Bad Writing

Ophelia Benson

It may seem like an exercise in administering corporal punishment to a deceased equine quadruped, to say harsh things about academic Bad Writing – but of course it’s not, for the cogent reason that the horse is not dead. Academic Bad Writing is indeed old news, and no secret. But it is also on-going: a thriving, flourishing, burgeoning industry with all too much product. The market is saturated, indeed the water is up over the second floor windows, but the rain keeps falling. The vampire keeps waking up every night to find fresh blood, so all we can do is keep pounding away on the stake through the heart.

Of course, one reason academic bad writing is evergreen is vocational. The bad writing in question is not the merely quotidian clunkiness and hack writing that’s inevitable in a vast profession under constant pressure to publish – it’s the notoriously opaque, preening, self-admiring, inflated prose of ‘theory.’ And for the moment, for whatever bizarre reason, ‘theory’ is what gets promoted and given tenure, therefore aspiring Assistant Professors and adjuncts have to crank it out, whether they actually like doing the stuff or not. But another reason, and one with a more malign effect, is the easy availability of an array of defense mechanisms. Bad writers have a set of self-flattering responses to criticism all ready and lined up, and they trot them out with alacrity whenever anyone suggests that they ought to make sense, as in this passage from the Introduction to the anthology Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.

So the very project of theory is unsettling. It brings assumptions into question…And…it does so in what is often a forbidding and arcane style. Many readers are frightened off by the difficulty of theory, which they can then dismiss as an effort to cover up in an artifically difficult style the fact that it has nothing to say…Of course theory is difficult – sometimes for compelling reasons, sometimes because of offensive self-indulgence – but simply assuming that it is all empty rhetoric ultimately keeps you from confronting the real questions that theory raises.

There are several of the defense mechanisms at work in that one brief passage. The ‘project’ of theory is ‘unsettling,’ it brings assumptions into question. Ah – so that’s it. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s that the readers who think it’s bad are 98-pound weaklings who turn pale and sick at unsettling projects. They are ‘frightened off,’ the poor cowardly things, by the ‘difficulty’ of theory – not the ineptitude, mind you, or the slavish imitativeness, or the endless formulaic repetition of repetition – no, the difficulty. So as a result they ‘can dismiss’ theory – not laugh at, not hold up to scorn and derision, or set fire to or thrust firmly into the bin or take back to the shop and loudly demand a refund – no, dismiss. And dismiss ‘as an effort to cover up in an artifically difficult style the fact that it has nothing to say.’ Well – yes, that’s right, as a matter of fact. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. That is exactly what it looks like to an impartial outsider. And then even though theory is ‘difficult’ which being interpreted means ‘badly written,’ we mustn’t assume it’s all like that (fair enough, and if you show us the good stuff, we’ll greet it with a hug and tickets to the Icecapades) because that keeps us ‘from confronting the real questions that theory raises.’ Oh does it really. Surely that would only be the case if ‘theory’ were the only discipline raising such questions. But you know what? It isn’t. One can confront such questions just as well by reading people who do know how to write as by reading ones who don’t.

But of course another benefit of talking about theory-disparagers’ being frightened off is that by implication it makes the theory-lovers seem brave, daring, butch, risk-takers, rebels. Or at least that’s what it’s meant to do, but the trouble is of course it doesn’t. The whole maneuver is so transparently self-flattering that you would think such a knowing, hip, wised-up, rhetoric-conscious crowd would notice the fact, blush violently, and delete that bit of text. But no. Perhaps they think we don’t notice? Perhaps they think that because the non-theory team is by definition and invariably so frightened off by questions about language that we are entirely blind deaf and stupid about rhetoric? Perhaps, but sadly for them, we’re not, and we can see perfectly well what they’re doing.

And the same goes for the ‘difficulty’ ploy. That’s also a popular one, of course. Theory isn’t gibberish or vacuity dressed up in resounding neologisms appropriated from Lacan and Derrida – no, it’s difficult. It addresses subjects so complicated and arcane and profound that a special new language is required in order to deal with them at all. William Kerrigan, who was infatuated with theory himself at one time and then turned against it, has a skeptical view of this matter.

The speed possible in literary theory was both exciting and alarming to me. With Lacanian psychoanalysis in mind, one could zip into a poem, name the telling illustrations, play around with the jargon, and mount soaring conclusions about the ‘laws of desire’ or the ‘exclusions of the imaginary.’ For me the sense of dizzying triumph was always threatened by the suspicion that it had been a lead pipe cinch.

Would that more theorists ever had that suspicion; but no, the plea in extenuation continues to be made. Carlin Romano remarks on the familiar alibi in his review of a new anthology of essays on the ‘bad writing or difficulty’ topic, Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena.

Not a single essayist departs from a seeming party line that what Dutton and his sympathizers call “bad writing” is simply “difficult” writing that intentionally varies from formulations of common sense (a commodity much insulted in these pages from a standard Adorno/Gramsci standpoint) in order to question various kinds of linguistic, philosophical, and political status quos.

Yes, the ‘we’re doing it on purpose’ ploy, as in this dazzlingly frank admission in the Lentricchia-McLaughlin anthology:

Any discourse that was out to uncover and question that system had to find a language, a style, that broke from the constraints of common sense and ordinary language. Theory set out to produce texts that could not be processed successfully by the commonsensical assumptions that ordinary language puts into play. There are texts of theory that resist meaning so powerfully – say those of Lacan or Kristeva – that the very process of failing to comprehend the text is part of what it has to offer.

Yes, indeed there are. Now that’s what I call butch – powerfully resisting meaning in the manner of Lacan and Kristeva. Those theorists eat their spinach!

Internal Resources

An example

And another

External Resources

Comments are closed.