Shut Up and Say Something!

April 7, 2009

I have two loves in life. The first should be obvious: I have for the past several years had a torrid and insipid love affair with fine alcoholic beverages, their production and, of course, their – ahem – appreciation. Nothing is finer that a good stout, a vintage port, or the intricate subtleties of a glass of good bourbon.

My second love is language. I love the written word. Nothing in the world (sorry, honey, almost nothing in the world) pushes my buttons like an immaculately constructed block of well-turned prose. Call me a nerd if you want, I don’t care. I am a bookworm, a wordsmith, one of those literary types. And I love the sound of my own voice (as I hear it in my head when I’m writing, anyway).

It should be no surprise to learn, then, that I have an intense dislike for weak language. Auxiliary verbs like “may” and “could” are like nails on a chalkboard to me. When an author talks about what might be true, what could be inferred, or what seems to be the case, I stop reading. Anything might be true. I’m only interested in things that are true, or at least those things that are stated as truth.

I just got back a paper from a professor who complained that my analysis of Death of a Salesman was too assertive. The language, the professor argued, was too direct. I stated my evidence and made my claims. For this my professor commented that I was being “overly rigid” and “too absolute.” Last month, in a poetry analysis, I also got this little tidbit:

I’m sensing that you’re a political junky [sic] and lover of argument. I happen to be both, too, but consider this: perhaps too much reason applied to poetry can lead rational thinkers astray from meaning that is intended less literally.

Sure. Perhaps applying reason in a poetry analysis could make you miss the point of the poem. (Perhaps the Red Sox will win 162 games this year, who knows?) But if you’re not applying reason, what are you doing? Reacting emotionally? If you’re asking me to analyze a poem, I assume you’re asking me to use reason and rhetoric to make my point. If you want me to make vague points and back them  up with nebulous language, then I can do that, too. I can waffle. I can second-guess myself. I can use language designed to cover my ass in the event that — gasp! — I’m wrong. But why on God’s green earth would I ever want to do that?

If you’ll spare me a moment of hypocrisy, perhaps that’s what academic writing is all about. I honestly don’t read a whole lot of academic writing, but the stuff that I have read has been incredibly weak despite its plethora of references and citations. Academic writing, at least in the realm of literature, is predicated on evidence gathered and stated by other people. “Dr. Abernathy seems to say X,” academic writing says, “and Dr. Berringer might say Y, and when you combine them both together in the context of New Criticism, you might  possibly get a slightly (and this is open for debate) new interpretation (unless I’m wrong, in which case forget I said anything) of the overall impression a reader might get from this piece of literature.”

Great. WHO CARES?

No, I want to read the paper that says the subject of Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” was a victim of erotic asphyxiation, and is not actually dead. I want to read the analysis of the New Testament that says Jesus was gay. I want to read about how Crichton’s Jurassic Park accurately predicts the end of American democracy. I don’t want to hear about what the feminists or the Communists or the deconstructionists would have to say about a text; I want to know what you think about it.

I have a brother in high school. Over winter break he asked me what advice I could give to someone filling out his college application essays. My answer was simple: say something worth reading. Don’t be smart, don’t be witty, don’t be profound. Be assertive. Be self-confident. Be interesting. And if you can’t manage that, go write the lackluster academic drivel that my professor apparently wants to read. Hopefully one of the people reviewing the application is the same sort of soulless academic who can appreciate big words and four hundred footnotes.

Last week, my brother got into his top-choice school. His essay topic? Why Batman should be president.

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12 Responses to “Shut Up and Say Something!”

  1. thresholdlurker said

    I will argue both sides of this at different times in different contexts.

    I like the kinds of essays you’re describing, but they’re just that. They’re essays. I don’t consider those to necessarily be scholarly papers. These sorts of essays may take leaps, make assumptions and dare the unknowable. And they should! I’m a huge fan of this sort of writing, and I would encourage people to pursue it.

    A scholarly paper must rest in a state of eternal conjecture, willing to admit the changing state of knowledge. What we find true and beautiful today may be wrong and ugly tomorrow. Or it might simply be changed. It also builds on the work of others and to fail to acknowledge their contributions, or to make it seem as though their thoughts were yours, is more than unfair.

    Frankly, I don’t think you need to find that sort of writing interesting. It’s not really designed to be entertaining reading. It’s there for technical reasons.

    Now should our professors be going for one over the other? That, I’m afraid, greatly depends on the situation at hand.

    • thebeerphilosopher said

      “A scholarly paper must rest in a state of eternal conjecture, willing to admit the changing state of knowledge. What we find true and beautiful today may be wrong and ugly tomorrow. Or it might simply be changed.”

