It’s unfortunate that academics rarely grasp the shithole they’re in until someone dumps a pile of vomit on their heads, forcing them to make the choice of whether to duck. But then, it can get warm and comfy in that hole, and require something particularly disgusting to cause an academic to take a hard look at why they do.
How did you learn to write for a more general readership?
Kipnis: I’d shown one of my videos at the big cultural-studies conference at Illinois, then for some reason the organizers asked me to write something for the volume — that first huge cultural-studies reader. I said I wanted to write on Hustler magazine, which I was a little obsessed with at the time, and to my surprise they said sure. So that came out and caused a bit of a stir because it raised class issues in relation to porn, which wasn’t something being talked about at the time, certainly not by feminists. Then Joy Press, who was an editor at The Village Voice, asked me to write a cover piece on Larry Flynt timed to the Milos Forman biopic about him that had just come out. Which was the first time I was really edited. It was like going to writing school for a year crammed into a couple of days of editing.
I’d written a bunch of academic essays by then, and I had no idea how full of godawful academic tics my writing was. I’d never considered myself a real academic — I’d never had to write a dissertation or jump through any of those disciplinary hoops, but I was writing horrible jargon anyway (these were the “theory” years). It was both helpful and also deeply humiliating to have someone point out that people outside of academia wouldn’t understand those veiled references to Foucault. (I remember another editor mocking a passage I wrote critiquing someone who was critiquing someone else. She told me that was the essence of academic writing, and was to be avoided.)
My writing education continued when I started writing pieces for Slate and other places where you get seriously edited in a way that you don’t for academic publications. What I learned is that there’s a level of sloppy writing you can get away with in academic writing that you simply can’t put over in journalism.
This one answer is jammed to the gills with great stuff. Note that I just used the phrase “great stuff.” Never would one find such a lowbrow colloquial phrase appear in scholarship. Nor would the trite phrase, “jammed to the gills.” It would violate the command that academic writing be prolix and pretentious, create the appearance of high-minded thought at all times, even when saying nothing new or actually thoughtful.
If it does nothing else, it inflicts pain on the reader, for whom the moderated language of academia is a reminder that no matter how brilliant or insipid the ideas, the presentation matters most. Which is the academic equivalent of, “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Works every time.
But the final paragraph of her response speaks volumes:
To be honest, I find myself almost unable to read academic writing at this point, especially the left-leaning, social-justice seeking, politically invested versions, even when I share the politics. So much of it is mutual stroking for the already persuaded, addressed to a cognoscenti who share your ideas and parlance. Writing for wider venues is actually a lot more challenging; at least that’s been my experience.
Not to suggest that she wasn’t being honest before (yet another tic?), but having struggled to try to be generous enough in my development to read social justice academic writing, if only to determine whether there is any basis in fact or theory that makes any sense at all, I too find it unbearable.
It’s not just that it’s “mutual stroking for the already persuaded,” though it certainly is. Nor is it just because it’s “addressed to a cognoscenti who share[s] [the writer’s] ideas and parlance.” We all do that to some extent, as to do otherwise would compel us to reinvent the wheel every time we express a thought. As a matter of necessity, we take for granted a basic understanding of the concepts and perspective before going at something a bit deeper.
No, what makes my head hurt is that the writing strings jargon words together into sentences that have no meaning. Word jumbles of social justice vagaries, usually interspersed with one or more logical fallacies, whether false analogies, anecdotes or strawmen, that only the most ardent sycophant can love.
There is a school of thought that if you have something worthwhile to say, just say it in normal, comprehensible words. Clarity matters. If you have something to say, why obfuscate? If your concept matters, why bury it in meaningless jargon.
Do you ever look back at something you’ve written and say to yourself, “this is awful,” or “this is gibberish”? I do all the time. I try my best to be clear here, to express an idea so that it’s adequately communicated to reasonably knowledgeable lawyers. I sometimes fail. But at least I can take comfort in knowing that however bad my writing may be, it beats the hell out of the crap written by scholars and social justice warriors.