Steve Pinker and Ian McEwan: a can’t-miss double-bill

March 11, 2014 • 12:20 pm

If you’re in or near London, you’re in luck, for Steve Pinker is going to discuss his latest book, and the difficulty of good writing, with noted author Ian McEwan. Those are two smart and eloquent guys, and if I was anywhere near there I’d go to this Intelligence-Squared event, to be held at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday, September 24, 2014, at 7 p.m. That’s plenty of advance warning, but I’d buy tickets now, as it’s a sure sell-out. You can book tickets at the site, although it isn’t cheap at £30 a pop.

And here’s the description of the event:

Steven Pinker is one of the world’s leading authorities on language, mind and human nature. A professor of psychology at Harvard, he is the bestselling author of eight books and regularly appears in lists of the world’s top 100 thinkers.

On September 25th he returns to the Intelligence Squared stage to discuss his latest publication The Sense of Style, a short and entertaining writing guide for the 21st century. Pinker will argue that bad writing can’t be blamed on the internet, or on “the kids today”. Good writing has always been hard: a performance requiring pretence, empathy, and a drive for coherence. He will answer questions such as: how can we overcome the “curse of knowledge”, the difficulty in imagining what it’s like not to know something we do? And how can we distinguish the myths and superstitions about language from helpful rules that enhance clarity and grace? Pinker will show how everyone can improve their mastery of writing and their appreciation of the art.

Professor Pinker will be in conversation with Ian McEwan, one of Britain’s most acclaimed novelists, who has frequently explored the common ground between art and science.

You can see a 77-minute video of Pinker giving a talk at MIT with the same title as his upcoming book at this site.  It may very well mirror the structure of that book.

I’m deeply acquainted at the moment with the difficulty of writing, as I’m spending most of my days struggling to put ideas across in a clear and engaging way. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done—next to testifying against the state in cases involving forensic DNA.

h/t: Grania

30 thoughts on “Steve Pinker and Ian McEwan: a can’t-miss double-bill

  1. It’s almost worth a vacation to London to go see this! I’m looking forward to Steven Pinker’s new book. I really like writing. Explaining complex things is a hard task though, especially if you’re trying to market your ideas in a way that will be remembered and grasped and bought into. It’s especially daunting when you’re under time constraints.

  2. I’m looking forward to this book, too. I’m currently reading “Better Angels of our Nature”, and I find it hard to put down.

  3. OK, I’m prejudiced. But I am amazed by how you express yourself in a clear and engaging way day after day after day. And never an awkward sentence.

  4. I just listen to Rebecca Goldstein (Pinker’s wife) interviewed on Point of Inquiry. It was good, especially because the host, Josh Zepps, was excellent – the best I’ve heard on that podcast since DJ Grothe.

  5. I subscribe to Intelligence Squared’s website and was drooling over this announcement this morning. Unfortunately will have to wait for the podcast, which might be free…Check out their site. Have heard The Pinksteh (sp?) live and he’s a very engaging speaker. McEwan should be good, too.

  6. I have watched the video about writing from Dr. Pinker several times, as it is an inspiration that helps me to teach students about writing. Think about a talk about The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (blech!), only this one is done by the Pinkah. (not blech!). He actually makes it entertaining and educational, but that is no surprise.

  7. Am just now coincidentally listening to an NPR review of a new book, “Plato at the Googleplex” by Pinker’s wife, Rebecca Goldstein. I gather few spousal pairs have as interesting domiciliary conversations as they, eh? (Have recently viewed about 2/3 of a colloquium hosted by Sean R. Carroll, attended by Professors Goldstein and Coyne, Weinberg, Pigliucci, Dawkins, Dennett, other luminaries.)

  8. CLARITY AND ELEGANCE are the two main guiding lights of Robert Graves in his magisterial book on English writing, THE READER OVER YOUR SHOULDER – A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (1943).
    Clarity is easy, a matter of learning. Elegance is more elusive, depending on background and all-round cultural knowledge.

    I watched Pinker’s video on his presentation to the MIT students, when it came out, and he made a big case of what he labeled “classical style”, which is what Graves is propounding. Graves was the unsurpassable master of classical style in English.

