Simon Winchester’s non-fiction is the equivalent of really good popular or genre fiction, it seems to me. Kind of the Stephen King of non-fiction writing. Eminently readable, a clean and accessible style, a good choice of subjects. The Professor and the Madman is his best book. Following the King analogy, it’s his Dead Zone or Shining; that would make A Crack in the Edge of the World his Cujo.
Reading Winchester’s work helped me think more clearly about an issue that was on my mind throughout the fall semester. I audited our introductory studio arts course here, and at one point, I had a renewed appreciation for why it is wrong to try and have a distinctive personal style before you’ve got the basics of a given expressive form under control. If you try to hard to have a style before you’re ready, you’ll never know the difference in your own work between a clear mistake, an interesting accident, and a deliberate refusal to conform to the orthodox approach. I would sometimes draw something and vaguely like the way that it looked, but particularly with perspective, I became very aware that this was often simply because I screwed up, not because I was meaningfully playing with or distorting perspective.
I think I could use Winchester to teach students about how to reliably and reproducibly introduce a sense of style into their analytic writing, precisely because his use of style is so practiced, deliberate and generalized. The undergraduate student who picks up Norman Mailer’s non-fiction and thinks, “Man, that’s how I want to sound” is going be a total disaster. You can’t write like Norman Mailer unless you are Norman Mailer, an option that is now unavailable even to Norman Mailer. But anybody could probably write like Winchester with sufficient practice, as long as they also worked hard on their research, developed a keen eye for telling anecdote and fact, and had discipline.
A lot of the essays I read are burdened by weak, sometimes autonomic or reflexive, attempts at style. This tendency shows up in word choice, in florid phrasing, in grand rhetorical gestures, and in elaborate or convoluted argumentative structures. If you look at the structure of Winchester’s Crack in the Edge of the World, you can see a very clean, reproducible approach to fusing readability with a sense of individual style. The outline ends up looking almost like a formula (though I don’t mean at all to underrate Winchester’s talent or his skill in executing the design).
I could sketch it like so:
Signposting of the larger subject
Personal experience which appears weakly connected to subject but gets more so as the recounting goes along
Backing up and talking about huge overall context of the specific subject of book
Very nice narrative device for illustrating overall context in comprensibly human terms (in this case, a journey from the edge of the North American plate in Iceland to California)
Back to the specific subject: narrative account of the earthquake
Why this matters
I think even most undergraduates could do something like this in a longer analytic or research essay. What makes it work especially well is the shifting between different ways of delivering information, different scales of analysis, and a smooth movement in and out of a personalized frame of reference. The result is only as profound as the subject matter itself, and in the case of the San Francisco earthquake there isn’t altogether that much left to say about it, so Winchester’s book can’t be much more than a primer or reintroduction to the subject. But he makes it a very pleasant experience nevertheless, and in a way that almost any writer could reasonably emulate.