotteries.