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The Hidden Music of Words


Academics shouldn’t scoff at literary prose—they have much to learn from it


By Aaron Sachs

October 11, 2016


What is the difference between academic and literary writing? If this sounds like a joke, the punch lines are many. Style. Voice. Jargon. Signposts (“The aim of this chapter is …”). In fact, jargon so litters academic writing that signposts are indispensable to reader comprehension.

Surely my biases are already clear, which perhaps makes me come across as self-loathing, since I’m an academic myself. Guilty. But I also appreciate much of what we academics contribute to this debate. We excel at argumentation. We’re thorough. Our extensive citations allow readers to check our work and involve themselves deeply in the conversations that we’re constantly trying to spark. Some professional scholars even embrace writing as an art and a craft in itself rather than as merely a means of presenting research findings.

I’m particularly grateful to my fellow travelers who have seen fit to teach writing seminars designed for Ph.D. students. Maybe the next generation of scholars can learn how to write more artfully. Nevertheless, stylish prose strikes many academics as dilettantish, causing younger scholars to adhere to the established templates for fear of whiffing on the academic job market.

But shouldn’t there be ways of improving academic writing without sacrificing scholarly credibility? Journalists, essayists, and even memoirists make use of academic research all the time to bolster their prose. Why couldn’t scholars steal some literary techniques from them?

For the sake of my own writing, I’ve often sought inspiration in creative prose, especially fiction. But most recently, I’ve found it helpful to peruse a couple of writing guides by Phillip Lopate and Verlyn Klinkenborg, well-established practitioners of literary nonfiction who also happen to hold doctorates and work in the academy.

Lopate, known especially for his superb anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, and for such prickly pieces as “Against Joie de Vivre,” offers a bridge for academics intrigued by the possibility of combining scholarship with artfulness. As his guide’s title—To Show and to Tell—suggests, Lopate is impatient with the truisms of creative writing classes (“show, don’t tell”) and instead favors balance and flexibility. There is a time for subtle suggestion and a time for direct “explanation and analysis,” and at the heart of nonfiction’s specific potential is the careful calibration of these two modes. (Stephen Pyne, a scholar in my own field of U.S. history, recently made a similar point in his book, Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction.)

Lopate thinks of himself primarily as a storyteller rather than as a teacher or interpreter or critic or advocate; the literary essay, he insists, “is not a logical proof or a legal brief.” It thrives on internal contradiction and a sense of exploration: “[I]f you know already what all your points are going to be when you sit down to write, the piece is likely to seem dry, dead on arrival.” So much for the disciplined outline. At the same time, though, Lopate acknowledges that “my own essays do always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade.” To see the potential compatibility of narrative and analysis, of exploration and argumentation—say, in classic nonfiction writers like James Baldwin, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, or Susan Sontag—is perhaps to see new possibilities for combining deep research with gripping, memorable prose.

Lopate also provides pointed reminders that all good writing depends on craft. The theory of balance between showing and telling can take you only so far. Consider, for instance, his unpacking of a long paragraph from one of Baldwin’s essays. Lopate gives us his own long paragraph, but it turns out to be composed of just a single sentence, a tour-de-force of compressed rhetorical analysis. “It’s all there,” Lopate says,

[Baldwin’s] King James Bible rhythms, oral sermon repetitions, and anaphoric series (“and/and” “blackness/blackness”); his oxymorons (“crushing charm”); his witheringly undercutting use of interpolated phrases (“never to my knowledge with any success”); … his ability to sustain an extremely long sentence without wearying or confusing his reader, then employ short sentences or sentence fragments for variety; his willingness to pull back from a specific detail and make the broader generalization; … his detachment and grim humor; and finally, his generous move to identify with, show complicity with, the flaw (“this bitterness”) he had seemed to be indicting.

If you’ve ever taught writing, this listing and explanation of Baldwin’s techniques may come across as workmanlike, par for the course: How could anyone be expected to write artfully without understanding such basic elements of rhetoric? On the other hand, if you’re a typical humanities professor or doctoral student, Lopate’s analysis might be revelatory. Would it really be so problematic or radical to introduce this kind of awareness into, say, a Ph.D. program in history?

Whether you’re an academic or not, if you’re already more inclined toward radical approaches and you’re poised to question your deepest assumptions about the process of writing, then Verlyn Klinkenborg will take you even further than Lopate. His book Several Short Sentences About Writing, though not without its frustrating qualities (repetition, hints of arrogance, even a few sloppy sentences), is the freshest writing guide I’ve ever read and a far more cogent and coherent book than Lopate’s collection of incidental essays. “There are no rules,” Klinkenborg explains at the outset, “only experiments.” But his experiments have the kind of focus and rigor more commonly associated (however fallaciously) with science than with art.

