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The lute lies rusted in its green case odor of pines is synthetic; sweeteners artificial; even salt!  our tongues crave something dif...

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Month of Sundays

"A Month of Sundays" is a colloquial expression in American English denoting an indefinitely long period of time. To get a month's worth of of Sundays (taking the idiom literally) you have to go at least 30 weeks, so if you only worked on Sundays, say, you you'd get the equivalent of a month's worth of things done in a span of 6 or 7 months. Or maybe 8-9 months of an academic calendar, since 30 weeks is two fifteen-week semesters.

I guess it also depends on whether you define a "Sunday" as 24 hours or 2-3 good hours of actual writing. A month of writing is really only about 40-50 hours.

Suppose I have five chapters of a book to write. I think I could write each one in a month of Sundays, in other words, a month put together out of scattered days from several months. My first month will be May and June--what's left of this May and the entire month of June. The next month will be will July and August--from July to the beginning of the school year in late August. Next will be September through December. That's four months, I know, but only the last part of December has no school or commuting. Next will be January and February. Once again, every "month" most contain some period of time when I'm not teaching, in this case the part of January before classes start. Finally, month 5 will be March-May. Three months, with time not teaching at the end of May. So five months of work can be accomplished in 13 months of real time. That would be quite ambitious; I'm sure I won't stick to that. The problem doesn't seem to be time as much as energy.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

200 posts

This is post #200 of stupid motivational tricks. I hope you have learned some *stupid* things.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Power of Averages

I recently was working on something and computed my average number of words per day at slightly over 400. The beauty of averages is that I had some less productive days, of around 200 words, but this didn't really matter. A few really good days compensated for them.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Making it Hard For Yourself

Writing in a convoluted, murky style is actually more difficult than writing more clearly and directly. A certain prose style feels laborious and inelegant. One imagines great effort went into it, but the wrong kind of effort, effort in the opposite direction. You can feel, in the prose, the tenseness in the writer's muscles. Good writing is not easy, but it should feel effortless to the reader. The reader might say, "Hey, I could do that" (even if this is not true.).

Having a high-school writer at home I realize that part of the effort is in building a sophisticated style in the first place. A lot of wordiness and pretention in bad college writing comes because the writer is still trying to construct a properly "written" sounding style. A more mature writer will be working more to simplify rather than to complexify, to write more as an eloquent person might speak.

I guess that's the difficulty of writing instruction at the late high-school / early college level. Is it time for learning or unlearning a vocabulary? Early academic writers know that academic prose sounds more complex and convoluted than their own, so they naturally move in that direction. The passive voice, for example, is a widespread in academic prose; no wonder college age writers overuse it sometimes: it makes them feel more sophisticated.

I think the best way of approaching this is through offering good models of writing from good writers. Look how simple some of the sentences can be, how the writer balances complex sentences with simpler ones.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Origins of Bad Writing"

Lee Konstaninou has a good post on the Origins of Bad Writing.. Here are some of the reasons he lists:

i) Despite various disciplinary innovations over the last three decades, we are still asked to become specialists in historically and nationally defined fields, but we are simultaneously told that the essence of literary study is attention to form. Thus, our object of expertise is confused right from the start. Are we formalists or historians? Can we be both?

(ii) Despite the wane of theory, we are still told that literary study must be made "rigorous" through the "application" of various kinds of theory. Unfortunately, each theory or theoretical tradition is taught to us only in partial or fragmentary form, either in "Introduction to Theory" courses or as secondary reading in traditionally (historically, formally) denominated courses. E.g., Let's read a helping of queer theory with our early modern drama! This gives birth to a theoretical "mash-up" culture, in which radically incompatible theories populate our arguments. E.g., I'm a Lacanian postMarxist deeply concerned with a Spinozan debates surrounding postcolonial ethics, especially in relation to the Victorian novel!

(iii) Part of our scholarly training involves reading huge amounts of secondary material larded with jargon. We learn that to be a serious scholar or critic is to speak in a certain idiom. Canny aspiring professionals, we write in the style of what we are asked to read.

