I’m on a “non-fiction writer’s” list where the participants help each other critique WIPs and share experiences in the business. It’s a working list, and to stay on, one has to do a combination of five submissions and critiques a month. I’ve mostly been on the critiquing side because I’m not quite ready to start posting my own work. There are a lot of talented people on the list, and I’ve learned a lot by critiquing works outside of my areas of expertise.
Last week, an author posted a chapter on his book refuting Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. I had some reservations about reviewing this person’s work because he has chronic difficulty using his mail program. (For some reason, that, and his lack of corrective action, just ratcheted down my opinion.) Still, Science topics are a refreshing change from the memoirs and ecclesiastes. I was eager to help…
…until I hit the second paragraph, titled “Who Should Not Read This Book.” I think it’s fair to say this is bad technique. It might possibly be okay if you’re writing comedy. This author was not obviously doing so, so it flew like a lead zeppelin.
His prose went Hindenburg when he launched into berating Einstein, but without ever having established his own credentials or constructing a logical argument. This reminded me of the anonymous rant at the end of The Double Helix, only my author’s abundant use of “stupid” came across as the ramblings a crank who has miraculously “connected” the Special Theory of Relativity to Lee Harvey Oswald,
Cattle Mutilation, UPC codes, and the Butterfly Ballot.
Every once in a while, he wrote something that suggested a glimmer of humorous intent. For example, he referred to “Basic Einstein Equations of Relativity” as “BEER” — (Insert jokes here) — but immediately flipped back into bizarro-rant mode, describing the theory as having “three basic frauds” based on a “misuse of scientific rulers and yardsticks.” Buttefly Ballots. Butterfly Ballots. Butterfly Ballots.
It didn’t occur to me until after I mailed the review that I should google the guy. He is apparently a frequent contributor of, um, unsolicited input on this subject area. While it’s generally acknowledged that there are flaws in the theory, not that many people really give a shit. I also read the other reviews written to see how many “standard deviations from the mean” my comments were. This time, they were pretty close.
Even in questionable writing, there is something one can learn:
- If you’re on a mailing list, please learn to use your [bad word] mail reader.
- Beginning a book with “Who Should Not Read This Book,” in a condescending (and unfunny) tone does not work. (See first quote)
- If you’re going lambaste a Nobel prize-winning physicist’s theory as “fradulent,” it helps your case if you have already polished your own Nobel medals. Or at least mention you have a Ph.D. and twenty years of published work in this area. Or an MBA. Or you read a really good book on the subject, written by someone with a nobel prize, Ph.D. or an MBA. Give the reader something to work with here.
“Jim Carson is a random guy off the street who has apparently read a book whose pictures haven’t already been colored. When not working, he occasionally experiments with combinatorial sequencing of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.”