Sunday, September 09, 2007

English Arguments

In class on Thursday night, I had to wrinkle my nose as another student (PhD, for that matter) described The Confidence Man as "literary masturbation". The book is difficult and confusing, but I hardly think that term applies to it--Melville's purpose is reasonably clear to a perceptive reader, and he employs devices that achieve that purpose. But mostly I objected to that phrase because something about it strikes me as pretentious and dull, the sort of thing you'd say if you wanted to sound smart but had nothing of meaning to contribute.

Perhaps I'm a bit harsh, but certain phrases and ways of speaking annoy me. As does certain ways of writing, like that of the brilliant-but-terrible-to-read Fredric Jameson. I later argued with the same classmate about what makes good writing: she asserted that Jameson was "wonderful", while I rolled my eyes and said that he had good ideas, but was an awful writer. I personally despise academic writing that is obscure for obscurity's sake, instead of merely dealing with the material as clearly and concisely as possible.

(Perhaps I hate it because I find myself adopting academic-speak, but I still dislike it strongly.)

She argued that it was just how we were supposed to write--the establishment would deny any attempts to write in a "low-brow" way. We're expected to adopt the "high-brow" academic discourse, even if we could be clearer (and better) in our papers. I thought this was bullshit.

Terry Eagleton argues against obscure, empty writing in After Theory. Several other great prose stylists can write engagingly while dealing with difficult material. Why does academic writing have to be so awful sometimes? We study some of the best writing in the world, and yet our own writing is muck meant to mire an unsuspecting reader in jargon, obscurity, and incomprehensibility?

I hope I can be a good writer and show insight into my material. I want to write articles that are both informative and enjoyable to read. It's going to be a long process, but perhaps I'll get there in the end.

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