(iv) Often, despite our disciplinary self-definition, there is an attendant sense that simply writing about literature or cultural phenomena is not sufficient. If we want the grant or the fellowship that will get us through the next year, we need to concoct elaborate answers to the "so-what" question. We therefore have an incentive to aggrandize the importance of our work: we're being political, challenging norms, overturning conventional modes of thought, etc. Who knew a close reading of a naturalist novel could do so much positive political work!

(v) Finally, after we've written our stylistically mangled dissertations, which try to speak to or satisfy all of the above, we're asked to turn the dissertation into a book that has a "wider audience." Well, we've already written three or four hundred pages in our carefully cultivated "bad" style. We're not likely to make much of a change, and -- I'd suggest -- we've largely internalized the habits of writing that result in the badness of our style. From here on out, this is how we've habituated ourselves to write critical prose. Breaking those habits -- which, if we're lucky, have led to our successful academic careers -- will be very difficult, indeed.

I don't think these are really the origins of bad writing, except, possibly, # iii. The possibility of turning the dissertation into a book is an opportunity to make stylistic revisions. Answering the "so what?" question is also an opportunity. I fail to see why balancing literary history and literary criticism should make us write badly.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Learning from Disaster

After my recent apartment fire i have had an opportunity to reflect. I realized that I was selling myself short by having an apartment where I wasn't fully settled, where I didn't feel I really lived. When I refurnish my new apartment I will furnish it better and make it into even a more ideal work space--and insure it this time. Perhaps I didn't have renter's insurance because I had the habit of not keeping anything expensive or valuable there. As I gradually acquired a few nicer things over the past few years I didn't change my attitude toward the place, and hence did not purchase insurance.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Passive Voice

The same insatiable criticism may be traced in the efforts for the reform of Education. The popular education has been taxed with a want of truth and nature. It was complained that an education to things was not given. We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, or our legs, or our eyes, or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods, we cannot tell our course by the stars, nor the hour of the day by the sun. It is well if we can swim and skate. We are afraid of a horse, of a cow, of a dog, of a snake, of a spider. The Roman rule was, to teach a boy nothing that he could not learn standing. The old English rule was, 'All summer in the field, and all winter in the study.


Ralph Waldo Emerson is not afraid to use the passive voice, as in this passage where I have helpfully italicized some passive constructions. Really, there is nothing wrong with the passive voice per se. I was brought up to hate it, but really it is almost unavoidable: only the most strenuous and puritanical effort would eliminate it from normal academic prose. Go to your bookshelf and look at page 44 of any random scholarly monograph. Count the number of passive constructions and you will usually find between 2 and 10.

In Emerson's day the passive was not stigmatized by overzealous instructors. You could say that this passage exploits the passive by using it it heavily at the beginning and then switching to the active. You might even say that the most vivid writing here comes about when he makes this switch, and I wouldn't contest that, but doesn't that writing seem even more vivid because the writer has just used a stiffer, more unwieldy tone in sentences like "The popular education has been taxed with a want of truth and nature"?

The prose of good writers is elastic, moving to the rhythm of the thoughts expressed. You can feel the movement of the writer's mind. There is no mechanical suppression of a certain construction, a certain stylistic mode.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Editing With Julia

Julia was looking over my shoulder as I was grading papers. She noticed: word repetition ("Dad, this student keeps using the word 'intricate' over and over on every page"). Sentence structure (sentences too short, too long, no variation in length of structure; every sentence in a paragraph begins with the same word). "Thesaurus" writing, where the student has reached for a hifalutin word that is not the correct word. Obscure, difficult to understand language. Pomposity, wordiness...

Julia is not yet 15, yet I could hire her to grade my papers for me, or at least go through quickly to point out some obvious flaws. My point here is that a lot of flaws in writing are readily perceptible to almost anyone with a minimal sense of style. You shouldn't necessarily write for a high-school sophomore or freshman, but a smart person in that age group will know if you are not a good writer.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The To-Do List With a Single Item

This summer I'm trying something new: a to-do list with a single item. The principle is very simple. You have a "list" with one thing to do. When you've done it, you strike that item through and add a second item. All efforts go toward completing that item. Don't even think about the third thing, even if you know in the back of your mind what it is. For example, the first thing is to grade the student papers and turn in the grades. I've done that, so I kept it on my list but struck it through, writing down the date when the task was completed. Next is finishing a first draft of an article on "receptivity." I have begun that, without writing down item # 3. I know what it is but I won't write it down or think about it too much even. (A manuscript came for review; since that was a quick item I just did it quickly, adding it to my to-do list after it was already complete.) The to-do list with completed items listed can also do double duty as a professional log. You'll know what you've completed in a given month or year.

