My Problem with Bad Writing

I must confess something: I am intellectually biased toward coherence, clarity, and order. I not only dislike reading unclear academic prose, but it frustrates me. It frustrates me because I assume that the ordinary purpose of language is to communicate meaning, and unclear academic prose inhibits the communication of meaning. And, most of the time, unclear prose is the result of laziness or a lack of skill on the part of the writer. When my students are unclear, I know it is because they are wrestling with difficult ideas and new forms. When professional writers are unclear in their published writing, however, I know it is because they want to be. And this pisses me off because it  intentionally  breaks the metaphorical contract that all readers and all writers enter into when words are put to paper: the writer will try her  damnedest  to be clear and the reader will try her  damnedest  to understand. Writing intentionally abstruse academic prose is like contributing to a conversation being conducted in English by barking loudly and then expecting one’s interlocutors to take lots and lots of time to interpret the barking. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

(I do want to pause for a moment to offer some caveats: 1) I know that meaning is more or less socially constructed. I do not doubt the problems inherent in translation or the lack of a universal meaning that sits behind our words. I am talking about the ordinary use of language. Exceptions usually prove the rule. 2) When language is an art form (poetry, fiction, “creative” writing of any sort), then I think there is more room for ambiguity since the purpose of art is more than simple communication. In discussing clarity, I’m talking about academic prose. 3) I’m not talking about difficult concepts or difficult-to-understand ideas. I’m talking about sentences that are hard to understand but, once understood, could obviously have been rendered with far greater clarity. 4) I’m not talking about technical vocabulary. I understand that some words take on technical meanings that do not always need to be unpacked for insiders. I don’t mind using a dictionary. Again, I’m talking about unclear sentences.)

But let’s back up for a second. While I am angered by intentionally  obfuscated  prose, my view is not obviously shared by many of my colleagues and professors. Many of my colleagues and  professors  are happy to sit around reading Derrida and discussing his published works as if they were literature when, really, Derrida is a theorist advancing an argument. And, don’t get me wrong, I think Derrida has very important insights, but I   think he is a terrible writer if, by writer, we mean a human who puts words on paper in hopes of communicating with other humans. (To be honest, since I can’t read French, I don’t know if he is a terrible writer. Maybe his translators are just jerks.)

Gerald Bruns, writing about Derrida’s bizarre lecture about his cat, notes that Derrida’s writing “has never proceeded (and can never be followed) in a straightforward manner but moves unpredictably through amplifications and digressions punctuated by puns and neologisms without ever really terminating in a position. Arguably, this ‘style’ is not just obscurantism but is a protosemantic exploration of language on the hither side of the propositional style of discursive reason” (412-3). Sure it does. Or, since Derrida’s way of writing forces people to loudly argue with each other about what it means, maybe this is Derrida’s way of keeping his reputation up.

I know I know, I’m probably dead wrong. I probably just don’t understand. I probably haven’t sat with Derrida (and those like him) long enough to appreciate their depth of insight. Sure. But, at this point, I’m finding it difficult to distinguish between the ancient mystery religions and the “schools of thought” in contemporary English Studies. David Lyle Jeffrey, in his book The People of the Book, explains that the contemporary academy is filled with ” a rivalry of competing gnosticisms”  to the effect that “certain kinds of realistic narrative come to seem ‘awkward’ and accordingly fall into comparative neglect” (356). That is, we can’t have a real (read ordinary) conversation about literature (or language use of any kind) because we’re convinced that meaning isn’t meaning, language isn’t language, and there is always something else. And, since we in the English Department are experts, we can’t possibly allow that our expertise might just be a bit contrived. This particular sin is most prevalent in (in my experience) in those who fancy themselves experts in deconstruction or psychoanalytic theory (the most radically new and bizarre of the academic gnosticisms).

By the way, you know what is odd? People who write about Derrida’s ideas seem able to write in coherent prose. They even seem to be able to explain his ideas in coherent prose. Oh, and Derrida is capable of being coherent when he wants to be. I’m thinking that the emperor is naked, there is no man behind the curtain, and Derrida’s cat is just a cat.

Of course, maybe I just need an attitude adjustment. I’m probably just bound by my euro-centric phallocentrism (of course, don’t tell the constructionist feminists that there is a male way to write and a female way to write). I probably am stupidly trusting in reason. I need to detach from all of my paradigms and trust the radically new perspectives of the masters of suspicion. Bruns again: this means that I need to “break with the philosophical tradition from Aristotle to Lacan . . .” (415). Yeah. The humble thing for me to do is to ignore what 2500 years of thinkers across several continents in hundreds of cultures have thought.

You see, my problem with unclear academic prose is not that it is unclear. My problem is that the reason it is unclear is because the writers who write such things are ahistorical elitist snobs.


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