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Trips to Cleveland

Helen DeWitt writes about The Ask, the new book by Sam Lipsyte, author of a hilarious book I read a couple years ago about a loser guy who goes to his high school reunion. I haven’t read Lipsyte’s new book but was interested to see that he teaches at Columbia. Perhaps I can take him to lunch (either before or after I work up the courage to call Gary Shteyngart and ask him about my theory that the main character of that book is a symbol of modern-day America).

In any case, in the grand tradition of reviewing the review, I have some thoughts inspired by DeWitt, who quotes from this interview:

LRS: I was studying writing at college and then this professor showed up, a disciple of Gordon Lish, and we operated according to the Lish method. You start reading your work and then as soon as you hit a false note she made you stop.

Lipsyte: Yeah, Lish would say, “That’s bullshit!”

If they did this for statistics articles, I think they’d rarely get past the abstract, most of the time. The methods are so poorly motivated. You’re doing a so-called “exact test” because . . . why? And that “uniformly most powerful test” is a good idea because . . . why again? Because “power” is good? And that “Bayes factor”? Etc.

The #1 example of motivation I’ve ever seen was in the move The Grifters. In a very early scene, John Cusack gets punched in the stomach and is seriously injured, and that drives everything else in the plot.

DeWitt quotes Gerald Howard:

Lish’s influence can been seen in Sam’s obvious concentration on the crafting of his sentences and his single-minded focus on style, a quality less prevalent in the work of younger American writers than it should be. (Savor the perfectly pitched ear required to turn a simple phrase like “a dumpling, some knurled pouch of gristle.”) Sam replies that “Gordon said many things that I will never forget, but the one thing that I always think about is that he said once, ‘There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part.’ And so I think that when people are writing their novels they are just thinking about the story, about what has to happen so their character can get to Cleveland. . . .”

The way I put it (from the perspective of nonfiction writing) is “Tell ’em what they don’t know.” And, ever since having read The Princess Bride many years ago, I’ve tried to put in only the “good parts” in all my books. That was one thing that was fun about writing Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks. We felt no obligation to be complete or to include boring stuff just because we were supposed to. Most textbooks I’ve seen have way too many trips to Cleveland.

One thing I say about statistics is: I always try to fit the dumbest, simplest possible model for any problem I’m working on. But, unfortunately, the simplest method that is even plausibly appropriate for any problem is typically just a little bit more complicated than the most complicated thing I know how to fit.

I guess there’s a similar principle in writing: You restrict yourself to the good stuff, but there’s just a bit too much good stuff to fit in whatever container you have in mind. And then you must, as the saying goes, kill your darlings.

P.S. To connect to another of our common themes: Ed Tufte’s mother, of all people, wrote a good book about the construction of sentences. Sentences are important and, to the best of my knowledge, nonalgorithmic That is, I have no clean method for constructing clear sentences. I often have to rephrase to avoid the notorious garden-path phenomenon. I wonder how Vin Scully did it. Was it just years of practice?

P.P.S. One thing I love about Marquand are his chapter titles. I can’t usually hope to match him, but he’s my inspiration for blog entry titles such as this one.

P.P.P.S. I finally read The Ask.

7 Comments

  1. Nick Cox says:

    I am sure there are plenty of people to whom Ed Tufte is Virginia Tufte's son. What did you mean by that comment?

  2. Jeremy says:

    "Most textbooks I've seen have way too many trips to Cleveland."
    Hey wait a second, some of us live in Cleveland!

  3. JF says:

    To make presentations on good graphing technique, I've been going to Cleveland time and again for advice on scale breaks, dot plots, etc. I've been encouraging my audience to go see Cleveland, too.

    Hmmm, I wonder if they think I take too many trips to Cleveland.

    Oh, wait. Nevermind.

  4. Andrew Gelman says:

    Nick: What I meant was that (a) Ed Tufte's mother wrote a good book about the construction of sentences, and (b) I was surprised to learn that the author of that book was Ed Tufte's mother. I can well believe that others might have heard of Virginia Tufte first; I, like many statisticians I'm sure, had heard of Ed but not Virginia.

    JF: Yes, I'm a big Cleveland fan also. My textbooks take many trips there.

  5. Steve Sailer says:

    Sam Lipsyte's "The Ask" is very funny with extremely-well crafted sentences. In terms of prose style, it reminds me of a more carefully-written "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:"

    "I crawled to the computer and hoisted myself into the chair. It was time to catch up on the state of the world. I'd start with the Middle East. I found the report of a recent debate between two professors at the Ivy League college uptown. One of the experts said the Palestinians were irrational and needed a real leader, like maybe a smart Jewish guy. The other professor said that the central paradox to all of this was that Jews both were Nazis and didn't really exist. But how could they be both? He was still working on it."

  6. Nick Cox says:

    Andrew: Thanks for the clarification.

    No one seems to think of the original Cleveland in Britain, which in part is very beautiful!