Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Form in literature is an arousing and fulfilment of desires.

Kenneth Burke
Counter-Statement, p. 124.

Burke's famous definition of literary form can be applied also to academic writing. "A work has form," he said, "in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence."

But the words "gratified" and "fulfilment" should not be taken to mean that form depends on telling readers what to expect and then giving it to them. To be "gratified by the sequence" of parts may involve being surprised, even disappointed. The point is that even surprise is possible only on the background of an anticipated outcome. The task of arranging a literary surprise cannot be completed without first "arousing a desire", which may then be left unfulfilled, or be fulfilled by unexpected means.

Think of "theory" as your means to arouse your readers and "empirical analysis" as your means to fulfil them. The theoretical part of your paper should anticipate the empirical conclusions. It is perfectly in order to present your theory opportunistically, i.e., to set your reader up for your conclusions. Even where they are surprised, your readers will be gratified to have first derived a clear image of what you "should have found" from their own theoretical assumptions. That gratification, as Burke points out, is an indication of good form. And it will be felt when they turn their disappointment (about your conclusions) into constructive criticism (of your theory or method). That criticism, in turn, will improve the form of your next paper.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Relentless Revisions

Even the most devoted instructor cannot teach a good style or reduce the elements of style to a set of quickly learned techniques. We learn to write well, if we ever do, by reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.

Christopher Lasch

As a resident writing consultant I often find myself torn between two tasks: editing and teaching. (I wonder if this gives me a basis for empathizing with academics about the tensions between teaching and research.) This seems especially clear in my blogging. I feel a responsibility to periodically summarize the general grammatical principlies behind my specific editorial suggestions. But I often find myself at a loss for words.

This may be partly because I'm not trained as an English teacher but as a philosopher. It may be partly because, like everybody else, I find talking about principles (rather than practices) tedious. But it is also because I agree with Lasch that good writing does not emerge from a mastery of rules and techniques. It comes from continuous exercise. I have the privilege of participating in this process with the researchers at a single department, including its PhD students. I concentrate my efforts on their specific problems, supporting their own efforts to revise their texts relentlessly. I am not saying that rules can't be useful and I still intend to try to identify the rules that seem most relevant. But the important thing is to keep the conversation going. In writing and in English.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

An Unsuspected Discipline

Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned.

Jorge Luis Borges

After more than a month of silence on this blog, it may be fitting to post something about literary procrastination. It's not that I haven't had any ideas, of course. I've promised my workshop participants two or three answers to questions I didn't know on the spot, and a more substantial post on the importance of analyzing your objects rather than just naming them. I just haven't been able to commit these ideas to prose. That's a problem familiar to all writers. Editors and writing coaches probably make light of it a bit too often, tending to reduce any specific blockage to the same general solution: persistence and planning. I want to get back to setting a good example by writing a small, sometimes very unfinished, thought at least once a week.

Today, I simply want to draw your attention to the short story that gave me my epigraph. It is about a playwright who is arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death before he is able to finish the play he had "contrived to cover up his defects and point up his abilities and [which] held the possibility of allowing him to redeem (symbolically) the meaning of his life." (I leave it to you, dear reader, my likeness, to identify with this sentiment, except to add that I have composed many a blogpost in my head to vindicate my talents after an error in my editing shows up in the final copy.) The key to the story is that he writes his play in regular meter, which means that he can hold the whole text in his mind and work through it, changing it, adding to it, and committing the new version perfectly to memory: "a discipline unsuspected by those who set down and forget temporary, incomplete paragraphs". The night before his execution he prays to God for an extension: one more year. Just enough time to finish his play.

But God grants him more than a year. He grants him all the time in the world. "The physical universe [comes] to a halt" just before the triggers are pulled by the firing squad. Paralyzed in the courtyard, the playwright is allowed to finish his play, and this he undertakes to do. He succeeds (in his own mind, you will note) and is then promptly executed. The story is called "The Secret Miracle", the playwright's play is called (in part) the Vindication of Eternity.* It is a story, I want to say ... an allegory, no doubt ... about a particular illusion that keeps writers from meeting their deadlines: the fantasy of a single instant of infinite duration immediately before the text is due and everything comes to end. That moment, of course, never arrives. Eternity is never vindicated. Never.

Academic writing does not depend on miracles. It depends on the lesser discipline of "setting down and forgetting temporary, incomplete paragraphs". There isn't time for everything, but there is always time to get back to work.

*This is wrong. The play is called only The Enemies. Hladik had previously written a work of philosophy called Vindication of Eternity. I owe the mistake to what I assume is a typo in Harriet de Onís' translation, which appears in Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964). Here Hladik is described as "the author of the unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, or Vindication of Eternity" (the King Penguin edition, 1981, p. 118). Anthony Kerrigan renders this "the author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, of a Vindication of Eternity, and of..." Ficciones, (Everyman's Library, p. 114). Kerrigan also describes the discipline as "not imagined" rather than "unsuspected".