Noah Berlatsky

freelance writer at self-employed

Why Most Academics Will Always Be Bad Writers

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Image: The Shining (1980)

Academic writing is bad, and academics should feel bad for writing it. So said Steven Pinker in The Chronicle a couple of years back, but he’s hardly alone. Academics have been kicking — or, if you prefer, virtually dialectically deconstructing — academic writing for more than a decade.

Many "academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity," Stephen Walt declared in 2013. "Call me simple-minded, call me anti-intellectual, but I believe that most poor scholarly writing is a result of bad habits, of learning tricks of the academic trade as a way to try to fit in," Rachel Toor argued in 2010. "Obscurity creates an aura of importance," said Martha Nussbaum as part of a lengthy takedown of the feminist theorist Judith Butler in 1999. You can go back further to find people making the same case if you’re so inclined.

For at least a generation, academics have elaborately and publicly denounced the ponderous pedantry of academic prose. So why haven’t these ponderous pedants improved, already?

The critics would say the ponderous pedants are doing it on purpose. Academics supposedly indulge in pettifogging to obscure their own muddled thinking. Or, in a more generous reading, professors write obscurely because they know obscurity is expected of them, and they fear for their jobs if they phrase their insights with populist clarity. In either case, these critics say, a clotted style is a sign of a clotted soul. Didn’t Orwell link "staleness of imagery" and "lack of precision" to cultural decadence and Communism? Likewise, Pinker warns of "relativist academic ideologies such as postmodernism, poststructuralism, and literary Marxism" that reject, with convoluted fervor, both objective truth and beautiful prose.

For people who possess a lucid prose style, there’s an undeniable appeal to equating lucidity with virtue. As a professional writer myself, I admit I’m tempted to endorse that worldview: You mean I’m a paragon because I can say "I’m a paragon" and have most people understand? Great! The path to purity and awesomeness is easier than I thought.

Unfortunately, I’m not actually a paragon — or at least, if I am, it’s not because of my prose style. There is, to my sorrow, no necessary correlation between integrity and the ability to write clearly. Hemingway, famed for his brief sentences and manly clarity, was equally famous for being a massive jerk. Bill Cosby wrote in a way that was accessible to everyone — and yet. On the other hand, you can be a lovely human in most respects and still write "An anatomo-politics of human and non-human bodies is sustained by accumulating and classifying such necroliths in the museum’s observational/expositional performances."

Bad prose is ugly, but it’s not necessarily a sign of spiritual ugliness. Often it’s just a sign of incapacity. If I tried to build a chair, the chair would be lopsided, unstable, and an embarrassment to carpenters everywhere. But the badness of my chair wouldn’t be a sign of elitism or creeping socialism. Nor would it be a sign that I had rejected scientific truth. My chair would simply be bad because I’m bad at building things. And also because I don’t know how to make a chair.

Writing is a skill, and — as any editor will tell you — it’s not one that everyone possesses. Academics are primarily researchers and teachers; there’s no reason those talents should necessarily overlap with writing. To my mind, the real surprise isn’t that so much academic writing is bad, but that so much of it is comparatively well written and entertaining. Take this quote from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s marvelous 1990 classic of gender theory The Epistemology of the Closet: "An assumption underlying the book is that the relations of the closet — the relations of the known and unknown, the explicit and the unexplicit around homo/heterosexual definition — have the potential for being peculiarly revealing, in fact, about speech acts more generally. It has felt throughout this work as though the density of their social meaning lends any speech act concerning these issues — and the outlines of that ‘concern’ it turns out are broad indeed — the exaggerated propulsiveness of wearing flippers in a swimming pool: the force of various rhetorical effects has seemed uniquely difficult to calibrate."

"Exaggerated propulsiveness." I love that.

Sedgwick is just the sort of writer — steeped in Foucault and Freud and postmodern queer theory — at whom Pinker et al. are wagging their fingers and/or flippers. It’s certainly true that Sedwick’s sentences are not short and punchy; she writes more like Henry James than like Orwell. She qualifies and interrupts herself, she embellishes and vacillates, so that that enthusiastic, goofy "exaggerated propulsiveness" emerges with an almost audible "whoosh!" from the foam of carefully parsed uncertainty. So is Sedgwick a bad writer? Or is she a good writer — with a better feel for language, and what it can do — than the anti-academic advocates of clarity?

To me, at least, as a writer, "good writing" doesn’t necessarily mean "clear information transmission." Good writing includes humor, love of language, fitting style to content. That can sometimes mean clarity and a lack of clutter. But, as writers like Slavoj Zizek demonstrate, it doesn’t have to. Remember that in 1984, totalitarian newspeak is created not through elaborate sentences and jargon, but through cutting words out of the dictionary and simplifying grammar. Clear, transparent writing can be used for propaganda purposes as easily as can convoluted prose — and maybe even more easily.

Steven Pinker himself has on occasion simplified his message in unfortunate ways. In his hugely successful 2011 volume Better Angels of Our Nature, for example, Pinker puts forward the thesis that humankind has become less and less violent. To support this argument, he writes: "The worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War, an eight-year rebellion during China’s Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire’s population, a sixth of the world’s population at the time."

That is a perfectly clear and precise sentence. It’s also misleading to the point of being an outright falsehood. As Pinker says, he’s extrapolating from census data. But you can’t treat 8th-century censuses as some sort of straightforward registry of wartime death tolls. One expert on the population statistics of China notes, "Even if such a huge loss were conceivable, it would be naïve to suppose that an accurate count could be carried out in the midst of the ensuing chaos." Other researchers have tentatively placed the death toll at something more like 13 million — though even that’s very dicey. The truth is we don’t know for sure how many people were killed in the An Lushan rebellion. To be accurate, Pinker would have had to have been vague. The rage for clarity led him astray.

I’m not trying to impugn Pinker: Anyone can make a mistake, especially when writing a book like Better Angels of Our Nature, which attempts to synthesize a vast amount of information from a wide variety of fields. But that’s exactly the point. It’s not easy to communicate complicated data and ideas with precision, style, and a modicum of propulsive punch. Many professional writers stumble into infelicities and inaccuracies. Why should academics be any different?

Of course academics should try to write as well as they can. They might even work to write better than they can, by hiring (ahem) wonderful professional writers to edit their manuscripts before they send them to press.

But no one should be surprised if much academic writing is mediocre and confused. Academics don’t need to be elitist, careerist, or corrupted by postmodernism to write badly. Most people, most of the time, write badly. Writing well is hard. Celebrate those who have mastered it, and have some sympathy for the rest of us, laboring for competence one keystroke at a time.

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