The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Academic Writing Hurts

by Andrew Tibbetts

Academic writing is dreadful. I am considering going back to school to do my PhD and one of the things that stops me is the thought of the reading I will have to do. Here’s a famous example of the kind of thing my mind rebels against:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homolo­gous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of struc­ture inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticu­lation of power.

This doozy of a sentence is from an article in the journal Diacritics. It’s by Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature. It had the distinction of winning the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Award for 1998- the last year they held the award. It’s one of the most debated sentences in recent memory.

It’s not bad because it’s long. There’s nothing wrong with a long sentence. They can be beautiful. Look at this one from Annie Proulx’s story Brokeback Mountain:

They had a high-time supper by the fire, a can of beans each, fried potatoes and a quart of whiskey on shares, sat with their backs against a log, boot soles and copper jeans rivets hot, swapping the bottle while the lavender sky emptied of color and the chill air drained down, drinking, smoking cigarettes, getting up every now and then to piss, firelight throwing a sparkle in the arched stream, tossing sticks on the fire to keep the talk going, talking horses and rodeo, roughstock events, wrecks and injuries sustained, the submarine Thresher lost two months earlier with all hands and how it must have been in the last doomed minutes, dogs each had owned and known, the draft, Jack's home ranch where his father and mother held on, Ennis's family place folded years ago after his folks died, the older brother in Signal and a married sister in Casper.

Well, you might argue, there’s no comparison. This one’s a list- it’s easy to stay with the flow. It’s also full of sensual details that keep your mind engaged. Academic writing isn’t going to describe real things. Well, I might add, why not? What’s wrong with real things?

Let’s go elsewhere for some non-fiction. What about this sentence from William Gass?

It is probably embarrassingly clear by now that works of art are my objects of worship, and that some of these objects are idols at best -- rich, wondrous, and made of gold -- yet only idols; while others are secondary saints and demons, whose malicious intent is largely playful; while still others are rather sacred, like hunks of the true cross or biblical texts, and a few are dizzying revelations. ... It is one of Rilke's doctrines ... that works of art are often more real than we are because they embody human consciousness completely fulfilled, and at a higher pitch of excellence than we, in our skinny, overweight, immature, burned-out souls and bodies, do.

Gass is an academic and a writer. Here he’s going on and on (and on) about Rilke, but manages to throw in some palpable metaphors to make his points. While just as boaconstrictory as the Butler, this writing pulls you along a clean and clear emotional arc.

Well, you might argue, he’s not trying to talk about capitalism and structuralism.

Okay, let’s see how Karl Marx does it:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

Now we’re getting ugly. But how long does it take to figure out what Marx is saying and is it worth it? Compare that to how long it takes to figure out what Butler is saying. And then once you’ve parsed her sentence, what is actually being said? Marx is just as jargon-heavy but he cuts things up for you in manageable chunks and what he has to say is original and profound. Marxism will not be eclipsed by Butlerism.

I don’t mind prose that makes you work. I’m particularly fond of playing ‘find the predicate’ in late sentences of Henry James. When you’ve done all the work, you’re left with something beautiful and subtle. William Gass, in an essay on the later Henry James, takes a particularly stunning page-long sentence from James’ Italian travel writing and makes a massive chart out of it. The thing is constructed like a symphony, like an alter triptych, like the human brain. It’s complicated and convoluted. But he’s writing about winding through the hills in Italy- it makes sense the description evolves from the experience.

What does dry and awkward academic writing evolve from? And do I want to go there?


Blogger Anne C. said...

Is this a vote? Because I say no. Write a novel. Okay?

Wed May 23, 07:17:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

And use the word 'boaconstrictory' in your novel. Please.

Wed May 23, 10:03:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Sharon Hurlbut said...

Having completed a PhD and written a 500+ page dissertation, I can say with some authority that at least 85% of academic writing is bullshit in the guise of jargon aimed at convincing peers that the writer knows what the heck he/she is talking about. It's not about getting a message across clearly, it's about elitism and power within a circumscribed community. It's also about removing the self to give work a dispassionate, distanced sense of objectivity.

Academic writing has its place, but I myself much prefer the borderland where academic and creative writing meet, as in Stephen Jay Gould's many collections of essays on evolution, or Richard Feynman's autobiographical musings on physics, life, education, and anything else that fills his mind with wonder.

Great post Andrew!

Wed May 23, 10:18:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

What a wonderful post, Andrew. I can't imagine your academic writing ever turning out dull and dry, however, no matter what the subject might be.

And Sharon, you just named two of my all-time favourite people in the whole wide world!

Wed May 23, 11:44:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Fascinating reading, Andrew. And I love Sharon's answer. A woman in my writing group is having to unlearn years of academic writing in order to write fiction.

Wed May 23, 01:57:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Yes, Tricia, that was my experience, also. I did a double-degree in CW and English, but the Academic writing superceded the Creative, and it took me years to unlearn all that gobbledy gook, and regain my creative writing confidence.

Thu May 24, 10:42:00 am GMT-4  

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