The main point is to focus on one thing at a time instead of scattering one's attention and getting a fraction of many different tasks done without completing anything. This is especially important in times of stress. I recently had a fire in my apartment in Kansas, where I wasn't living at the time. I have to take care of some of this crap this summer as I work on my academic work.

Obviously, this method doesn't work for non-academic chores. I'm talking about medium to large writing projects that you will complete: a tenure letter, a book review, a chapter... It probably won't work for a graduate student juggling three final projects, who needs to be working on all at once.

In global terms, you should have one item on the list: finish the book, finish the dissertation. Don't be working on two or three book projects, just on one at a time.

This is hard for me because I like flitting back and forth between three or four things at once and also anticipating future projects. I know to some extent what the book after next will be but am actively avoiding thinking too much about it, since thinking about a book you are going to write entails actually writing it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Scientific Method

I have a research problem that, improbably enough, is susceptible to empirical information. What I want to know is this: how perceptible are line-endings (and by extension the identity of lines themselves) in regular and somewhat irregular Spanish verse,, whether rhymed, assonantally rhymed, or unrhymed? How perceptible is rhyme herself and how does the presence, absence of rhyme affect this? Obviously, line endings are very perceptible when you look at them on the page. I mean when someone is hearing authentic performances without looking at a text.

So obviously I need the following: enough authentic performances of enough poets. By authentic I mean here nothing too profound. An authentic performance is one by the poet him or herself, or one arising out of the same cultural context of the poet. What I don't want to do, for example, is have the research subjects listen to me reading the texts out loud.

Secondly, research subjects, human beings willing to participate. i need at least two groups, one more expert than the other.

Thirdly, I need a protocol. What are these subjects going to do to demonstrate their perception or non-perception of line-endings? Take a test or questionnaire? How should this be designed to really answer the question I am posing?

I need a method of interpreting the data, making sense of what I have found so that it will be valid and meaningful. I need to know what to do if the data pull strongly in one direction or the other. I need to find a way of defeating my own biases.

I also need a rationale for why I am doing the study. What is the question behind the question? What are the implications, the consequences? So what?

The funny thing here is that, though I haven't ever done anything like this, and don't know how in technical terms, I at least know some of the elements that would go into a study like this. I would be suspicious of my own ability to make it scientifically valid.

Friday, May 21, 2010


In classical Spanish poetry, Góngora’s Soledades provide an excellent example both of a masterful use of complex tonal configurations and of how a conventional, strictly rhythmic metrics is bound to miss this quality, however easily perceptible to a reader: the often admirable Navarro is forced to conclude, given his assumptions, that Góngora’s metrical skill does not go beyond “a level many others did not exceed either”. A view of metrics that does not lead to this kind of a conclusion would seem to me to be preferable, everything else being equal.

--Carlos Piera, "REPHRASING LINE-END RESTRICTIONS," emphasis added.

Understatement differs from litotes* in that it is not (necesarily) the negation of a negative, but simply a tonal shading. Look at this example from the brilliant poet and linguist Carlos Piera. He cites a quite outrageous opinion by the great Spanish prosodist Tomás Navarro Tomás. Instead of taking outraged issue with it, he states his discrepancy in measured, scholarly tones. This is effective because it works at a literal level (yes, it is preferable, mutatis mutandis) or as a deliberate rhetorical flourish. You feel the writer holding back, and you can supply the outrage (f any) yourself.

This kind of understatement, then, is useful for very strong disagreement.

*Litotes could be defined as a specialized case of understatement, but not all understatements are cases of litotes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Writing and Business

Almost every thing that I do in my job (aside from reading) involves an act of oral or written communication--anything that could be classified as work. A business major (who is also a Spanish major) who came to my office recently told me that in the business school students are rarely asked to write anything. That seems a mistake to me, frankly. Would you want to hire someone in your company at a high level of responsibility who wasn't a good writer?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Merely Serviceable Writing

It's harder to come up with examples of the kind of writing that merely gets the job done but which is neither particularly good nor bad. Such writing doesn't really call attention to itself. Once we focus on a passage of writing as writing, we are likely to notice things that tip the balance in one direction or the other.

