Friday, September 18, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Popular

Gail Hornstein takes up a familiar theme in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Academic prose, she tells us, is "impenetrable" by nature; the problem of writing well arises in the context of "writing that appeals to a broader public". While she is, of course, right about the state of academic writing in general, I think we need to push back against the idea that only popular audiences (and their editors) demand good, clear writing. Your peers like to understand what they're reading as much as your "public".

My main objection to Hornstein's argument is her suggestion that the academic genre "allows" bad writing. What she forgets is that the proportion of bad writing in popular genres is as high as in academic genres. The majority of all writing is bad. Good writing always finds an audience. Bad writing leaves the audience cold. This is true no matter how small the potential audience is at the outset.

Consider the following attempt to define the difference between popular and academic writing.

Revision requires making choices, something that academic writing allows you to avoid at all costs. Much of what makes that kind of prose so complicated is that nothing gets left out. Writing for a popular audience, in contrast, forces you to figure out what the hell you're trying to say and come right out with it.

This is simply not true. Something always gets left out. The difference will only ever be what gets left out. It would even be misleading to say that academic writing leaves out less material than popular writing because popular writing is, in that sense, also trying to say less. All writing is the tip of an iceberg. There is no useful distinction to be made between leaving nine tenths or eleven fourteenths under the surface.

Hornstein is, of course, right that academic writers do well to consider a "different way of relating to our audience." But she is wrong to suggest that this problem only arises when we shift out of the academic genre, where, she says,

We'd have to start caring about (our readers) interests, learning what they know and what they don't. Popular writing, by definition, invites lots of different kinds of people to invest their time and money in your ideas, and your expression of them.

Knowing what our readers know (i.e., not knowing the same things, but knowing how much of what we are about to say they already know), is arguably more important in academic writing than in popular writing. When writing for a popular audience you can choose your audience; your editor will help you to decide how much your reader will be assumed to know. When writing for academics you are, in principle, writing for the most knowledgeable people on your subject.

Hornstein believes that writing for a popular audience will challenge your "arrogance" and (here's the good news) make you less "lonely".

Academic writing derives its authority from certain conventions, some of them bordering on arrogance. When you're a young professor, it can make you feel powerful to sound as if you know so much. And you can get away with that kind of writing because your audience—other academics—will read your work even if it's impenetrable. But eventually, it can get lonely to have so few people to talk to. What you want to say might actually be of interest to an audience wider than those in your specialty.

But I think this is a very presumptuous thing to say. And it's a tired caricature. Academics do not "get away with" bad writing; nor do your peers "read your work even if it's impenetrable". A great deal of published academic prose goes unread (and certainly uncited) precisely because it is so poorly written. Not all academic writers are lonely, and popular recognition is not the only reward for a researcher. There is a genuine, deep satisfaction in having written a paper that thirty of the most well-informed people on a particular subject read, reread, and discuss. Such papers are rarely "impenetrable".

Hornstein quotes, but quickly dismisses, Gerald Graff's warning not to "exaggerate the distance between the academic and the popular, especially if doing so excuses bad academic habits of communication ... Don't kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don't understand it yourself." That's partly right. But you also need to be able to explain it to your brightest student and your professor. They are not a more forgiving audience. In fact, mediocre students and parents are much more likely to bear over with, or even admire, your turgidity.

"Discovering that I could write in a way that appealed to [a popular audience] was surprisingly touching," says Hornstein. "It made my work feel more real, like it actually mattered." I'm sure it did. But it's actually the easy way to feel like you know something that matters. Just find an audience that is bound, but its relative ignorance, to accept everything you say uncritically. Find an audience that lets you "prune" away all the difficult stuff. What is really touching is when three peer-reviewers, an editor, and eventually an audience of a dozen or so experts acknowledge your contribution to expanding the frontiers of the known. To do that you have to write well. Very well.

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