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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.


Thomas said...

In the preface to my master's thesis I wrote something like, "In writing this thesis I have endeavored not to appear more or less intelligent than really am for the purpose of passing an examination." It felt very necessary at the time, a corrective to a posture that I could feel myself adopting. I didn't like the feeling.

These days, however, I find myself trying to make PhD students feel good striking a knowledgeable pose—always with the understanding that they're just practicing until they develop the musculature to stand that way as a matter of course.

Bad writing, I think, is fostered by the habit of pretending to know rather than the discipline implicit in training one's posture. I think your suggestion of trying to make what you know comprehensible to people who are not as smart as you is very good advice indeed.

Thomas said...

I just found an essay by Altieri that I, I think, says something interesting, but I had exactly the same reaction to his prose right from the first few paragraphs. Interestingly, I also immediately thought, "Jonathan must have an opinion about this guy." (Not just on style, but because he writes about modernism.) So I searched the blog. Sure enough, I had seen his name here!

In this case, I'm so interested that I am actually willing to put in the time. But I feel like I want to rewrite the whole thing. I guess that's one role for paraphrase.