Why can’t scholars write more clearly?
By Paula Marantz Cohen
One of the most thought-provoking passages in Shakespeare’s plays is spoken by the creature Caliban in Act I of The Tempest:
You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (I, ii, 363-65)
Caliban is the original inhabitant of the island where Prospero, the former Duke of Milan and a learned magician, has been shipwrecked with his daughter, Miranda, for 12 years. When Caliban attempts to rape Miranda, Prospero concludes that the creature, who he had at first tried to befriend, is incorrigible and fit only for slavery:
A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, are all lost, quite lost! (IV, i, 188-193)
In recent years, Postcolonial Studies theorists have championed Caliban, arguing that he is a victim of Prospero, an imperialist, patriarchal oppressor. The Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who titled his 1992 collection of essays Learning to Curse, helped to initiate this view of the character.
But this line of thinking seems to me to be connected to another development that is equally influential: the rise of bad writing in English studies. One could argue that bad writing has always existed in some corners of academia, but I would suggest that it began to flourish in the 1990s, as Caliban’s lines above were amended by graduate students in English literature to read: “You taught me to be open and tolerant, and my profit on it is that I write gibberish.”
Why would Postcolonial Studies and bad writing emerge together? My theory is that, initially, bad writing was condoned as a form of democratization, a way for those with different backgrounds to gain entry into a once-closed field. This democratization, however, soon doubled back to produce a new kind of selectivity. Bad writing, instead of being a bar to publication in academia, became a prerequisite for it. If you didn’t write badly—or, at least, opaquely in a certain prescribed way—you could not get published in the elite journals that were the gateway to the increasingly scarce jobs in the field. As the worst writers (i.e., the best practitioners of the new anti-style) got these jobs, they perpetuated bad writing in their students.
Let me demonstrate my point through examples. I had thought to take these from recent issues of PMLA, the journal of record in literary studies. But it seemed unfair to subject scholars who are not at the top of their field to this sort of scrutiny. So here are examples by authors who are considered giants, people generously cited but also imitated by junior scholars the world over.
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.
—Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” (1994)
The rememoration of the “present” as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative on no-(particular)-place, the metropolitan project that can supplement the post-colonial attempt at the impossible cathexis of place-bound history as the lost time of the spectator.
—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Psychoanalysis in Left Field and Fieldworking: Examples to Fit the Title” (1994)
Both of these paragraphs rely on the buzzwords and tics that have become endemic to the field of English studies. Note the familiar bothersome jargon that seems to suggest a vague moral chastisement at odds with some kind of vague moral uplift: ruse of desire; discourse of splitting; rational, enlightened claims; utopian imperative; metropolitan project; impossible cathexis. Note the created words that have weightiness by virtue of sounding important and not being clear: enunciatory modality, rememoration, place-bound history. Note the use of quotation marks and parenthesis to suggest an ironical or secondary meaning, so as to throw the reader off balance: “normalize,” “present,” “no-(particular)-place.” Most of all, note the sentence structure—a syntactical knottiness that fatigues the brain and requires multiple perusals to get even the faintest outline of what is being said. Add to this the titles of these pieces, which suggest that the authors have a sense of humor that their writing entirely belies. It seems to be standard practice nowadays for an academic article to have a title that attempts to be witty followed by an impenetrable subtitle, thereby combining hip playfulness with the required intellectual opaqueness.
If I sound peevish, it is because I am. As the co-editor of a literary journal, I sift through this sort of writing all the time. As a professor, I also see students, perfectly good writers when they begin college, acquiring this garbled style as they proceed into graduate school.
Now for the remedy—for there is always a remedy, as George Orwell noted in his famous essay on the subject (proving that what I am describing, however egregious, is not new): “Modern English,” wrote Orwell, “especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”
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 encourages clarity and beauty, and hold workshops at which the editing of scholarly work is demonstrated. The problem, unfortunately, is that many in leadership positions within the organization write badly. To bring about reform, they will have to recognize the larger problem of bad writing as a perverse sort of standard for good scholarship. The will have to want 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 do is Stephen Greenblatt himself. Greenblatt did not write particularly well in such early books as 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 newest 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.
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.