Saturday, December 19, 2009

Academic Writing

My spouse is an award-winning writer, a professional one. She read some of my dissertation, and laughed. That wasn't the effect I'd intended my writing to have on her. And it was my writing (not necessarily what I was writing about) that caused the involuntary smirk on her face. Mind you, she's not that sort of person who would think lesser of somebody else's effort. It's just she saw how much effort I put into the thing, with that effect.

Academic prose is hilarious that way. It pretends to be serious about serious things. It follows certain commandments. Thou shalt not meander. Thou shalt not have more than one main thesis. Thou shalt not forget the interesting introduction and the clear conclusion. Etc.

When you read Aristotle, you get a good model for straightforward academic prose. Only you do it then in English.

When you read somebody like Nancy Mairs, then you have to rethink everything. She's an academic (in rhetoric and composition) who teaches writing like one of those Greek sophists -- only she calls what she does "voice lessons," and she does it in English. Playfully serious wordplay, I guess. Here are a couple of my favorite quotations from Mairs's book, Voice Lessons:

Publication of any sort is an intrinsically social act, "I" having no reason to speak aloud unless I posit "you" there listening; but your presence is especially vital if I am seeking not to disclose the economic benefits of fish farming in Zäire, or to recount the imaginary tribulations of an adulterous doctor's wife in nineteenth-century France, but to reconnect myself—now so utterly transformed by events unlike any I've experienced before as to seem a stranger even to myself—to the human community....lending materiality to my readerly ideal, transform monologue into intercourse.

In a single sentence [the reviewer] reimposed the very dichotomies I had constructed the book in order to call into question, putting electrified fences around the categories “academy” “criticism,” and “writing” to keep the various critters from intermingling, maybe interbreeding to create some nameless monster very like the one I aspire to be.

And in case you're wondering, my wife doesn't write like either Aristotle or Mairs. She doesn't have to. She doesn't work or live in the AkaDemy in the West.

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