Literary Science Writing

March 14, 2011

One of the most gripping aspects of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is how well Skloot, a science writer, covers both the scientific and human aspects surrounding Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. At the same time, the book is accessible to a wide range of readers. Skloot is a science writer, and her book can be classified as “Literary Science Writing.”

Last year, Rebecca Skloot spoke at Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference on a panel called “Black Holes No More: The Importance of Science Storytelling Across All Genres.” She is quoted by one science blogger as saying, “People need stories in order to read the science.” This year, the same conference included a panel called “Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared,” maintaining that “the best science writing isn’t as much about science as it is about people” (Lofty Ambitions Blog).

In an article for the Guardian, writer Ian McEwan discusses the concept of science writing telling the stories of the past, rather than simply focusing on only the newest discoveries. He states that, ” if we understand science merely as a band of light moving through time, advancing on the darkness, and leaving ignorant darkness behind it, always at its best only in the incandescent present, we turn our backs on an epic tale of ingenuity propelled by curiosity.” McEwan also reflects on science writers who, can write ” without condescension to the layman.”

Is this part of the appeal of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”? Not only does Skloot dig into the past to tell the full story of the HeLa cells, she makes the story and its science accessible to the layman.

Click here to read more of McEwan’s 2006 article, and don’t forget to visit Ebling Library for the Informing Consent exhibit to learn more about the full story of HeLa.