Predating the emergence of queer theory as such, Bersani's thinking about sexuality and aestehtics has mutated over the course of several decades, as I shall endeavor to show. In the context of this gradual tranformation, Homos is a transitional work, marking Bersani's passage from an emphasis on the antirelational aspects of subjective experience to his more recent focus on what, adapting a phrase from Foucault's late interviews, he calls "new relational modes." I want to suggest that Homos makes more sense in terms of this shift from the antirelational to new relational ontologies than in queer-theoretical terms. The fact that Homos was couched in terms of queer theory has tended to mislead readers who quite naturally approached it in those terms--terms that the book aimed to supersede rather than simply to revise. In other words, Homos should be read in the light of Bersani's decades-long argument about art: an argument that...

--Tim Dean, "Sex and the Aesthetics of Existence" PMLA March 2010. Emphasis added.

The prose is serviceable though graceless and verbose. I've italicized some excessive verbiage and repetitiveness. We get the basic idea: prefer this explanatory framework to this other one, without knowing exactly the content of either. (Why does queer theory not include the later Foucault, one of the founders of queer theory?) There is some confusion in the temporal framework: Bersani's work (at least some of it) predates queer theory, yet transitional work of his is couched in it, and also supersedes it. How are readers misled by understanding a work in the theoretical language in which it is couched? The repetition of the word terms is very grating. Does he really mean "ontologies" or is he reaching for a word that sounds more or less weighty? What is really at stake in understanding Bersani in this way rather than this other way?

With all these problems, can I still argue that the paragraph does its job? Yes, because we feel the author seems to know what he's talking about, writes in the academic dialect we expect from the PMLA. He's framing his argument, rhetorically speaking, in the expected ways. If he wrote "better," he might not be taken as seriously. A particular kind of gracelessness stands in for academic gravitas.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Absence of Flaws or Presence of Virtues

You could evaluate a piece of prose by making sure it didn't have any flaws: obscurity, grammatical or syntactic errors, rough transitions, verbosity...

Or you could look at it from the opposite direction. Maybe there's nothing wrong with it, but does it possess positive virtues? Is it elegant, forceful, dazzling? It won't get there simply by a process of eliminating what's wrong.

Like many poems I read that have nothing wrong with them--but are totally undeserving of any praise.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Splendor of the Paragraph

Guy Davenport's critical prose is about the best there is, a model of force and concision. It very individual, very much his, but at the same time not eccentric in any way:

Another problem of author and critic is that a work of art can know things the maker of it doesn't. When I wrote an icongraphic study of Grant Wood's American Gothic, I had several complaints--one in print from Hugh Kenner--that I was assigning to Grant Wood knowledge he didn't have. I replied that the painting knew these things for him. Of a study I wrote of Eudora Welty, Miss Welty replied, with great kindness and friendliness, that she did not intend any of the symbolism I saw in her work. This is, let us say, daunting, but again I think MIss Welty, seeing her stories in her way, which is always perforce inside outwards, does not realize the extent she has kept the contours and symbols of Ovid's Metamorphoses (which is what I was writing about) that we can see from the outside looking in.

"The Critic as Artist"

The structure of this paragraph is simple and easy to understand: a thesis and two examples. Each example consists of two sentences. The structure of thought is parallel, but the syntax and sentence length are varied. Notice how smoothy the sentences flow into one another, how the first example merits an aphorism (the painting knew these things for him) while the second requires a more elaborate (but clearly phrased) explanation. Imagine if all the sentences in this paragraph were as lengthy as the final one or as short as the first. By the way, the way in which sentences build from simple to complex is quite artful here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Robert Duncan

I've been looking at models of prose here. Robert Duncan is a prose-writer I am not excessively fond of, but he is capable of powerful writing like this:

The first experience in poetry is to find in words not an argument or an explanation but a world, to see an other world or to be of an other world. Here definitions are not restrictions but outlines of possible elements of that world. When Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, instead of being taken as mere literature or examples of the poet's accomplishments or speeches for an actor to deliver, were taken as events contributing to an event in my own being, I had caught the poetic mode of being, a contagion, and "came down with" poetry.