Instead of entreating us to open the floodgates in our minds and let rivers of prose flow onto the page, Klinkenborg insists that we be harder on ourselves, but that we focus less on abstractions like argument or research and instead direct our attention to what each of our sentences is saying. One of his mantras is “revise at the point of composition.” He calls for absolute ruthlessness, because so much published writing is marred not only by jargon but also by “weak constructions,” “meaningless phrases,” mangled diction, and hackneyed word choices—and that’s not even to mention the unpardonable sin, committed by virtually every academic writer, of padding sentences with extraneous words, superfluous phrases, and redundant verbiage.

If we academics are tempted to ignore style in favor of substance, to look beyond the writing for the ideas, we ought to remember that “[t]here’s no sign of your intention apart from the sentences themselves.”

I’ve never been convinced by any definition of an academic discipline; aren’t there many legitimate methods for producing history? But when Klinkenborg upholds the discipline of writing—the discipline of judging each of one’s sentences on the merits of its syntax and grammar and resonances and sound and rhythm—I can suddenly hear each section of an orchestra coming in at exactly the right stroke of the baton. Each word, each moment, each beat matters, as does the silence between sounds. “Writing isn’t a conveyor belt bearing the reader to ‘the point’ at the end of the piece, where the meaning will be revealed,” Klinkenborg argues. “Good writing is significant everywhere, delightful everywhere.”

Yes: there should be pleasure in prose; you should be able to revel in each sentence’s energetic verbs and surprising metaphors, its “texture, pace, structure, actuality.” To be disciplined as a writer is to care about every single word and how it relates to every other word. Put another way, to be disciplined as a writer is to care less about what your reader will extract from your sentences and more about how your reader will experience them.

Try reading your own sentences out loud. How do you feel about them? Well, trust that feeling.

Klinkenborg acknowledges that his doctorate-holding peers will have to “unlearn” or “overcome” their academic training, because they’ve been taught that the only point of reading is to be able to summarize the main point of what they’ve read. Meaning is reduced to “what can be restated.” And our impatient reading (or skimming) habits can translate into didactic, condescending writing habits: we start by planting signposts, and then we rip them out of the ground and use them as cudgels. That’s bad enough in itself (and no reader will appreciate the head trauma), but such techniques also come with opportunity costs: they relinquish the possibility of implication, the invocation of deep cultural and linguistic resonances, “[t]he ability to suggest more than the words seem to allow.”

Semaphoric prose often comes across as sophomoric. And canned. Like Lopate, Klinkenborg emphasizes the exhilaration that can infect your writing if you’re willing to surrender yourself to the process, to figure out what you’re trying to say while struggling to say it rather than acting as if you already know and are merely performing an act of translation. With a little luck and a lot of diligence, Klinkenborg suggests, you might “get into the habit of surprising yourself. The reader will feel the freshness of the discovery in the prose because the writer almost always reveals the excitement of making a discovery in the rhythm and the vividness of the sentences themselves.” But of course you can’t just let the revelatory prose pour out of you, because sentences that seem to volunteer themselves are almost always “[d]ull and unvarying, yielding only a small number of possible structures and only the most predictable phrases, the inevitable clichés.”

With a sense of balance that Lopate would undoubtedly endorse, Klinkenborg concludes that the effective writer will “learn to live somewhere between certainty and flux.” She will often spend time “listening for echoes, opportunities. Sometimes you find yourself watching the traces of words, phrases, memories, flitting through your mind. … [S]entences originate and take their endless variety from within you, from your reading, your tactile memory for rhythms, your sense of the playfulness at the heart of the language, your perception of the world.”

Such an approach will be challenging for most academics. We tend to be rewarded for authoritative determinations—for certainty, not flux, not phrases that flit through our minds. We are rewarded for solid logic and the marshaling of evidence. We are rewarded for following the rules and the templates and ultimately for constructing arguments that can end with the three bold letters “QED.” Academics have not traditionally staked their careers on the art of suggestion—at least never to my knowledge with any success.

But for all his protestation about implication, Klinkenborg himself makes a heavy-handed argument, from which he would surely like us to extract a very particular meaning. In classic academic fashion, he fills the last 50 pages of his book with celebratory analyses of good sentences produced by famous authors and hilarious but somewhat mean-spirited corrections of bad sentences produced by his students (talk about “crushing charm”). By the end, you should understand what works and what doesn’t. QED.

Despite Klinkenborg’s distaste for academic writing, then, he implies that its argumentative stance could still be worthwhile, as long as one’s style doesn’t become too formulaic. His book is meant to cover all types of nonfiction prose, and he is adamant that genre should have absolutely no power to determine form. So (presumably) even the most research-oriented of scholars could adopt his method, which would (presumably) make Klinkenborg happy—though he might well go into conniptions if said scholar claimed to be adopting his “methodology.”

So, what’s the difference between academic nonfiction and literary nonfiction? My favorite punch line is that there doesn’t have to be one.

And for those academics who’d prefer a clearer, more prescriptive conclusion: please, if you should encounter scholarly writing that takes some creative risks, open your mind to it. Give it a chance; try to understand it on its own terms. Especially if it’s by a graduate student or an untenured professor.

Aaron Sachs teaches at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition, which combines historical scholarship with memoir.

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