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“If you're told what to look for, you can't see anything else. So one thing is to see, in a way, without words.... Once you have an idea, or somebody tells you something to look for, that's about all you can see. I had this experience recently: A dear friend of ours has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and I hadn't seen her for about six months. And when she came and visited, I couldn't see her anymore. I could only look now for symptoms, how the dementia was manifesting itself. I couldn't see her through any other lens but the possible symptoms. And that one word, that one piece of knowledge totally corrupted every time I looked at her.”—Edward Tufte
The LARB Interview: Helen DeWitt
Helen DeWitt is the author of The Last Samurai, Your Name Here, and Lightning Rods, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books here [link]. She also maintains a blog at paperpools.blogspot.com.
We conducted this interview over email last month (as the inserted images probably make clear).
In bold defiance of the LARB tradition of having an absentee interviewer, I present the questions that inspired these responses, though, in the hopes of pre-disorienting the reader, detached from the provided answers.
1. Was there a time when you decided to dedicate yourself to writing?
2. You’ve said that you decided in the late 1990s to write ten novels each in a single voice — an antidote to the complexities posed by The Last Samurai. Lightning Rods was one of those novels. What were the other nine? What voices did they feature? What state of completion are they in?
3. Did writing a book about male sexual obsession pose special challenges? Were you sympathetic to Joe’s sexual fantasy life? Did you find it hard to understand why he might be attracted to the sorts of acts he found appealing?
4. You’ve expressed an interest in Edward Tufte’s philosophy of information design. Your work — including Lightning Rods — tends to foreground systems and information, education, our relationship to knowledge, etc. The “systems” novel or “novel of information” is often attacked for failing to present rounded characters and human relationships. I’m thinking particularly of James Wood’s disdain for “hysterical realism” and Jonathan Franzen’s conversion from a “status novelist” (concerned with systems) to a “contract novelist” (concerned with characters). Do you have views on the debate between advocates of “novels of information” and “novels of character”?
5. What sort of book does the twenty-first century desperately need?
— Lee Konstantinou
When you publish a book you do a lot of interviews. It gets harder each time. You try to work out what you want to say. Finally you think you have said the thing that matters, then people cut it out because it’s not right for the publication. So you get new questions by email and it’s hard to go through it again.
There is a strange taboo in our society against ending something merely because it is not pleasant — life, love, a conversation, you name it, the etiquette is that you must begin in ignorance & persevere in the face of knowledge, & though I naturally believe that this is profoundly wrong it’s not nice to go around constantly offending people.
— Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai
What I learned today from Edward Tufte
Today I had the privilege of attending one of Edward Tufte’s one-day courses. It was an absolute fire-hose of information surrounding topics like analytical design, statistical data tables, graphics, interface design, presentation techniques, and of course why PowerPoint sucks. My head is still reeling from the great info I picked up. Here are a few quick things that stood out.
- Explaining data is more than just putting numbers on a piece of paper. Use whatever medium necessary (do whatever it takes) to explain your data and its supported conclusions.
- Less is more. Take away clutter and information that could potentially be distracting from the main point being conveyed. Replacing chart junk with evidence is key.
- Data visualization is not a new art, Galileo is real OG when it comes to expressing data.
- Sparklines are cool. Use them to display lots of data is very small spaces.
It was a great day and I am sure I have only touched the surface. If you would like more information about Edward Tufte or his one-day course, check out his website at www.edwardtufte.com.
Edward Tufte describes 6 fundamental principles for analytical design. He states that they mirror the 6 principles of analytical thinking. In brief, the principles are:
1. Show comparisons, contrasts, differences.
2. Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systematic structure.
3. Show multivariate data; that is, show more than 2+ variables.
4. Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.
—The information doesn’t care what the mode of production is.
—Integrate all formats, completely.
5. Thoroughly describe the evidence.
—Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues.
—Don’t pre-specify data-sets, display. Ask, “how can we best understand [the information]”
—Apply Credibility principle. Document everything & tell people about it.
6. Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on:
—Integrity of content