Writing Clearly

One of my favorite twitter dust ups in recent memory has centered on a strange book review by John Henderson in the BMCR. Apparently all of his reviews are similarly awkward in style, formatting, and language (and perhaps content, although, to be honest, I don’t know enough about the Augustan age to judge his analysis), but this one seems to have a touched a nerve in the social media. Without trivializing the response in any way, I suspect our collective rawness from the COVID, American politics, and the dreadful state of the NFC East, contributed to the reaction to this review. 

Folks on twitter fumed that the review was too opaque to be useful and amounted to little more than an author flaunting his elitism and privilege. As a casual reader of this review, I suspect this is the case. The oddly placed footnotes, the strange parenthetical, use of italics, and strangely personal style suggested an author both confident in his idiosyncratic form of expression and the tolerance of the BMCR’s editors. 

I also recognize that a book review, particularly one in the BMCR, has a particular place in the academic ecosystem. The BMCR represents the discipline’s crib sheet. It’s often the first place to review a book, it doesn’t require a subscription, and despite the occasional controversy, generally produces no-nonsense reviews that are long on description and short on critique. At its best, the BMCR is a democratizing force in Classics and Ancient History as it allows even the most forlorn, overworked, and library-deprived member of the Classics diaspora to keep abreast of the publications in the field, their content, and on a superficial level their significance. The no-nonsense reviews featured in the BMCR, then, coincide with its accessibility of this publication (which is all the more important as library budgets are being cut). Henderson’s review, in contrast, clearly falls outside of what one would expect to appear in the BMCR and, this, invariably, contributed to a share of the criticism on social media. The review is opaque and idiosyncratic, and it seemed appropriate to note that the BMCR may not have been the appropriate venue for such a review.

What interested me more, however, was that many of the critiques were not narrowly contextualized as to what is appropriate for a publication like the BMCR. Instead, academics asked the question whether opaque, complex, and even awkward prose is appropriate for academic writing in general. This is a complicated matter and I’m confident that many who fumed about the Henderson review has thought more carefully about this than I have.

At the same time, I got a bit worried that the call for clarity in academic writing isn’t just a simple matter of making sure that we’re understood. After all, most of us accept that being understood can be overvalued, specialist language and knowledge is important, and in the probably apocryphal words of Einstein “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” We also recognize that what we regard as simple and clear language is not politically, racially, or socially neutral. Criticism of opaque language is most frequently leveled against authors writing from rather more radical or marginal political positions. It has been a charge directed in particular at scholars working in gender theory, critical race theory, and post-colonial studies. These scholars are more likely to be women and BIPOC (or particularly invested in issues related to the situation of woman and BIPOC communities) and the critiques tend to emanate from white men. At their most disturbing there is a vague echo for calls for a kind of normative “standard English” that has often been used to suppress the distinctive voices and identities of diverse communities both in the US and globally.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Henderson’s rather strange review deserves some kind of protected status or that he is simply writing in the style of his community. I also understand that the BMCR is a bit like a baseball boxscore. It’s meant to be legible at a glance and this function encourages a familiar and standard appearance and discourages creativity or innovation. Instead, I’m trying to understand how and whether we should cultivate and develop clarity in scholarly writing. 

I remember last year at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting, I attended a roundtable of scholars talking about writing for the general public. The roundtable was sponsored, I think, by the NEH Public Humanities Project. The speakers were all scholars who had enjoyed some success writing for wider audiences and were in their scholarly primes. As I noted at the time, it was clear that these scholars imagined the general public not as a particular type of person, but as a market for their works. In other words, the public scholar is the scholar who caters to an existing market for ideas, books, and writing.

In many ways, this panel reminded me of how music labels often encouraged artists to produce more commercially viable music and how this trend became more and more stifling as a more homogeneous consumer culture for music (and, I’d contend, literature) emerged in the post-war period. The burgeoning purchasing power of the post-war suburban, largely-white, middle class swept all culture before it and produced a more and more limited range of commercially viable forms. This homogenization of culture not only made it difficult to record more experimental work (or music of interest to narrower audiences), but also made us less tolerant of work that refused to conform to commercial expectations. 

I got the feeling that certain advocated of public scholarship saw it not as work that connected with group who are underserved, marginalized, or ignored by academic writers, but with the largest possible audience. Or, as I regularly hear, our (white, middle class) grandmother or mother who is really interested in “archaeology.”

It goes without saying that writing designed to appeal to the widest possible audience is also writing that conforms to certain social and cultural expectations. This isn’t to say that the writing can’t be politically and personally challenging — as recent scholarship on race has shown — but it has to do it in familiar and recognizable ways. This is why so much of the most moving and significant popular literature on race over the last few years (Ibram X. Kendi,  Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon, for example) ground their calls for racial justice in deeply personal stories. This is effective, affective, and familiar to mainstream audiences. It’s part of what makes these books accessible even if they make arguments that should make their white audiences uncomfortable. 

Part of the reason that I’m thinking about this is that I often find myself pushing students to write in more formal ways. I’m regularly telling my students to obey the rules of grammar, to write more simply, and to embrace a traditional style. I’ve even found myself mouthing the desiccated platitude that you need first to understand the rules before you can violate them.

At the same time, I frequently scold my students when they complain that a book or an article is hard to understand. I encourage them to think about the difference between poor and challenging writing and to recognize that new ideas and specialist literature will often demand more of our attention.  

What I rarely do is encourage them to write and to use language in ways that are comfortable and familiar to them. Like most folks, when I feel inconvenienced by the way that a student writes, I push them back toward the comfortable pabulum of convention. I  worry a good bit that I’m doing more reinforce the status quo than I am to encourage the emergence of distinct voices and valuing a narrow view of clarity more than a more expansive view of writing as art.

In the end, I do think that our world would be better, more interesting, and even more inclusive if we valued clarity a bit less and diversity a bit more.  

2 Comments

  1. He has been doing this for 20 years. Saw him with a soccer jersey with name Orwell printed on it in library in about 2005. It’s an esoteric way to write, but is it elitist? He sees himself as a language radical. Cambridge type place allows it. Jealous since I teach at an ag school in Big ten, but he’s a virtuoso. Doesn’t that count for something in humanities?

    Reply

    1. I’m lucky enough to teach somewhere that no one ever will read anything I write ever (hence the total freedom on this blog).

      I think being a virtuoso does still count (as much as it ever did for anyone), but it also comes will all the standard baggage that it always had. So, sure, Lomachenko was a virtuoso, but it, predictably, seems to have made Teofimo Lopez very angry.

      Reply

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