Can science teach you how to write?

Earlier this week, a fellow writer sent me a link to A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has. It gave me a lot of trouble.

I was a Bio major and remain a science geek. Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite authors; An Anthropologist on Mars one of my favorite books. I thought I’d be exactly the type to embrace the concept that there are certain ways we learn, and therefore, unsurprisingly, certain ways we enjoy, and therefore certain ways we can predictably elicit enjoyment. If so, you can write to please, and I can teach my students how to write to please — and, after all, that’s what I do, right?

But no. The concept didn’t sit well with me at all.

First of all, on closer thought, I don’t attempt to teach my students how to please all identically-hardwired readers. I attempt to teach them how to please editors, and specifically, editors now. In my very short lifetime (she bats her youthful lashes), I’ve seen that change. Reading tastes change, and the publishing industry works hard to keep in step not because those tastes point to great literature, but because that way lies the buck.

So, statements for all time like “the reader [because of genetic hard-wiring] expects that the story will start making a point on page one” elicits a genetically hardwired response in me similar to that of a she-bear guarding her cubs.  Such a statement implies that all readers have always had and will always have this expectation; and all writers who don’t start making their point on page one is missing the mark; and those stupid writers are bad writers.

But how to argue — nay, prove — that this is wrong without getting into researching and understanding brain science? (Something that the author professes to know well, without once giving us a footnote or reference, or her scientific qualifications — yes I know she consults for TV and film, and has written a book.)

And then, right as I was grappling with this, in wafted the dulcet tones of Ira Glass, talking about a man who spent twelve years trying to chase down antelope to test the premise that this was the reason that humans evolved to walk upright. You don’t have to argue the cause, if you can disprove the effect.

Anna Karenina didn’t make its point on page one. It has a wonderful opening line that sets you up to expect an unhappy family, but Anna herself gets first mentioned — and only in passing — on page 33 of my copy. She doesn’t step off the train until page 146, by which time, like the Pony Express, we’ve changed horses and possible “points” at least three times.

The Jungle Book doesn’t make its point on page one either — nor for that matter on page two. All that happens in the first two pages is that Father Wolf stretches from his nap and a jackal comes by wondering if he can snoop around the cave for something to eat. What’s the point?

I’m not claiming to be in this league, but Ruby’s Wish didn’t make its point on page one.  Page one was spent not making a point but creating an atmosphere. It was a very long (and I’d like to think lyrical) “once upon a time, a long, long time ago.”

So, to be frank, I don’t think we’re hardwired to expect anything on page one. I think history has shown that the human brain and our aesthetic expectations are pliable. What we expect and enjoy changes. Remember the reaction to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? The music almost caused a riot. The audience hated it. Nobody understood it. They weren’t hardwired to like it. And now it’s one of the most recorded works in the classical cannon (at least according to Wikipedia).

I have another writer friend who thinks that the meaning of life is not so difficult to deduce. She believes that we are all biologically still cavemen and cavewomen. When the sun is in the sky, we must take the opportunity to gather as much food as we can in relative safety. When the sun goes down, we eat that food. Then, once fed, we sing and dance, and love, and tell stories.

In my imagination — even less scientifically, in my heart that holds art sacred — the storyteller by the fire is not addressing a clientele hardwired to need to know now; he or she is beguiling an audience in the flickering light, a small group of humans huddled together who are sensitive to atmosphere, open to mystery…who can be entranced by many qualities of a first page, sometimes by just the rhythm and cadence of the words.

By this theory, our impatience isn’t hardwired. It’s our culture that’s to blame. It’s not too late to learn how to read slowly!

Happy writing,
Shirin