More books! Just what I needed

PBS was silent for a few days while Z and I visited some of my dispersed family before my trip overseas. Although I plan to write regularly each day until the actual move, most of that writing will stay in draft form. Writing needs to be a habit if any progress is expected but posting blog entries isn’t an essential step in the process.

I did get some nice books this week, so I will pick the easy route and write about that.

Of course, since I have yet to read these books, all I can write about is the rationale I used to pick them and my initial thoughts on their style, based on a quick read of the first few pages.

My collection currently holds seven titles that focus on the academic writing process and publication, another five books on writing styles for non-fiction and academic writers and one dedicated to editing your own academic writing. To this I can now add W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen, Write to the Top!: How to Become a Prolific Academic (New York: Palgrave, 2007). Despite the strident title and the self-help aftertaste you get from the introduction, this is a straightforward catalogue of writing strategies for academics. Teaching may form the public face of higher education but all teachers must publish at a fairly consistent (and increasingly unreasonable) rate. Those trapped in adjunct purgatory will have few demands for this from their employers, but they still need to publish if they hope to escape into the tenure track. Few new academics have any experience of this (beyond the abstract warnings from others) and they have less experience in producing and publishing their work on a regular basis. This book, like many others, attempts to cover that deficit. I’m not impressed with the tone or style so far. It’s an odd mix of stuffy syntax and jargon shaped into a self-help sort of pattern, but the content seems promising.

John H. Arnold, by contrast, is a pretty competent writer and although the prose in What is Medieval History (Malden, MA.: Polity, 2008) stays in the high-functioning  vocabulary bracket, Arnold keeps it very readable. I don’t spend a great deal of time in the medieval period anymore, but I find there are better arguments in favour of the study of history in general in these books than elsewhere.

One of the more expensive books I bought recently was Jennifer Feather, Writing Combat and the Self in Early Modern English Literature: The Pen and the Sword (New York: Palgrave, 2011). This came out in December last year and it’s a rare study of the changing conceptions of violence and conflict in the sixteenth-century. Feather’s approach passed through the thick methodological lenses of literary and cultural studies. On the way, the prose has collected a thick calcine deposit of theoretical jargon and obscure vocabulary. This makes for a slow read, which is frustrating, because there is some great stuff going on here. I had the same complaint with Patricia Cahill’s Unto the Breach (Oxford: OUP, 2008), where the clunky sentences and dense syntax obscured or distorted content. I found myself reacting more to the writing style than the actual argument and my opinion of the work was, I am sure, deeply affected by the generally unpleasant experience of reading it.

I know that for academics, style seems irrelevant or superficial, that good research transcends bad writing and that may be true, to some extent, but there is a reason why academic writing has no audience outside those who need to read it for their work. There is no reason why an academic writer must write in the dense idiom of academic prose. You won’t lose any content by taking a sentence like this:

“To modern readers, habituated to seeing the Renaissance as developing learning and civilization by accounts of the period ranging from Johan Huizinga to Norbert Elias and extending into recent scholarship, these images of bodies suffering and in pain, dominated and destroyed appear completely at odds with the humanist project of the Renaissance.” (Feather, 1-2)

And simplifying it a little (and dropping ‘habituated’):

“Modern readers struggle to reconcile the familiar images of violence, suffering, and pain that are constant features in scholarship of Johan Huizinga to Norbert Elias, with the humanist project of the Renaissance.”

That’s not so hard is it? Maybe too many writers are used to academic prose sounding a certain way and that words like ‘habituate’, ‘undergird’, ‘elide’ and ‘demarcate’ are more important as trappings of academic writing rather than appropriate and carefully controlled language.

Anyway, that’s my problem, not yours. I await the day that my distaste for the academic idiom gets a manuscript rejected because it didn’t ‘sound’ academic. It could happen.


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