Academic writers are often little more than figures of fun. Derided for the opacity of our jargon-filled prose, we swim often unnoticed at the shallow end of the literary pond. To some degree it is our own fault because it seems that to be a serious academic you need to be a seriously bad writer. Anthropologist Brian Morris commented in his inaugural lecture at Goldsmiths in 1999: ‘I try to write in a way that is lucid and readable . . . I am continually rebuked for this and told to write in an academic style, that is with pretension and in scholastic jargon, for in academia, obscurantism is equated with intellectual profundity.’
Professor Morris is absolutely right and the mistake that academic authors often make is to confuse ‘being clear’ with ‘simplistic thinking’. There is also a case to be made for the importance of complex writing and dare I say the literary value of academic work. Sometimes difficult and abstract language serves a purpose. The two figures that loom in my mind around this issue are Theodor W. Adorno and George Orwell.
Adorno’s prose style is legendary in the opacity stakes. In Minima Moralia, my favourite book by him, he makes a strong case for the necessity of difficult writing. ‘The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech [. . .] Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate.’ In Adorno’s view the effect of the insistence on communicability results in the betrayal of critical thinking. It is really important to hold to the idea that understanding the world is difficult and can’t be served up like a soap opera or the kitsch of reality TV.
Then there is George Orwell’s extraordinary essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. I try and read it at least once a year. Orwell takes to pieces the language of totalitarian propagandists alongside a critical assessment of the writing of academics of his day like Professor Harold Laski who worked at the London School of Economics. ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should know better’, wrote Orwell in 1947.
My feeling is that we academic writers need to have both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we work. Complex writing is necessary but so too is clarity and the virtues contained in each can be debased. Pristine clarity or abstract complexity is no protection from writing truly awful things.
The miserable plight of the academic writer is not just of our own making. While we are faced with mounting pressure to ‘publish or perish’, our conditions couldn’t be much worse. Some people in fields where the market demand is low literally have to pay to get into print. A friend of mine recently paid £2,000 upfront to get his book out with an academic publisher. He needed to have his book published in order to compete for teaching jobs but no mainstream academic press would take it.
Publishers are making a mint out of academic journals in the so-called science, medical and technical (STM) sector and yet academics receive no payment and, more than this, authors have to sign over their copyright in order to make it into these prestigious tomes. When academic work catches the eye of journalists or if a TV company needs an ‘expert’ for their film there is rarely any thought that there might be some payment for this service. With the exception of the BBC that does pay a fee for broadcast material, commercial media companies view academics as the providers of free insight regardless of how hard won those insights might be.
Despite all this I don’t mind being ridiculed for being an academic writer. It’s worth it. Those who champion common sense are more often than not defending a kind of moral cannibalism. There is what Martin Amis calls the ‘obscenification of everyday life’ in which sensation and exposé fill column inches with salacious reading pleasures.
Equally, there is tabloid prurience that revels in exposing weakness, consuming stars and indulging its readers in what William Hazlitt called the ‘pleasures of hating’. We live in a culture where voices are desperately shouting – we speak too quickly before listening. This too is compounded by a fascination with disclosure, confession, revelation. Reading the ‘red top’ headlines on the train each morning I feel like shouting at the people behind those quivering pages: ‘I am an academic, get me out of here.’
Gustav Flaubert wrote: ‘I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.’ I can’t help but feel that not much has changed since he wrote these words in 1872. So, in contrast, the quiet, careful pursuit of obscure things is all the more precious to me. John Berger commented that writers, story tellers, and by extension, academics, are ‘death’s secretaries’.
I think he meant that writing is about keeping a record and producing a kind of register of life. Here listening with humility might for a moment eclipse the injunction to talk, to narrate, to be noticed. People want to be heard but they don’t really want to listen. I think it is within listening that we can find a different kind of ethics, a commitment to democracy and public life. I think this is where academic disciplines, particularly in the social sciences, can play a modest role. The value of academic writing is in the attention it pays to the arcane or otherwise glossed over aspects of life that would otherwise be lost in the cacophony of contemporary culture.