It has Duncan's voice--even in its various awkardnesses. You can hear the voice of Emerson lurking behind him. It's not a model I would emulate, in vocabulary, structure, or tone, but it sounds like him, Duncan. It is very personal and self-confident.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reverse Your Deadlines

I'm going to be trying something new. I have deadlines in October, December, and February (11) for articles I've promised to write. The logical thing would be to write the October article first, then the December, and then worry about the February one. Instead, I'm going to start with the article that's due in February of 2011, then go for the one in December, and only lastly write the one for October. My logic is that I don't want the deadlines to determine my rhythm of working, or slow me down. If I started now working to the October deadline, I would make it that deadline, with two articles still left to write. If I plan things right, I can finish all three by October instead.

This might not work, but at worst I will write two articles by my first deadline.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Power of Primary Texts

When I was young there were people who bragged about not reading primary texts. Really, though, a knowledge of the primary texts is what gives your theoretical work its power. The theoretical mentality that sees texts as mere exempla for theoretical concepts is profoundly mistaken. All of a sudden complexity fled literature to inhabit theory. But what was the source of theory's complexity if not literature itself?

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Inexperienced scholars often imagine themselves writing for people more intelligent and knowledgeable than themselves. In other words, they are trying to break into the field or impress their professors. When I read my own sentences I am usually asking another kind of question: will a stupid person understand them?

What I mean is the following: I have trouble understanding the prose of Charles Altieri. Given that I am not excessively stupid, I see that as Altieri's fault, not mine. (Suppose I were average intelligence for an academic: Altieri would be eliminating at least 50% of his audience, by that measure.) I want to get to where the least experienced beginning graduate student could see what i am saying very easily.

I don't see this as condescending because I see myself as someone who doesn't grasp other writers' meaning all that quickly. I am willing to put the time in to understand Lezama Lima, but not Charles Altieri. In other words, there are enough difficult primary texts in m field, so I don't want to spend energy deciphering secondary texts.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mode of Investigation and Mode of Presentation

There is a very brilliant book by the poet Stephen Ratcliffe on a song by Thomas Campion. This book looks like a dissertation, and one reason is that, despite its brilliance and novelty, it confuses the mode of investigation with the mode of presentation. The analysis is exhaustive: the author never gives us a summary of his research, but all of it, leaving nothing virtually nothing out. He only has space, naturally, to analyze one poem, because that's all that fits. The prose style is very verbose as well, even when the raw data is not being presented.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Language About Language

Two quotes I used recently here to demonstrate very good and somewhat inadequate prose were both writing about writing. In my field, literary criticism, that's what we do, write about other writing. Not quite "dancing about architecture," because the medium of analysis and the material analyzed have the same substance. This means that the literary critic can easily bolster or subvert the argument being made by the mere quality of the prose. ("Mere." )

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Conversation

The internet was out on campus the other day, almost the entire day. No email, not web surfing. Many routine tasks could not be accomplished. It was the next to the last week of a long semester. In the lunch room the colleagues were in a feisty mood. Four of us got to talking, a group of two of us with PhDs in the late 80s and two in the early 2000s, two peninsularists and two Latin Americanists. One complained about the overuse of theory among certain "big names" in our field. We were supposed to be past a certain style of use of theory, but someone this use of theory persists in certain institutional forms. I pointed out that we were in a bind: we could encourage our graduate students to use theory more lightly or more subtly, but they would still see flashy but overtheorized work featured prominently in books published by Duke University Press. Real briliance, in our opinion, was bringing to light something that should be obvious but that nobody had ever articulated before, not mastering a flashy metalanguage. One colleague's opinion was that theory could be a way of avoiding the hard work of cultural studies, of actually doing the research in the field, the archives. We talked about our graduate students, how some in the past had eagerly taken to Deleuze and Guattari, to the rhizome. But did we really want our students to be "creative" if they were not disciplined? I said that you should understand at least 80% of a theory before you used it. By that criterion, I myself lack the intellectual capital to use, say, Walter Benjamin. Sure, I've read him and read about him, and am very interested in him, but do I really have the philosophical background to say I know what he's saying with 80% certainty? Someone responded by saying that the more mature a critic was, the more this kind of modesty comes into play. I am not a modest person by any means, but I think I know enough to know what I don't know.

