On prose and parsimony

Jenny raised an interesting point a couple of days ago. Writing about William Vollmann's Imperial, she asks:
What is it about McPhee’s writing (and I believe also Rebecca Solnit’s, though perhaps you are thinking of others) that effectively invites us in to look more closely at messy landscapes, the ones that, like Imperial County, are accident-ridden, heavily politicized, and full of scars induced by humans? [Suggesting that Vollmann's volume doesn't do this] .... Only a handful of writers have really crafted narratives about often undesirable cultural landscapes and left their readers feeling satisfyingly educated through to the end. It’s the latter which Vollmann unfortunately doesn’t seem to be doing for those who dare approach Imperial.
Jenny's concern (one that I mostly share), is that there's something in Vollmann's style that impedes our understanding of Imperial through Imperial. I don't know if it's that there's too much there, too little organization, too much of Vollmann's prose, or what, but there's something.

But stumbling through the interwebs, I chanced upon a quote that seemed to speak in favor of Vollmann's approach (and perhaps against that of John McPhee). It's from a Sherry Ortner piece entitled, "Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal" (JSTOR). Ortner describes her "ethnographic stance":

It is first and foremost a commitment to what Geertz has called "thickness," to producing understanding through richness, texture, and detail, rather than parsimony, refinement, and (in the sense used by mathematicians) elegance.
The challenge, I suppose, is negotiating between parsimony and Vollmann's brimming-over-prose, but I think Ortner's suggestion is that we tend towards Vollmann's style: Rather than edit, select, and choose, write more, then write it again. Through repetition, something approaching the truth of a place might emerge.


Jordan M said…
From what I've read around the interwebs, Imperial seems difficult to ingest and might have needed, if not editorial oversight by a pro, than a bit of editorial crafting by Vollmann.

I haven't read much, if any McPhee, but I find Solnit highly accessible and able to provide not only all sorts of information but with places to pause for reflection. Her style, and that of Michael Ruhlman, I've found enviable in their ability to say the right thing, at the right length, and convey necessary, though-provoking information. Which is kind of what I thought good nonfiction was about.
Timur said…
I think Jenny would agree with your point - I haven't read any of Michael Ruhlman, but he looks like he might be interesting to check out.

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