Should fictional narrators stop to explain basic science?

Full disclosure: I like the New Yorker. I’m always up for vocabulary-stretching escapism, even if I have to wade through irrelevant front matter (newsflash: the Goings on About Town are mostly useless to readers in the flyover states) bordered by ads for Swiss hotels, Thai resorts, and personalized jewelry.

Every once in a while, however, the New Yorker really pushes my buttons. Sometimes I think it’s little more than a venue for injokes or endless games of one-upmanship, meant to shame any poor soul using split infinitives, forgetting their Oxford commas, admitting they have not read Proust, admitting they only know what a “madeline” is because they did read Proust, or worst of all, using “their” as a convenient gender-neutral singular possessive. At such times, I feel like I’m reading a snarky newsletter issued by a self-selected collective of snooty grammar trolls who live in a bubble and worship a giant umlaut.

Here’s an example, from Lorrie Moore’s review of Richard Ford’s book, Canada. I’ve never read Ford’s books; I’ve no idea if I like his writing or not. Lorrie Moore seems both capable and clever. But I found the aside at the end of this passage from her review surprisingly nitpicky:

Opening in Montana in 1960, “Canada” is a story told by Dell Parsons, the son of a retired Air Force pilot and a schoolteacher — parents who have turned hapless bank robbers, and who are quickly apprehended and sent to jail. Dell also has a twin sister, named Berner. “Berner and I were fraternal twins — she was six minutes older — and looked nothing alike.” (Twins who are not the same sex are always fraternal, not identical: that a narrator would stop to explain this is unfortunate and a mistake, perhaps of the proofreading variety, that it would be good to no longer read in a novel.)

So: Moore is criticizing Ford (and his editor) for letting narrator Dell stop to point out that he and his twin sister are not identical twins. HEAVEN FORBID a fictional narrator should explain something so basic or obvious! OMG! WTF! UMLAUT! DIAERESIS!*

I like snark as much as the next person. But Moore’s parenthetical annoyed me — so much that I wrote this post. (I was also procrastinating).

My first harrumph: Given that Canada is written in the first person, the perspective on “obviousness” that matters is Dell’s, not Moore’s. Few fictional narrators write for the audience comprising readers of the New Yorker. That identical twins cannot have different genders — the detail so obvious or editorially redundant to Moore — may not strike Dell as obvious at all. My first hand experience in Idaho (a scenic Western state betwixt Washington and Montana) indicates that this nuance of twinship is not universally known. While teaching college anatomy and physiology there, I gained a good sense of my students’ baseline knowledge about things like identical twins (that is, not everyone got that question right on exams). Thus, I might well choose to over-clarify that the twins here are not identical, even if their gender should make that evident to a knowledgeable listener. Dell, the son of a schoolteacher, may prefer to “stop” and gently over-explain an issue he anticipates that some listeners may not understand.

My second harrumph: Dell’s statement, as presented in the review, is not necessarily redundant or unnecessary. Without more context, I can’t say that the sentence “Berner and I were fraternal twins — she was six minutes older — and looked nothing alike” is any more of a mistake than “Berner and Sophie were identical twins who looked exactly alike.” I don’t know whether Dell has explained that he’s a twin, that he’s a he, or that Berner is a she (have you ever heard the name “Berner”? I haven’t). We only have Moore’s dour verdict that this sentence is an “unfortunate mistake.”

So, I found and skimmed the beginning of Canada (easy to do on Amazon; the book’s first few chapters seemed engaging). Apparently Dell has done a fair bit of exposition prior to this statement, so I grant that it might seem redundant to an attentive reader. But without reading Moore’s review first, I doubt I’d have noticed any redundancy. The statement begins a passage about the twins’ physical and intangible dissimilarities, where it’s hardly out of place. And I can’t agree that this kind of redundancy deserves a parenthetical slapdown in a book review that is supposed to convey an overall impression of a 400+ page book. The overall impression the review gives is not of a systematically shoddy novel (Moore seems to generally like Ford’s book, as far as I can tell). So why am I reading this kind of line-by-line copyediting? In my opinion, such slapdowns strike me as indulgent mistakes, perhaps of the proofreading variety, that it would be good to no longer read in the New Yorker.