The internet should go out more often, because it was truly a stimulating conversation.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Misery of the Sentence

I'm going to be posting examples of prose that is (1) superb, (2) merely serviceable, or (3) self-defeating. The most entertaining examples lie at either end of the spectrum. Here are Kenneth Dauber and Walter Jost explaining why a certain style of writing just will not do. We've all felt that, but I myself feel that their own prose is self-defeating, tying itself into unnecessary knots. English professor, heal thyself:

Perhaps we ought to say, "You do not say what you mean or mean what you say, for you have not attended to the saying of it." Except that, too often lacking conviction ourselves in the efficacy of attention to words, we hear instead, over our own shoulders, voices remonstrating at us from the marketplace of critical theory, and we grow impatient. For how do you teach that words matter except by a labor too intensive for your doubts about literary labors to bear? How do you demonstrate such mattering except by giving examples, by patiently showing it to yourself and to students so caught up in the skepticism you have taught them that they have lost the faith necessary for working their skepticism through?

Introduction to Ordinary Language Criticism, xiv-xv.

How indeed? I can decipher what they are trying to say, but only with considerable effort: It is hard to demand that students write with precision when certain trends in literary theory (presumably deconstruction) promulgate the value of ambiguity and thus undercut our faith in this precision. I don't really understand the need for the angst-ridden tone. It is hard to picture a doubt bearing the burden of a labor. And what's wrong with giving the students concrete examples of what you want them to do? Why not give them the example from Sorrentino I quoted yesterday and contrast it with over-wrought prose like this?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Pleasure of the Sentence

Reading some sentences written by Emerson, by Guy Davenport, by Gilbert Sorrentino, or by Roland Barthes produces in me a certain frisson. One advantage we have in literary criticism is having our models close by--not only in the poems, plays, and novels we read but also in literary essayists of extraordinary stylistic flair.

Style should not be monochromatic: it should be a palette of possibilities. Often a professor will guide a student toward a certain stylistic norm, working narrowly to get the student to be able to write well enough within certain parameters of acceptability. The professor might even enforce certain "zombie rules." The problem is never getting to that level where style is an active set of options rather than a set of restrictions or "guard rails."

Here I find myself questioning my own practice. In an essay I reviewed for a journal a few years ago I found the style too florid, too purple. Was I imposing my own preferences too strictly?

Here would be an example of one mode of writing. This is the final paragraph of Sorrentino's essay on WCW's short story "The Knife of the Times."

"The Knife of the Times" fulfills the requirements that Williams set for himself. More importantly, it proved to him that it was possible to write in a debased language without satiric or parodic intent, to write, that is to say, in a language that seemed to have no possibilities for literature. This empty and pathetic story of two human beings caught in a language unfit to assist or relieve them, and unaware of it, is, in a sense, made of the Speech of Polish mothers become Americans. It was, for Williams, an act of absolute creative recovery.

The force and clarity of Sorrentino's prose gives him a certain authority to talk about Williams Carlos Williams's use of language. This is one expert prose writer elucidating the prose of another. Imagine if Sorrentino had expressed these thoughts in a weak or confused way.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Utilitarian Prose

I do not have a fundamentally utilitarian attitude toward prose. The prose, for me, is not a mere vehicle for the ideas, but an end in itself. Your writing can never be too good, too elegant or too beautiful. This is not to say that I am happy with my own prose. I've got it sound more or less like me, but not (yet) like an even more beautiful version of me.

This being said, I'm not fond of overly fussy, ornate prose. I want beauty in a kind of plain-spoken way.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Litotes is a nice trope to have in your tool bag. I always thought the Orwell was reacting against a certain type of British rhetoric when he spoke against it in his essay "Politics and the English Language." I can easily see how its overuse could become tiresome, but I don't like the idea of ruling it out completely.

