Thursday, January 15, 2009

When good writing goes bad....

As part of my renewed commitment to getting some damn scholarly work done, I'm reading a lot of essays these days on Herbert. Last night before bed, I read one that kept me awake like a horror movie, not because of its gripping argument but because it was written SO ABOMINABLY that I couldn't look away. It was like watching chaos unfold before my eyes. Its sentences were incomprehensible, its vocabulary limited. One paragraph used the phrase "the principle of" EIGHT TIMES, and not wisely but with the effect that it was the author's stock fallback piece of jargon. The argument of the piece was erratic and unfocused. If a student of mine had handed in that essay for class, I'd have given it something like a C+ or B-.

I think such horrors are a natural consequence of the publishing fetish in contemporary academia. Administrators, and increasingly colleagues, rely upon the imprimatur of publication to measure the quality of faculty research, but it's really not a good indicator. I've read a number of badly-written monographs in the last several years--one so terrible I routinely use it in class to demonstrate the patent fallibility of the published (for students who sometimes are reluctant to advance their own argument against the authority of the published text).

When I was getting an MFA in the mid-90s, I had a fellow-student with whom I'd sometimes end up walking to school out of the accident of our geographies. He would boast, every day, about his prodigious output. "I wrote a poem last night." "Wrote another poem this morning." After this had gone on for some time, I couldn't resist. "I write a poem a day!" he grinned one day, to which I responded, "It shows."

Maybe I'm just trying to justify my own slowness in writing of all modes and genres, but I'd rather people published less, and better. It's too bad the business of academia has pressed material and ideas into publication that aren't yet ready for the eyes of the world.


Moria said...

Flavia and I had this conversation, actually, about a Big Book on Reformation poetics (you know it), written by a Brit. It could only have been written by a Brit -- he took about twenty years to write it, and it was his first monograph. It's not a tenure bid. It's (in the literal sense) a master piece.

I'm in favor of Professor Zero's proposal for an alternative institutional hierarchy as a first step toward bringing academe back to the heart of the scholar-teacher endeavor. The artisanal model has a great deal to teach us. (And Americans are crazy.)

Anonymous said...


It's good to be productive, but not so good to be rushed.

Lisa B. said...

In this vein, I would also so much prefer that we valued the smaller piece over the book--I've sometimes read books that had, at the heart of it, a good article, but which got teased out into a book because a book is what's required. Less publication is where to start, though. Less is the precursor to better, if only because the pressure to produce more results in horrible books (and, of course, horrible articles). It's no wonder scholarship in the humanities is so easily mocked.

squadratomagico said...

Just the other day, I was talking with my chair about my next review. I told him I was worried I wouldn't be done with my book ms., and he replied, "Oh, don't worry; you'll have until the review after to polish it. I know you like to revise and be very careful about language and expression, that you're very thoughtful about your work before you release it. It'll be fine." I felt so good that he recognized and even valued this effort on my part, rather than thinking that I should just publish the first sloppy shit that came down on the page.

But I surely would move up faster in the ranks and be a "more successful" academic if I published more rapidly.

squadratomagico said...

I just presented you with the Inspiration Award. Wear it with pride!

miltonista said...

This post had me cringing nervously. My first publication was an article on Herbert that I should've revised thoroughly (or rewritten completely). Thank god I didn't (as far as I can recall) use the phrase "the principle of" eight times in a paragraph.

sexy said...