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The proximity rule

In the morning, I had managed to read a few pages of Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics, a new book by Sandhya Ravishankar about the DMK supremo, and noticed that even though it’s a journalist’s book, and even though Mukund Padmanabhan’s verbose foreword points that out, Ravishankar had written it quite well (note: I’m only about 50 pages in). I don’t mean she’s written it ‘good’, I mean she’s written it ‘well’.

Now, it might seem like I’m suggesting Ravishankar doesn’t usually write well or that journalists in general aren’t the best writers of book-level long-form. The former isn’t the case but the latter certainly is: journalists (by whom I mostly mean reporters) suck at writing. The best of them are the best because of the stories they’re able to get, not because they’ve mastered prose. And those that write well among them have honed the craft over many years. There are exceptions to this quasi-rule of mine, of course (Sowmiya Ashok and Pheroze Vincent come to mind) but they are few and far between.

In this sense, I say Ravishankar writes well because… well, it shows. I stopped reading the book as a reader and turned on my editor sense when I noticed that she had done something on page 14 that a regular reporter would almost never do but a regular writer definitely would. On this page, she quotes the noted author V. Geetha for the first time. However, Ravishankar doesn’t tell us everything about Geetha that would qualify her as a pertinent and important expert in this context. Instead, Ravishankar follows when I call ‘the proximity rule’.

I’m sure you’re thinking I’m a pompous arse, especially if what I’m going to tell sounds familiar, even pithy. I once read somewhere that definitions make the most sense when you place them narratively proximate to the words they’re defining. For (a very convenient) example, if an expert you’re quoting uses a technical term, then it helps if you interrupt the quote at that point to insert the definition and then bring on the rest instead of letting the quote finish, particularly if it’s long.

To illustrate:

“Although the Higgs field is non-zero everywhere” – a way of saying it has some potential energy wherever it manifests – “and its effects ubiquitous, proving its existence was far from easy. In principle, it can be proved to exist by detecting its excitations, which manifest as Higgs particles (the Higgs boson), but these are extremely difficult to produce and to detect. The importance of this fundamental question led to a 40-year search, and the construction of one of the world’s most expensive and complex experimental facilities to date, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, in an attempt to create Higgs bosons and other particles for observation and study.

… is better than to say:

Although the Higgs field is non-zero everywhere and its effects ubiquitous, proving its existence was far from easy. In principle, it can be proved to exist by detecting its excitations, which manifest as Higgs particles (the Higgs boson), but these are extremely difficult to produce and to detect. The importance of this fundamental question led to a 40-year search, and the construction of one of the world’s most expensive and complex experimental facilities to date, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, in an attempt to create Higgs bosons and other particles for observation and study.” A ‘non-zero’ field has some potential energy wherever it goes.

(Source of text: the Higgs boson’s Wikipedia page)

Of course, like all rules, this one’s not set in stone – especially when the writer has built up a flow that is so strong, so good that you want to preserve its continuity over striving even for clarity of language. (Sadly, Thomas Pynchon often believes there’s flow where there’s none).

Over pages 14 and 15, Ravishankar quotes Geetha thrice. The first time, she introduces Geetha as an “expert on the Dravidian movement”. This is because her quote is somewhat generic: “The personal appeal (of leaders such as Annadurai and Karunanidhi) cut across caste lines and drew the non-dominant communities to the DMK as well.” The second time, Ravishankar doesn’t embellish Geetha any further.

The third time, Ravishankar reintroduces Geetha as the author of Suyamariyadhai Samadharmam, a celebrated book on the politics and philosophy of the Dravidian movement. And this time, Geetha’s quote is also more specific, discussing how the DMK built support for itself among the backward castes of Tamil Nadu in the 1950s and 1960s but managed to exclude Dalits.

When a science writer quotes a scientist in a story, it’s important that the writer tells her readers what it is that the scientist does. Their profession as such – such as professor, researcher, RA/TA, etc. – doesn’t matter; I ask the writer to mention what it is they’re actually studying, whether they’re biologists or chemists or whatever. This is because it’s not the former that establishes authority; it’s the latter. Further, the former’s claim to authority often tends to be false, especially when presented in the wrong context.

Another example from this morning is a piece by Robbert Dijkgraaf, a tenured professor at the University of Amsterdam; Leon Levy professor at and director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences; Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion; and fellow of the American Mathematical Society, in Quanta, where he has attempted to provide a post hoc justification for string theory’s legitimacy as a theory of nature. However, all that matters here is that he’s just a fucking string theorist – which you’re reminded of when you read Peter Woit shredding Dijkgraaf in his usual style.

In the same vein, in Geetha’s case, Ravishankar has smartly split up her qualifications into two contexts, and presented just the right parts each time. I say “just right” because Ravishankar’s words essentially follow the proximity rule.

On page 14, Geetha is an author and expert on the Dravidian movement (the way I can be an ‘expert’ in high-energy physics), and so the relevant part of her qualification is placed close by. Then, on page 15, she’s the author of a famous book about the DMK’s formative years, and so she gets to speak about something very specific and rest easy that she will be taken seriously. However, if Suyamariyadhai Samadharmam had been introduced on page 14, it would’ve been overkill for what Geetha was saying and would also have robbed her of the reader’s awe on page 15.