    However Pinker never mentioned Graves and his book. I find it always irksome when a top guy borrows well established ideas without giving credit to his source.
    A top scholar is always acknowledging the sources of his ideas.
    It’s always easy to fudge with students who know so little about the history of how ideas were developed. They’ll never suspect where the impressive new concepts come from.

    Let’s hope that Pinker in his book will give Robert Graves his due.

    1. “I find it always irksome when a top guy borrows well established ideas without giving credit to his source.”

      Perhaps Graves was a borrower, too.

      We have have a natural tendency to think ideas originate with the first person who tells us about them.

      1. Perhaps. But you would have to prove your argument by producing evidence. And it won’t be easy.

        In any case, Graves was an artist, a fiction writer, a poet, a lover of ancient Greece, its language, and its mythology. He wrote the famous “I, Claudius” for TV. His poetry is exquisite, and so was his love of women.

        But Pinker is another kind of animal. He is a scholar, with responsibility of authentic scholarship.

        I have been to quite a few academic lectures on “good writing”. In Manhattan every university club has a few of those every year. Speech and writing are considered paramount.

        Quite a few paraphrased Graves without any explicit mention. A variant is “Clarity and simplicity”, a formulation good enough for high school students and undergraduates. But in fact simplicity is hard to define, depending on the sophistication level of the audience.

        In a few cases, I have dared to speak up and mention the plagiarism concerning Graves’s book. In one case the self-conceited academic asked the organizers to throw me out or at least forbid me to speak.

        1. That is very irritating. I have kept a poem from Graves since my undergrad years. It now hangs on my office door.

          ‘He is quick, thinking in clear images;
          I am slow, thinking in broken images.

          He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
          I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

          Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
          Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

          Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
          Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

          When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
          When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

          He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
          I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

          He in a new confusion of his understanding;
          I in a new understanding of my confusion.’

          1. I’m keeping a copy of that poem.
            There are so many allusions in it.

            Initial clear images give us the illusion of grasping reality.
            But doubt strikes these images into pieces, and in the new kaleidoscopic fragments, a new clarity emerges, which is s truer image of the inherent confusion of reality.

        2. “Clarity and simplicity” would see pretty easy to arrive at independently by anyone trying to describe good writing.

          1. “Anyone” is a big leap of faith.

            Nobody could convince F. Scott Fitzgerald, who couldn’t write any piece that was immediately legible without the help of an understanding and sympathetic editor.

            But the great editors of yore are gone, probably for ever. Now, everybody’s writing is first trained by high-school teachers, and it’s the luck of the draw.

            That’s why, in Manhattan at least, where the major media and publishers are active, the elusive goal of “good writing” remains an obsession for all professionals.

            1. I worry about the publishing industry! But I do my part–and several other peoples’ parts as well–to support it. 😀

  9. Thank you very much for the heads up. I wouldn’t want to miss this one. I’ll keep my eyes open for the video afterwards.

  10. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done—next to testifying against the state in cases involving forensic DNA. ”

    Now that sounds very interesting too, Prof.CC. Maybe you’ll tell us about that someday, when you’re not too busy.

  11. I have Pinker’s – The language Instinct – waiting for me to read soon. It will be my first of his.

    1. It’s definitely his funniest; he used most of his best jokes in it, had a few left (and recycled a few more) in ‘How the Mind Works’, and the others are relatively dry.
      I often think Pinker’s name should start with ‘D’, because he so naturally shares a shelf in my room with Dawkins, Dennett and Darwin.
      I also wonder if he could be in the running for a Literature Nobel. Why not? Does it always have to be some obscure east-European or Latin-American fictioneer?

  12. JERRY !
    “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done—next to testifying against the state in cases involving forensic DNA.”

    Obviously we all want to know the details of that ! If you don’t mind, I would anyway…

    1. I am sure he talked about it before if you try searching the WEIT pages…

      I saw The Pinker at the Royal Institution two years ago.

      I got two tickets. Now depending on who is nice to me… 🙂

  13. I’m deeply acquainted at the moment with the difficulty of writing, as I’m spending most of my days struggling to put ideas across in a clear and engaging way.

    No one does it better! 🙂

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