Thursday, January 03, 2013

in which I offer a not entirely serious review of a post by timothy michael law

A missing element in academic book reviews?
by Timothy Michael Law

A not entirely serious review by me

This opinion piece examines the question of whether criticism of “author's style” should become a standard part of reviews of academic works. Paragraph 1 lays out the context in which these musings came about (i.e. the impending launch of the long-awaited Marginalia: A Review of Books in History, Theology & Religion) and defines the problem. Paragraphs 2 through 4 examine why the evaluation of author’s style is currently largely absent from reviews of academic literature while paragraphs 5 through 7 offers some general remarks on why it could be beneficial or indeed desirable. The closing paragraph invites the readers to offer their review of the piece, which is what we are doing here.

First, let us address the unspoken assumptions on which Dr. Law’s remarks are based:
  1. There is something wrong with academic writing in terms of style ("Academic writing can be horrible") ... 
  2. ... vis-a-vis a certain standard ("a brilliant example of prose") … 
  3. ... and it’s entirely the author’s fault. 
  4. Nearly everyone is guilty of it at one point or another ("But is this not what *we* need in order to improve ourselves?"). 
  5. This needs to be remedied ("But is this not what we need in order to *improve ourselves?*"). 
As for (1), even assuming that a definition of ‘style’ were provided (which it was not) and could be agreed upon (which we doubt), Dr. Law offers no evidence whatsoever of what he terms horrible academic writing. Without a working definition of the term ‘style’, one cannot even endeavor to guess what that horrible writing could be. Is it overuse of rhetorical questions? Or perhaps paragraphs of one sentence? We couldn’t possibly know, though it would appear that whatever horrible writing is, it can’t be as bad as poor argumentation, especially of the sort displayed here.

Assumptions (4) and (5) are essentially corollaries of (1) and should be replied to in the same manner (and the voice of Law and Order’s Jack McCoy, if possible): “Assuming facts not in evidence, your honor!” Assumption (3) ignores the crucial role of editor in the publishing process, but that’s just a minor quibble.

Fortunately for those of us who are still troubled by the question of what bad writing is, there is assumption (2) which presumes the existence of a gold standard for writing. Judging by its description using the adjective ‘brilliant’ and the noun ‘prose’ which often feature in reviews of fiction, it is there that one must look for model of great writing. Unfortunately, there is very little consensus on what it actually is. Every time the issue comes up, this reviewer is reminded of B. R. Myers’ “Reader’s Manifesto” where he examines the writing of some of the prize-winning American authors of recent decades. He finds the praise heaped on them more than undeserved and as a result, casts doubt on the validity or indeed utility of reviews of fiction. It would therefore appear that no clear standard of good, let alone brilliant, prose exists. And without such a clear standard, one would run the risk of academic reviews turning into the sort of vapid wankfest Myers rightly criticizes reviews of fiction for.

Or, Lord help us, it could get even worse: with no definition of ‘style’, reviewers (who like most people, even educated ones, don’t know shit about language) could take it to mean what non-linguists refer to as “grammar”. Soon, copies of Strunk and White would be pulled out and we would be subjected to the sort of uninformed outrage about leaving out adjectives and adverbs and not ending sentences with prepositions that makes Geoff Pullum very angry. And you don’t like him when he’s angry…

In short, Dr. Law has failed to demonstrate that (as he assumes) there really is a problem with bad writing in academic literature and if, that it is indeed pervasive and that it indeed needs to be addressed, if only in passing as a part of a review. And as to the central question of his piece, i.e. whether judgments on author’s style should be routinely included in reviews of academic literature? The simple answer is no. First, as we hope this review has demonstrated, reviewers of academic literature have enough on their hands dealing with conceptual and factual failings of reviewed works (and even that seems like too arduous a task for some). Second, if indeed everyone is guilty of bad writing, then criticizing somebody else’s bad writing would be not only a waste of time, but also a prime example of blind leading the blind and without a clear idea what good writing is, it would soon devolve into the sort of pointless quibblefest academics are known to sometimes engage in and routinely - and justifiably - mocked for. And finally, let us once more return to the issue of the gold standard for good writing: Even if there were one (and we hold that Myers above has shown that it isn't), it would only apply to fiction the purpose of which is to paint a picture with words and evoke emotions and all that other jazz fiction is good for. The purpose of academic literature is to convey information, argue points, outline theories. To insist that this be done in a brilliant prose (whatever that may be) is not only to put an extra burden on the author, but also to elevate form over content. To which I say, fuck that shit.

7 comments:

David Marjanović said...

Seconded. What scientific prose needs to be (and not always is) is understandable, comprehensible.

Ray Bonetti said...

Agreed. Love the last 3 words, great way to finish an article. One day I'll have the balls to do the same.

Rob said...

So right, too many get hung up what is 'correct' rather than making it understandable.

Chris said...

This is interesting. Most people lost track of what right really means. We have to understand that there is a language barrier that might be the reason why people cannot work efficiently.

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Cowan said...

David, you're right. But "understandable and comprehensible" is a style, the "clear glass" style. And far too much academic writing lacks it. I agree that Law has not shown this by example (perhaps for fear of giving offense), but does it really need demonstration? Anyone who reads academic papers, even casually as I do, has seen plenty of horrible examples of illogic, unclarity, confusion, and mish-mash. This sort of thing deserves, but rarely gets, any sort of critical comment, whereas I have seen plenty of reviews that spend whole paragraphs enumerating obvious and non-misleading typographical errors.

bulbul said...

examples of illogic, unclarity, confusion, and mish-mash
Except I've been following this crusade of Michael's and I doubt this is what he has in mind. The criticism of style he advocates is the same that is commonly applied to fiction. He and others occasionally cite examples from fiction and advice from the usual suspects, including Strunk and White. Now all of this is very nebulous, starting with the definition of bad writing and ending with that of good writing, but I would bet this here Cohiba that what Michael et al. actually advocate is what others would refer to as proper grammar: no passives, no adjectives, don't end the sentence with a preposition and horseshit like that.