But I didn’t write this post because I thought the New Yorker needed or wanted my advice, nor even because I thought anyone needed or wanted to hear my opinions about how to write book reviews. I wrote it because I think it’s worth pointing out that this is a small but typical example of the kind of writing that leaves many Americans feeling excluded by intellectual culture. It’s one thing to use large, multisyllabic words; it’s another to suggest that writers shouldn’t accommodate readers who don’t share your repertoire of facts. Not everyone gets to the details of twinning in high school biology. And it is NOT necessarily obvious to everyone who might read Canada that boy/girl twins aren’t ever identical. I’ve already mentioned my personal experience teaching about twins. A quick perusal of mommy blogs (if I wrote for the New Yorker, I’d say mommy-blogs are “indispensible, when one wishes to colorfully advert to the quirks and charms of culture outside the umlaut-bubble”) reveals that strangers do ask mothers if boy/girl twins are “identical” (to the mothers’ vocal annoyance). And many fictional portrayals of boy/girl twins treat them as identical, other than gender — like “Twelfth Night.” I think your typical reader should be excused if they do not remember the details of monozygotic and dizygotic twins from high school biology. Perhaps my expectations are too low. But the New York Times has occasionally gone out of the way to define “fraternal” twins as nonidentical, and has noted that twins of different genders were “fraternal twins”.Moreover, it’s at least possible to have boy/girl monozygotic (identical) twins. Yes, it would be unlikely; but the world of contemporary fiction is hardly one that eschews unlikely biological conditions, particularly with respect to gender. Perhaps the most attentive reader is one who realizes that, when reading a novel recently reviewed in the New Yorker, it is efficient to suspend, or even invert, one’s actuarial assumptions.

Regardless, Moore appears unaware that the average American doesn’t enjoy a high level of scientific literacy. Perhaps she forgets that writing for the New Yorker is writing for a self-selected, highly educated audience. (It’s possible, right?) I should hope that if she realized that the reading public could, on average, use a little over-clarification, she would not object to Ford including it. Such an objection might suggest that either people ignorant of such basic facts don’t/shouldn’t read contemporary fiction, or that contemporary fiction should not be written with their perspective in mind — that is, Ford shouldn’t stoop to dumb down, or clutter up, his work.

By the end of Moore’s review, I wasn’t so sure she wanted a girl from hicksville (like me) reading Ford’s book, her review, or the New Yorker itself. Yes, I know the biology of twinning, because I happen to have a PhD. But I certainly wouldn’t remember the details, if I ever knew them in the first place, if I’d gone into another field of study. That doesn’t mean every author has to stop to explain concepts like twinning and gender. But I don’t think an author should ever feel bad about doing it, if it seems like something the narrator (especially a mommy blogger!) would in fact do, just in case.

When I complain about an article (or blog post), I always have to finish it all, like vegetables: there’s always a chance the last line says “Hey! I’ve been totally tongue-in-cheek this whole time; sorry if you were too dense to catch on. UMLAUT!” So after I wrote the first half of this post, I bet myself that in the last page and a half of the review, I’d find further evidence that Moore is writing for a certain kind of reader — a reader who savors diaereses, a reader who could be trusted to draw accurate inferences from twins’ genders, a reader worthy of Ford’s book and this review. And then I read it.

This is what I found:

There is a story about John Cheever that was once told at Yaddo by a painter in residency there. She was sitting next to Cheever discussing upstate New York, and told him, “Last year, I went to Cohoes to buy shoes with Hortense.” “Oh, what a wonderful sentence,” he exclaimed. . . at which point the painter thanked her lucky stars that she wasn’t a writer, since she had no idea what was remotely lovely about the sentence. . .

Richard Ford’s “Canada” may be a similar experience, though his focus is on a different America from Cheever’s, and his lyricism is the reverse of, say, Nabokov’s tight, pebble-hearted poetry. . . A certain musicality and alertness is required of [Ford's] reader; one has to hear it instinctively and rhythmically.

Okay.

Look, I get it. I’d invoke Seamus Heaney, not Cheever, but I get the point about musicality, and I get that sometimes a writer wants to root around in her word-hoard and construct a mosaic of anecdote or allusion. Stopping to explain what Yaddo is, who Cheever is, how to pronounce “Cohoes” so its juxtaposition with “shoes” can be appreciated — these concessions would break Moore’s rhythm.** At least she holds true to the principle she applies to Ford’s work: let your less-informed readers flounder (or let them use Google!) But I can’t help feeling that Moore, by resorting to a tribish string-cite intelligible only to a highly selected readership, and deliberately eschewing any explanation, means to remind Ford, and reassure the New Yorker faithful, that only that readership matters. Which seems rather “pebble-hearted” to me (and not in a good way).

*I was charmed by Mary Norris’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of the magazine’s adherence to the umlaut-doppleganger, the diaeresis, although I can’t say the same for the diaeresis itself.

**I’m aware of Yaddo and Cheever (I probably only know Yaddo from the New Yorker), but I didn’t know how to pronounce “Cohoes.” You are free to judge me for this, but only if you can also pronounce “Spokane” and “Puyallup” correctly.

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