Litotes is expressing a concept in the opposite way, but negated. "A considerable sum of money" becomes "A not inconsiderable sum of money." The advantage of litotes is that it allows you to express a different shade or twist of emphasis. I disagree with Orwell when he says it is obfuscatory. It doesn't conceal your meaning, but expresses your particular attitude toward the meaning. In most cases, an attitude of ironic understatement. Just as hyperbole has its uses, so does understatement. You wouldn't want to rule out any shading of attitude.

I can't say I use litotes often myself, but I consider it a not ineffective trope in the hands of a good writer.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Owning It

You don't want to be alienated from your scholarly project. You want to be fully identified with it. It is you. You want to own your scholarly field--not in an exclusionary sense, since someone else can also own that same field--but in the sense that you are responsible for everything in it.

Think of something you know very, very well. Now think of something you have a superficial knowledge of. Do you see the difference?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Critical Voice

Critical voice means sounding like yourself. It means writing in such a way that your own scholarly persona is at the forefront. We say a student lacks critical voice when he or she is using citations from other scholars to make his/her points, and lacks a strong perspective. Stylistically, having a voice means choosing stylistic options deliberately rather than using a default style (generic acadamese) or an imitation of someone else's style. A strong theoretical model can weaken one's own prose. For example, if one has been reading Foucault a lot then the inclusion of a lot of that jargon can make one's prose sound derivative.

Whatever the other defects of my scholarship, I think that it always sounds like me. If I had to define my own voice it would be a little bit impatient and irreverent, fond of brash and opinionated statements but at the same time careful in qualifying them; self-conscious about my own biases, but at the same time fully invested in them. My style is clear but complex in its ideas. I rarely offer a paragraph of mere information. I am relatively laconic, but can sometimes slip into verbosity. I like to slip in the occasional huge vocabulary word (chthonic) just for fun. I like precision and humor...

It might be interesting to define your own style in this way. Do a stylistic self-portrait. What did you find? If you couldn't do it, why not?

Monday, May 3, 2010


Ninguneo means being ignored, more or less. Scholarship can be lonely, and when an article falls into the black hole of never being cited, it is kind of depressing. I was sick of my dissertation topic so I didn't keep up with the scholarship on it. Today, however I found a pretty nice citation of my work from the late 1990s that I had missed:

Conviene sin embargo recordar aquí el trabajo crítico más original y exento con relación a los debates relacionados con la poesía social, de Jonathan Mayhew, tanto "The Dialectic of the Sign in Claudio Rodríguez's Alianza y condena" [...] como "The Motive for Metaphor: The Rhetoric of Social Solidarity in Claudio Rodríguez's Conjuros." Un discurso satisfactoriamente enjundioso , en buena medida bajo la tutela intelectual de Frederic Jameson, que supera la pesada dialéctica falaz del compromiso y la consigna partidaria en nombre de una más profunda solidaridad ética.
García Berio, La forma interior: la creación poética de Claudio Rodríguez, p. 70.

And that's not the only citation to my work in this book. So maybe I shouldn't complain so much about the ninguneo. I have been, in fact, very fortunate that my work has been recognized in Spain and cited with some frequency, especially since my work has appeared about 95% in English. I've had other cases where someone bases their entire argument on my work but cites me only for a minor point--and that's in the US.

Enjundioso means substantial, vigorous. I was never inlfluenced by Jameson, that I know of, but I'll take the compliment anyway. I supersede the tiresome dialectic of social commitment in favor of a more profound ethical solidarity. My work is the most original on this topic.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mastery of Detail

Mastery of a fine level of detail--at the capillary level, not merely the arteries and veins--is fundamental. Most of our knowledge is going to be much more general, but for things very, very close to the center of our particular specialization, the knowledge is going to be extremely specific and detailed. A "show of strength" might involve deployment of that level of detail.

I was talking to someone about my jazz class in a casual setting the other day, and I realized I was getting pedantically detailed about something my interlocutor probably didn't need to know. I had to laugh at myself. Pedantry is just reverting to that level of detail when it isn't appropriate or necessary. It is a scholarly reflex. The level of mastery standing behind that kind of pedantry, however, is necessary.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Have a take, don't suck"

{Title of the post is from Jim Rome's sports radio talk show.)