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On Precision

Published 2nd March, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

In 2003, American author David Foster Wallace was assigned to write an article on the 56th Annual Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace’s article begins by outlining the festival’s size, scope, and theme of ‘Lighthouses, Laughter, and Lobster.’ Yet by the third paragraph, precision—like a lobster’s pincer—takes hold of Wallace and refuses to let go. He writes:

there’s much more to know than most of us care about—it’s all a matter of what your interests are. Taxonomically speaking, a lobster is a marine crustacean of the family Homaridae, characterized by five pairs of jointed legs, the first pair terminating in large pincerish claws used for subduing prey. Like many other species of benthic carnivore, lobsters are both hunters and scavengers. They have stalked eyes, gills on their legs, and antennae. There are dozens of different kinds worldwide, of which the relevant species here is the Maine lobster, Homarus americanus. The name ‘lobster’ comes from the Old English loppestre, which is thought to be a corrupt form of the Latin word for locust combined with the Old English loppe, which meant spider. (235)

The article digresses into whether or not a lobster can feel pain, and the neurological and ethical questions this gives rise to. ‘Consider the Lobster’ was published in Gourmet, a magazine devoted to food and wine. First published in 1941, Gourmet ceased publication in 2009 due to a decline in advertising sales, approximately one year after Wallace’s death.

Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov argues that the ‘real’ is infinite, defining it as a ‘gradual accumulation of information’ and ‘specialization’. He provides the example of a lily:

a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know anything about one thing: it’s hopeless. (in Smith 2009: 46)

All of this brings me to my obsessive preoccupation: how precise should a writer be? 

On the other end of the spectrum, is a precision that floats: a minimalism of detail, a few lines that conjures a perfect portrait or scene. Consider the following from Scottish novelist Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961):

“You did well,” said Miss Brodie to the class, when Miss Mackay had gone, “not to answer the question put to you. It is well, when in difficulties, to say never a word, neither black nor white. Speech is silver but silence is golden. Mary, are you listening? What was I saying?”

Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty‐three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, “Golden.”

“What did I say was golden?”

Mary cast her eyes around her and up above. Sandy whispered, “The falling leaves.”

“The falling leaves,” said Mary.

“Plainly,” said Miss Brodie, “you were not listening to me. If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.” (6)

In one succinct sentence, Spark describes Mary Macgregor’s appearance and reputation, flashes forward to her early death at age twenty-three, then returns to her present moment of idleness. The two events, Spark suggests, are linked. Macgregor’s dawdling, dramatized in the present, may well have caused her to die in the future hotel fire.

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), Italian author Italo Calvino outlines two approaches towards exactitude. The first he characterises as a crystal, the second as a flame. These metaphors are borrowed from a debate between Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and American linguist Noam Chomsky. Flame exactitude is relentless, seeing the ‘detail of the detail of the detail’ (68). Crystal exactitude, on the other hand, contains precise faceting and the ability to refract. A ‘spark’ is an ignited or fiery particle; to ‘spark’ something, is to kindle, animate, or stimulate. Yet Spark’s exactitude is not that of the flame, but a lightly drawn description from which the reader is able to precisely infer an entire tragic life from childhood to early death. It is this form of crystal exactitude that Calvino champions.

If I were to choose an emblem for my ideal of literary precision, it would be English visual and installation artist Cornelia Parker’s Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon (1997). This artwork is a coiled length of silver wire mounted on grey card. The silver was previously a Georgian teaspoon, melted, and drawn to the height of Niagara Falls. In this sense, the work is a ‘drawing.’ The precise length is unknown, though Parker claims it approximates 187 feet. The recorded height of the waterfalls that border the U.S. and Canada, Parker notes, differs depending on which encyclopaedia one consults. Of Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon, Parker states:

trying to measure nature on an epic and violent scale with something as domestic and mundane as a teaspoon, this little thing we use to stir our cup of tea and which has such limitations. It’s like trying to quantify matter in the universe, which is impossible. (in Hodge 2015)

This was Nabokov’s point. In describing a lily, quantifying matter, and pursing an ideal of literary precision, one feels daunted by the infinite. It is hopeless. Better to just draw a few confident lines, a few brief descriptions. Or, if you are as bold as Parker or Spark, just one line.

David Thomas Henry Wright won the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards’ QUT Digital Literature Prize and Honourable Mention for the 2019 Robert Coover Award for a work of Electronic Literature. He has been shortlisted for several other national and international literary prizes, and published in various academic and creative journals. He has a PhD (English and Comparative Literature) from Murdoch University and a Masters (Creative Writing) from The University of Edinburgh, and taught Creative Writing at China’s top university, Tsinghua. He is currently co-editor of The Digital Review and Associate Professor (Comparative Literature) at Nagoya University. 

Works cited:

Calvino, I. (1988) Six Memos For The Next Millennium, trans. P. Creagh, London: Vintage, 1988.

Hodge, D. (2015) “Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon”, Tate. Accessed at

Smith, Z. (2009) Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Spark, M. (1961) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, London: Macmillan.

Wallace, D.F. (2005) Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown.

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