Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Loveard-Turner Letters (5): ST to JL

Sup, J,

It’s beginning to feel a little like this conversation is an elaborate ruse designed to induce me to spend whatever meagre resources remain once my bookie’s had his share on esoteric volumes of which I had hitherto been ignorant, and if I wasn’t already convinced of your near-saintly moral decorousness, I would suggest you were in cahoots with the online bookmongering behemoths, all in the name of making a quick buck in the run up to Winterval.  But that’s obviously gibberish (with a hard G, in honour of Evelyn Waugh).    

So: with regards academic writing style, I would have to agree with you.  Steven Pinker – he of the interesting theories of mind and language, and the wild, Simon Rattlish shock of silvery hair – has written extensively on this subject, and I would wager more eloquently and learnedly than myself, so I will just alert you to an excellent article, available as a pdf on his homepage, entitled ‘Why Academics Stink At Writing’ (which you can read here: http://stevenpinker.com/why-academics-stink-writing),* and leave the matter there.  The need on the part of literary criticism to follow a pseudo-scientific mode of knowledge creation and dissemination – pseudo both in the sense of being a pastiche of scientific methods and codes, and in the sense that it’s an unnecessary, and ersatz import from a field that works in a very different way to the humanities – is probably, at least in part, the product of a degree of insecurity.  (The concomitant rise in a socially responsive, explicitly partisan mode of criticism is arguably symptomatic of this, too.)  It’s easy to point to the applications and impact of research in the sciences in a concrete way that’s simply not possible to the same extent if we apply comparable terms to the humanities, so different methods of gauging ‘impact’ and ‘importance’ need to be delineated.  It’s rather a circular process, isn’t it?  Literary academics (or perhaps more correctly, examples of the slightly over-egged, straw-stuffed stereotype we’ve managed to conjure up between ourselves) feel the need to bolster the perceived seriousness of their work with semi-comprehensible jargon, but in the process manage to radically denude their potential audience, so the seriousness and import of their work – whether real or cosmetic – becomes, if you will, academic.  No-one will ever know, except other researches in the same field writing more or less the same thing about the same subjects for the same journals. 

Puerile caricature of academia that may well be, but the sentiment underpinning it – scepticism, if not outright hostility, to the kind of dry-as-dust criticism that academia, more often than not, tends to produce – is genuine.  Moreover, given that this has gone hand in hand with an increasing distaste, or boredom at any rate, for the mechanics of outright fiction, my reading, almost by default, has swung towards the essay and its cousins.  I think I like the mess – the muddle, yes, that’s absolutely right – and uncertainty that define these works (though I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to employ ‘brokenness’ as one of my favoured descriptors, because so long as a mind can communicate, even if what’s being communicated may seem confusing and chaotic at first, nothing’s really broken): mess and uncertainty that seem, for the most part, to be ruthlessly excluded from the boundaries of, on the one hand, the ‘rigorous’ academic monograph, and the well-made novel on the other. 

As to the matter of thought: yes, I entirely agree that it’s too limited, too straight-jacketing a term to properly encompass and communicate everything that I think I find in these border-hugging books.  There’s a quote from one of Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, which I sort of carry around in my brain at all times as a point of contact and inspiration (though it’s half remembered, and although I could easily use the wonder of Wikipedia and clarify the line and provide a proper citation, I’m choosing not to, partly out of laziness, partly out of stubbornness, and partly out a misplaced desire to give some impression of what I mean by a text that acknowledges its own ‘thinkiness’ in the process of its making),** which, paraphrased, goes along the lines of: “I tend to favour works which provide not the finish of a completed thought, but the ragged process by which such a thought came about.”  Of course, that’s probably completely wrong – E-Bish is usually a lot more lucid than that, I’m sure of it – but the sentiment’s a good one, and one with which I concur. 
This all chimes in with an increasing sense I have that the real work of literature tends to be happening in the sidelines.  By this I don’t mean to suggest some quasi-utopian fantasy, where every bedroom’s hiding a starveling, scribbling Tolstoy-in-waiting (though that might well be the case: who knows?), but rather that the real work by writers who are already established, or who might become established in the future, resides in the interstitial, the neglected, the seemingly-inconsequential.  Thus: Thoreau’s journals are more valuable than Walden; Virginia Woolf’s diaries have a greater, or at least equal, claim on posterity than her novels; in decades to come, people are going to remember Simon Gray and Alan Bennet at exemplary diarists who wrote the occasional play (the last of these three examples is arguably already true, which may or may not undermine my argument).  I’m saying this not to be controversial (well, maybe a little): this is simply the direction my thoughts – coupled to my reading – have been tending towards.  I wouldn’t be so bold as to translate my own idiosyncrasies as a reader into a manifesto,*** but it’s good way to get a conversation going.                         

Yrs, as ever,


*I think some of the ideas and critiques in this article were later expanded into book-length form in The Sense of Style, an excellent and lucidly written writing guide which J-Pillz may want to add to his library of same. 

**If not ‘thought’, then ‘self-consciousness’ or, maybe, just good old fashioned ‘pretentiousness’ might well do in its stead. 

***Besides, that’s already been done.

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