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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

The Plain Style

Bob Basil, in a response to my comment about one his posts, called me a writer "devoted to the 'plain language' style of writing." I hadn't thought of myself that way, but I'll accept that characterization with pride. Stupid Motivational Tricks propounds a model of writing that is clear, concise, elegant, and free from unnecessary jargon. Needless to say, not all academic writing strives to embody this ideal. I went to graduate school in the 1980s, at the height of the "hegemony" of theory, and the plain style was not in ascendence during those formative years.

This mode of writing does not really require a defense, but I will offer one anyway by responding to a few common objections.

Some writers feel that plainness suppresses individuality. They want their stylistic choices to be distinctively quirky. The plain style, though, allows multiple options: long sentences or short, a range of emotional tones from the comic to the serious, and various personalities. I feel my writing voice is distinctively my own even within its seemingly dull plainness. Convoluted, pretentious styles often do not reflect the true personalities of the writers who use them to start with. These styles are more like costumes worn so the writers will fit in in the academic environment.

Others contend that literary criticism, like any other discipline, has a technical language of its own: nobody objects when a physicist uses the "jargon" of her field, the argument goes, so why can't the literary critic do the same? I do not object to technical terms used appropriately and correctly. To speak of "extradiegetic" music in a film, for example, you have to use that term if you want to distinguish music from the film score from music that forms part of the diegesis of the film: a character singing or playing an instrument, for example. The jargon that readers object to, however, tends to be language used without the precision of true jargon.

Finally, inexperienced writers (and some experienced ones) sometimes fear that writing too plainly will make them sound unsophisticated. Maybe their ideas really are not all that sophisticated, and they are afraid to expose their simplistic thinking to sharp scrutiny. In this case, the preference for a less transparent style reveals a weakness, not a strength.

My best positive argument in favor of the plain style is that academic prose can be very unpleasant to read. (Ok, I know that doesn't sound very positive.) I myself skim it as quickly as possible just to see what it's about. If it's not in my field and it's not pleasurable to read, I spend very little time with it. I really want to write so that my readers will savor every word. That's the only way that I will truly communicate anything of value. If I care about the argument I'm making I want my audience to have a clear idea of what that argument is and why it is important. Even a clearly presented argument is liable to misreading, but I want to maximize my chances of effective communication.

--Jonathan Mayhew