By Paula Marantz Cohen
Why can’t the Modern Language Association, the organization that represents the academic study of English, undertake the mission of encouraging good writing in the academy? The field of literary studies, before it became professionalized, was known as belles-lettres. Let’s bring back the beauty, even as we maintain the professionalism. PMLA, the prestigious journal of the MLA, should refuse to publish pieces that are ugly and unclear, and the MLA should develop a program for its annual and regional meetings that makes clarity and beauty a value, and hold workshops at which the editing of scholarly work is demonstrated. The problem, alas, is that many in leadership positions within the organization write badly. Not only will they have to recognize the larger problem of bad writing as a perverse sort of standard for good scholarship, but they will also have to demand change, both for themselves and for others.
Once-bad writers who have become better ones could speak out in support of the recovery process. I consider myself one of these. When I look back at my early writing, it strikes me now as unnecessarily opaque. A colleague in another discipline read one of my books from this period and noted that it seemed to him like wading through molasses. Although it is hard to undo years of bad habits, I have worked to rid myself of academic tics and achieve some degree of clarity and grace.
A more brilliant and visible example of a scholar who has achieved what I am trying to achieve is Stephen Greenblatt. He did not write well in such early books as his 1992 essay collection, Learning to Curse. But he has renovated his prose to an extraordinary degree since. Readers may quarrel with his speculative biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World (2004), or with his claim for the influence of Lucretius in his latest book, The Swerve (2011). But no one can deny that the writing is terrific. Both recent books made the New York Times best-seller list; The Swerve won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Greenblatt would be an ideal spokesman for the recovery movement I am advocating. Not only is he a former president of the MLA but he also has excellent liberal credentials. Conservative scholars who criticize academic writing tend to be dismissed for their politics. Of course, Greenblatt’s success may taint him in academia, where clarity can be taken as a blemish—a sign of having sold out to the dark forces of the marketplace.
Ideas can be complicated and require complex expression; awkward writers can have brilliant ideas. But as I grow older, I find myself less inclined to make excuses for bad writing. I would rather read Lionel Trilling, that stylistically elegant Prospero of an earlier age, than the babbling of more contemporary, progressive-minded Calibans.
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Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.