Monday, July 27, 2009

Writers and Facts

At the summer house I dipped into Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Asked to speak on the subject of "women and fiction", she offered the attractively simple idea that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". It made me think about what one might say about the connection between writers more generally and facts.

I've written about the importance of facts in academic writing before. Facts are not all there is to academic writing (academic writing is about more than just the facts), but how you deal with factual material does a lot to determine the cut of your style. Woolf's neat little formula (writing requires money and a room) must be elaborated a little to fit scholarly writing, however, because it is precisely fiction that can emerge from only a modicum of freedom from economic worries and a sequestered space in which to work in peace. Academic writers need these conditions as well, but they must also be situated, socially and materially, in a way that gives them access to the facts.

It should be said that Woolf does note that women, at least in her day, faced specific barriers to accessing the social experiences that could inform their writing. She typified these barriers in crisp descriptions of a "fictional" academic environment, in fact—a place she called "Oxbridge".

I may return to that strange place in a later post. My aim here is simply to note that, for our purposes, the monetary component of Woolf's formula for a writing environment must be translated into the funding conditions that secure the scholar the necessary time to write, while the "room of one's own" can stand for the physical infrastructure of a university department or research institute, a space for scholarship. ("Independent scholars" of course exist, but their success depends on simulating these conditions by other means.) Not incidentally, Kant defined time and space as the transcendental forms of all appearances, and it is through appearances that facts become known to us.

An important part of your academic training ("schooling"), then, is to situate yourself in time and space, with plenty of money and plenty of room, to discover and understand "the facts", and to retain your knowledge of them. This relationship that you must establish to a particular set of facts (those pertaining to your research area) is, of course, supported by your writing process. And over the next few posts I want to consider some of the ways in which your writing process fosters a constructive relation to the facts your research is, at least ostensibly, about.

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