Between the Covers
Welcome to Biotech Nation: A Brief Lesson in Longwinded Writing
By James H. Johnson
Oct 11, 2007

I’m trying to figure out how to tell this story without anyone knowing who I’m talking about.

“Oh, come on,” you say, “There are six billion people on the planet. Just tell the story.”

So begins chapter eight of Moira Gunn’s Welcome to Biotech Nation. By the time I reached chapter eight, I thoroughly agreed with Ms. Gunn’s opening sentiment.

Moira Gunn

Just tell the story. Please.

I’m not comfortable with trashing others’ books, because I’ve written one and I grasp how much effort goes into such a thing – especially nonfiction. And I hold in the highest regard those writers who can transform dense subjects – physics, the biological sciences, philosophy – into informative and entertaining books. That’s tough stuff.

Carl Sagan was really good at it. Neil deGrasse Tyson is phenomenal. Edward O. Wilson has an uncanny ability to weave complex science and philosophical thought. But, of course, these are Great Thinkers, and thus their books must be good – and even reading their books can go slow at times. 

But to avoid losing or confusing the reader, those writers follow several writerly requirements. For example, a book’s title is indicative of its contents. Also, they abstain from dropping the phrase, “you go, girl,” more than once in the first thirty pages. Or ever.

However, there is a single, essential element that is paramount to any kind of successful writing: The story must be told. When a story is too long in the telling, the reader is lost, and the book is closed, never to be reopened. Unfortunately, Gunn’s new book, Welcome to Biotech Nation, is a little anemic on the tale-telling front.

 Again, the example from chapter eight:

“Oh, come on,” you say, “There are six billion people on the planet. Just tell the story.” Yes, but how many are the chairman of global pharmaceutical firms? They’re quite well known and obviously visible. You insist again. “You’ve been naming names this entire book!” Right again, but I haven’t told quite this kind of story.

Personally, I do not enjoy when writers put words in my mouth, and I abhor when they animate those words with punctuation that I would not use verbally, such as an exclamation point, an umlaut or a tilde.

Perhaps I should call it “The Case of the Invisible Journalist.” Not in the sense that members of the press lurk about, primed to jump out and report some embarrassing incident, relishing an opportunistic invasion of privacy at a time that would strategically do the most damage, political or otherwise.

Quiet clearly, she will soon be engaging in the latter. 

No, I’m talking about how a member of the media can be standing in full view, practically with a press card sticking out of his or her nose, and actually engaged in conversation with a very public and newsworthy person…and this person does something utterly inexplicable.

Right. Got it. What’d he say?

It’s as if he has totally forgotten that you are a member of the press. Or that a reasonable person who doesn’t know him on an intimate basis is standing next to him.

Yup. The dude is totally not paying attention to you, and he’s saying something stupid. Give it to me.

It’s the you-are-invisible-to me phenomenon at its finest, and you really have to wonder what the person can possibly be thinking.

Actually, no, I do not wonder. If I knew what he’d said or who he was, then, maybe. Now I’m wondering how I picked up the wrong book. I thought this was supposed to be an “Odyssey into the Land of Small Molecules, Lean Genes, and Big Ideas.” At least, that’s how the thing’s subtitled. I want to learn something.

But, hey, we got through it, right? She’s built the story all the way to its apex, the height at which a tale must fall back to the ground, or else it will break free of earth’s atmosphere and be lost to the darkness of space. Forever.

So, Ms. Gunn, please, what did the guy say? 

I actually wonder if the fella I’m talking about will recognize himself if he does read this chapter…

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. 

No, he won’t recognize himself. At this point, he’s lost interest in chapter eight. He’s fallen asleep in his Laz-Y-Boy, with the book face down on his lap and a television buzzing in the background.

And yet she continues. I won’t force you to suffer anymore, for fear that you might lose interest.

Instead, I offer the opening paragraph of David Quammen’s article “Clone Your Troubles Away”:

One morning early last winter a small item appeared in my local newspaper announcing the birth of an extraordinary animal.

Hmm. What animal?

A team of researchers had succeeded in cloning a whitetail deer. Never before done. The fawn, known as Dewey, was developing normally and seemed to be healthy.

Ah. A deer. Like Bambi.

Bambi

He had no mother, just a surrogate who carried his fetus to term.

Okay, so not like Bambi, but I still have an image of a Bambi-like creature.

He had no father, just a “donor” of all his chromosomes. He was the genetic duplicate of a certain trophy buck out of south Texas whose skin cells had been cultured in a laboratory. One of those cells furnished a nucleus that, transplanted and rejiggered, became the DNA core of an egg cell, which became an embryo, which in time became Dewey.

Bambi-Blob
 

Okay, so more of a Bambi-blob, but why is this important?

So he was wildlife, in a sense, and in another sense elaborately synthetic. This is the sort of news, quirky but epochal, that can cause a person with a mouthful of toast to pause and marvel. What a dumb idea, I marveled.

Suddenly I am transported to Quammen’s kitchen table, and side by side, we sit with our mouths slightly open in wonder. Just as we reach for a sip of juice to wash down our dry mouthful of toast, we agree: This is weird. But interesting. Even better, Quammen’s humor is subtle, but also functional. It immediately produces for the reader’s pleasure a conflict: Why are the far-off boundaries of science focused on cloning deer

And by the next paragraph, we begin to find out.

While researching how to build a proposal to sell a book to literary agents, I ran across a nugget of information that proved invaluable for many reasons. If you want to be able to sell your book, you must be able to explain the whole thing in writing on the back of a business card. You must be able to tell two hundred pages in a sentence or two. The idea is this: When you run into a literary agent or publishing executive in an elevator, you can sell them the book between when the doors close and when they re-open. 

I’m afraid that if Moira Gunn were to unexpectedly find herself in an elevator with a publishing executive and was asked to explain her book, she could only answer: 

I’m trying to figure out how to tell this story…



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