Like a truckload of kittens: The dangers and opportunities of metaphorical writing.
It seems appropriate that on Easter, I’m reading about eggs. Human eggs, not chicken eggs. But then again, Easter isn’t really about eggs, but what the eggs represent : an analogy, a symbol for the beginning of new life. The eggs are being used as a method for explaining a difficult concept, using evidence with which we are familiar.
It’s the same technique being used by N. Angier in “Unscrambling the Egg” – but instead of using the egg as a metaphor to explain something, Angier is using a raft of metaphors to explain the human egg itself. The idea behind the use of metaphors is a simple one: when trying to illustrate a new concept to an audience, you extend what they know to what they will know. Metaphors and analogies are a powerful tool, allowing the author to paint vivid, familiar pictures in the reader’s mind, creating a lasting impression.
Angier’s article shows metaphors at their best, and at their worst. At times, the imagery allows for strong, lasting descriptions of complex concepts. Other times, Angier’s prose becomes so overburdened with metaphors that it becomes impossible to work out her message– rather than creating a clear, vivid image, it creates confusion.
Compare these two passages to see what I mean.
Describing a microscope image of an egg:
“Surrounding the great globe that glows silver-white on the screen is a smear of what looks like whipped cream, or the fluffy white clouds found in every child’s sketch of a sky.”
These metaphors paint a crisp image in the readers’ mind. But it’s more than that: Instead of simply saying something is like another thing (the car is red like a red apple), the comparison draws a deeper, richer inference. The image of a child drawing a fluffy white cloud not only describes what the egg looks like, but forms a link in the readers’ mind between the picture on the screen, and the potential of the egg itself: a living, breathing human child. Here, the metaphor not only visually describes the scientific concept, but creates an emotional attachment to the concept- one not easily forgotten. Such is the potential of figurative writing.
Unfortunately, we can see its downfalls in another passage.
Describing a doctor:
“As an infertility expert, Bustillo is a modern Demeter, a harvester and deft manipulator of human eggs, a magician in a minor key”.
This sentence, while undeniably nice to read, is a maelstrom of confusing images. In one sentence, Bustillo is a doctor, a Greek goddess (after a quick Wikipedia check), a farmer, a magician, and a musician (as a side note, why a minor key? Is her job scary?). This sentence demands a lot from the reader, while offering nothing but confusion in return. My mental image of Bustillo is of an ‘80s hair metal guitarist, holding a hoe, wearing a labcoat and a wizard hat. I don’t think that’s what Angier was trying to say.
So we can see that analogies and metaphors, used properly, are powerful tools. But as science communicators, we must always remember that above flowery writing and clever wordplay, content is king. The message must always come first. But what do you think? Am I being too harsh on Angier’s descriptions, did they work for you? How much metaphor is too much?