The Academic Writing Thing

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When Nicholas Kristof, the soft-hearted liberal on the New York Times op-ed page, decided that political scientists had given up on writing for a broader public, a digital avalanche of blog posts, letters to the editor, and tweets, followed. The APSA, Corey Robin, Claire Potter, and basically the entire editorial collective of Jacobin took the man to task for his channeling of the laziest version of Tom Friedman. Why, Kristof seemed to be asking, casually leafing through the past few issues of the New Yorker, can’t more people write like Jill Lepore? This is a fine question, but – as Robin points out – it isn’t the right question at all, and it probably isn’t an honest question, either.

Now, just as Kristof’s more recent and weak apologia has been begrudgingly accepted, here comes Joshua Rothman, writing in the New Yorker itself, and asking, with an eye on the recent contretemps, “Why is Academic Writing so Academic?” Where Kristoff seemed detached, Rothman is engaged, and genuinely interested in trying to understand why the professoriate writes for itself. Our gnomish academic audiences matter more, he sums, because they determine tenure and promotion.  “Academic writing and research,” he concludes, “may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too. Today’s academic work, excellent though it may be, is the product of a shrinking system. It’s a tightly-packed, super-competitive jungle in there.”

Yes, there is is truth to this. A tight labor market means increased specialization and less risk-taking, leading one to assume that writing a dense essay that is sure to be published in a top journal is a safer bet (for promotion and hiring) than trying to publish in N+1. (Though there are plenty, despite the assumption, who do both).  And when we read each other’s work for venues that are chiefly academic, we tend to wonder more about the disciplinary stakes and less about the quality of the prose. Generally, that is.

But here is a deeper truth: our publics also care less and less about the nuanced, complex, and ironic subjects that are increasingly relevant at this exact moment. Or, at least, they care less about what academics think about these subjects. One half of the reading public prefers to have their middle-school children learn about Paul Revere from Rush Limbaugh, and would rather read Bill O’Reilly’s take on religion in contemporary culture. The other half has a very limited appetite for anything other than straightforward biographies, simple-minded foreign policy broadsides, or Malcolm Gladwell/David Brooks style pop sociology. Oprah Winfrey may have made serious fiction culturally important again, but, still, far more people know the ways of Jack Reacher than have read a single word written by Jesmyn Ward. The Guggenheim museums claim 3 million visitors annually, roughly 1.5 million less than the average viewership of a single episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta, and while I find extraordinary intellectual richness in the life of NeNe Leakes (and teach about it often) most of those who write about the show aim straight for the id.

This disinterest in subtlety and complexity and hard thinking changes the publishing context for our work.

A few years ago, I set out to write a book about Josephine Baker, whose life seemed to have been historically-tailored for our own celebrity-obsessed, tabloid-driven moment.  The gambit was a focus on her adoptions, after World War Two, of a dozen children from around the world, and her parentage of this U.N. family in a castle-cum-theme park in rural France. I got an agent (who is awesome), wrote a book proposal, and had it circulated to all the usual suspects.  And you know what?  They didn’t bite. They nibbled. Responding with great candor, they wanted more sex and scandal, and, more troublesomely, they worried about whether the market could sustain yet another black women’s biography.  No matter how elegantly I might have written about celebrity and politics, they weren’t terribly interested in Baker’s ideas, or her fame, or her assemblage. They wanted a dumbed-down book for a dumbed-down audience, a book about her body and not her brain.

And I really didn’t want to write that book.  So I wrote, instead, a better book. “Better” not because it is aimed at advancing an historiographical argument, or because it is heavily footnoted, or theoretically dense, and certainly not because it will be reviewed in AQ, but rather because it more perfectly expresses a story that cannot – and should not – be simplified.

Blaming academics for writing “like academics” is putting it backwards, because it proposes that smart, clever, strange, and contradictory stories are only for eggheads.  And also because it puts a rather small and increasingly marginalized group in the driver’s seat.  Yes, academic writing is now more specialized – especially in essay form – than ever before. You know what else has changed?  Publishing. And also? The public’s presumed taste for complexity. So, by all means, let us continue to reach for that elusive audience of straphangers, airport bookstore browsers, and New Yorker readers, but let’s also continue to not untangle the bewildering plot lines of the past and the present.  The world is weird and strange.  Let’s never forget that our job, really, is to illuminate that weirdness and strangeness, and to entice a bigger audience to gaze at what we’ve revealed.

6 thoughts on “The Academic Writing Thing

  1. Matthew–this is excellent. I’ve said for years that in fact there are a number of gifted writers like yourself among historians; it’s that the public doesn’t want to read a lot of the stories we are telling. And this: “Responding with great candor, they wanted more sex and scandal, and, more troublesomely, they worried about whether the market could sustain yet another black women’s biography. This is exactly what I mean. Because the market is just super-saturated with black women’s biolgraphies? Hardly. It’s because black women’s biographies are frequently (if not usually) far from uplifting Whiggish stories that make white readers feel good about being Americans.
    I also think that humanities scholarship is unfairly deprived in this discourse of the right to have specialized or even esoteric conversations. Sure, we all like Radio Lab, but we acknowledge the fact that scientists have to do their work and publish their results in a lot of specialized journals before Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich can summarize their life’s work. But historians–well, if your average sixth grader can’t understand what we write and feel good about it? Fuggedaboutit.

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    1. No one ever pines for the prose of Du Bois or C.L.R. James or Paula Giddings, right? For historians in particular, the assumption is that if we don’t write like Perry Miller – and also write affirming stories of uplift, triumph, and personal success – we’re “failing to connect.”

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      1. Perry Miller??? Since when is he a model of a prose stylist? I had to suffer through both volumes of The New England Mind back in the day. I think I once had a grasp on his explanation of Ramean logic, but how useful has that ever been to me in my career as a scholar?
        I have never, ever considered assigning those books to my grad students. Ever!
        Over at Tenured Radical this week in response to Carole Emberton’s response to Kristof, I wrote about my theory that these complaints are 80% marketing gambits deployed by Cokie Roberts and Jon Meacham and David McCullough to ensure that they dominate the popular history market. But why are their histories popular? Is it because they’re such brilliant writers? No way. It’s because they’re telling uplifting stories that flatter middle-class Americans.

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  2. The other thing is, there is an audience for those biographies–if the audience can find them! If you don’t get reviewed in certain places; don’t get to go on a book tour; don’t get advertised–how can your work be found? Not to mention, from the other perspective, does your town/suburb/neighborhood still have a public library with enough money to buy and display a range of interesting “quirky” new books for a variety of folks….It’s such a frustrating conversation, because the structural dimensions are huge. I don’t blame a simple-minded public as much as I blame the narrowing of access. It’s always been a relatively small reading public–relative to the total population. But the push for outrageous profits in publishing limits what can be published. (Not sure what the definition of outrageous actually is, but that seems to be the default answer to why your “quirky” “academic” book can’t be published.)

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    1. Agreed. There is a story to be told here, too, about the slow demise of university presses – meaning, their gradual defunding, and the emphasis on profitability. But the bigger story, as you suggest, is the decline of public libraries and branch libraries in particular. I’m looking at you, New York Public Library/Central Libraries Plan.

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