Revisiting Bad Writing

I’ve been meaning to comment on Mark Bauerlein’s splendid article on ‘bad writing’ and ‘theory.’ I only have a few minutes right now, so I’ll just quote a little by way of marking my place and then return to the subject tomorrow.

The cheap partisan spirit reinforces the point made by Dutton, David G. Myers, Katha Pollitt, and others that the jargon and bloat of theory prose excludes every readership but other theorists—a damning claim given that the theorists purport to labor for social justice. The theorists counter that the writing they do isn’t bad; rather, it’s challenging, and that challengingness is precisely what makes it valuable to society at large.

Yup, that’s how the theorists counter all right. But (one wants to ask, sternly) have they never encountered any writing that is challenging without being jargony and bloated? Do they honestly think that jargon and bloat are an essential part of challengingness? Come on, now – I said honestly. Really? Really? You’re not pretending? You’re not just pretending to think the two are inseparable because you really really want to go on using the jargon because it makes you feel so clever and impressive and scholarly and, well, theoretical? Hmm?

Given their vulnerability to the bad writing charge, the theorists would profit from a dose of humility or, even better, humor. One reason for the popularity of the Bad Writing Contest was its antic nature. The very idea of a scholarly journal singling out one sentence for a mock award brought snickers from every adult who’d ever endured a semester with an ideologically-rigid, self-involved literature professor. Dutton solicited nominations on the Internet, consulted experts, and broadcast the final tally as if it were a Hollywood press release. This was in keeping with academic celebrity culture, recast in a dunciad mode, and observers got the joke immediately.

Snicker! ‘Academic celebrity culture’? Why, what can he mean? Nobody would be so silly as to think that academics – especially ‘theorists’ of all people! – could possibly be ‘celebrities’ – surely? Yes? You astonish me. Whatever next. Superstar checkout clerks? Celebrity chicken pluckers? World-famous dog sitters?

Non-academic intellectuals aren’t as easily cowed as are professors, and they will hold up every such accusation as evidence of the elitist, smug world of the ivory tower.

Maybe that’s why I get so irritated when people call me elitist. Because to me ‘elitist’ means people like the ‘theory’ crowd, who really are smug. I’m not like that! Honest, Auntie Em; I’m not. Or if I am, I’d better sign myself into a work camp for some drastic re-education through labour, right smart quick. Picking cotton with my teeth, perhaps, would be about right.

To be continued.

8 Responses to “Revisiting Bad Writing”