Like most direct-to-consumer genetic testing, getting an MFA degree in writing probably lacks clinical utility. But jeez louise it’s fun. To hang out and read and write for an extended period of time was and is my idea of a good time. Personal utility, babe.
But attending writing school comes at a price: it changes the way one reads. It causes one’s books (and Kindles?) to get filled with passionately scribbled marginalia that, in a very short time, will mean nothing to the person who wrote them. It becomes more difficult to lose oneself in a story without trying to peek behind the curtain and see how the sausage gets made. And it sharpens what Hemingway called one’s “built-in bullshit detector.”
For better or worse, this mechanism is not triggered by bad fiction alone. It can be set off by horrible grammar, syntax, diction and/or usage and abusage of all kinds and in any kind of writing. To paraphrase the late John Gardner, good writing is a vivid, continuous dream. Anything that interrupts that dream is going to totally harsh one’s mellow.
Sometimes the triggering event is simply a horrible idea planted in a bed of otherwise sweet-smelling intellectual seedlings.
For example, this week I asked my students to read a paper that came out last year titled Novel Genomic Techniques Open New Avenues in the Analysis of Monogenic Disorders. It is essentially a celebration of next-generation DNA sequencing and all of the amazing things it can tell us about single-gene disorders. It explains what we can learn from studying these disorders, how the technology has changed since the positional cloning days of yore, and how to filter through the zillions of variants one inevitably finds when sequencing a human genome. It is clear and well-written. Indeed, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for having assigned it. And then, right at the very end, came the turd in the punch bowl:
Genetic risk factor determination for complex disorders, for example, APOE genotype, the most important risk factor for complex [Alzheimer’s disease], is a byproduct of exome/genome sequencing. A solution to this problem might be to discard all sequence data outside the genes required for diagnosis before the analysis of the [sequencing] data. (emphasis added)
Pay attention, kids: If it poses an ethical problem, then the obvious thing to do is to just throw it away! Delete it! Burn it! Shred it! Avert your eyes! The patient/research participant/taxpayer won’t mind! Trust me!
Dream interrupted. Mellow harshed.