      So what? Writing is an art in all of its forms, and as such we artists have the unique opportunity to capture a single moment in time and render it for the world to see in all its gory, dripping realness. If we qualify the truth, we have failed to capture it; what good, then, is our work if the truths change? What will our children think of our generation when they read the kind of neutered prose we turn out in the name of academia? (I can’t tell you how hard I laughed the last time I looked up a scholarly article on Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”)

      “It also builds on the work of others and to fail to acknowledge their contributions, or to make it seem as though their thoughts were yours, is more than unfair.”

      Agreed. But if I wanted to read someone else’s opinion, I’d go buy their book. I’m reading YOUR paper because I want YOUR opinion. If you want to cite other works, that’s fine. But say something different — maybe dramatically so. Life’s too short for maybes.

  2. lenny25 said

    Philosopher, today is a truly glorious day for us. If I didn’t hate you so much, I would love you. Not only do I agree with nearly everything you have said here, but I too have similar complaints about a member of the FSC English department.

    However, occasionally I do like delve into the realm of perhaps and may. Mot true statements begin with such a statement. For instance, where would we be if no one ever thought “perhaps the world is round instead of flat…” I’m not attempting to argue against you’re point, I’m just saying maybe you should ease up on your hatred of the words.

    And hey, perhaps the sox will win 162 games this season. I, for one, would not be mad at all if that were to become one of those great truths…

    • thebeerphilosopher said

      “However, occasionally I do like delve into the realm of perhaps and may. Mot true statements begin with such a statement. For instance, where would we be if no one ever thought ‘perhaps the world is round instead of flat…'”

      Do you think Columbus put the word “perhaps” in his sales pitch to the queen of Spain?
      Columbus: “Your highness, I need three of your finest ships, the finest sailors on the seas to sail them, and enough supplies to last us a year.”
      Queen: “Why on earth should I spend all this money on you?”
      Colombus: “Well, I’ve got a hunch that maybe the world might possibly be some shape resembling a roundish spherical figure.”

      As for the Sox, as long as Sabbathia keeps pitching the way he did last night, we’ve got nothing to worry about.

  3. Notelrac said

    Since the literary school of “New Criticism” is focused on the ideal of treating a work as an autonomous and self-contained, I would consider it unlikely that an attempt would be made to synthesize two disparate academic’s positions in context under this oeuvre. Which may be why it’s formalism has fallen out of favor in today’s post-modernist world.

    • thebeerphilosopher said

      Right. The only good thing I can say about New Criticism is that it at least attempts to eschew traditional “combine and conquer” analytical approaches. But if a professor (a doctor, no less) espouses the virtues of this method without allowing his or her students to use the language needed to make this kind of criticism effective (never mind meaningful) then what’s the point of teaching it?

      • Notelrac said

        Why teach it? I imagine for the same reason that Physics professors describe phlogiston theory or the luminiferous aether – in order to refute it. Post-modernism be its very name is a refutation of literary Modernism and it’s companion Structuralism, after all. But while a physics student can review Lavoisier’s work on oxidation or the Michelson-Morley experiment to understand why those theories are outmoded, the au courant English instructor always has this nagging sense that the distinction between one school of lit crit and another is… personal taste.

  4. donata426 said

    Yeah, I’ve seen this argument before. It’s very “Dead Poet Society”. It’s a stance that tries to be “in your face” and “taking it to the next level”. I mean, it used to be meaningful to me, the whole “down with academia, up with individualism”, but it gets used so often now that I think I’ve retrograded back a step and become more wary of the “hip, new way of interpretation” than the dusty, stodgy criticisms found in the reference section of Whittemore.

    Meh, I still like your argument, I’m just saying, it’s been done before. It’s a lot harder taking your own advice than I think even you’ve realized. Better luck next time, Mr. Williams.

  5. thebeerphilosopher said

    Hmm. I don’t find my advice hard to take at all. And I don’t know what the “hip, new way of interpretation” is, but if you’re referring to New Criticism, I’m going to have to disagree. I find it to be more of the same “dusty, stodgy criticism” with a modern voice. Values have changed; the academic voice has stayed the same. My question is this: if we as literary critics are so enthralled with and fascinated by the art of writing, why is literary criticism devoid of art? Why use form to address style? It’s like using a hammer to pound in a screw.

    And for the record, “better luck next time” is terribly condescending. If luck does indeed have anything to do with reasoning, then I think I had pretty damned good luck this time.

    • thebeerphilosopher said

      “Why teach it? I imagine for the same reason that “Physics professors describe phlogiston theory or the luminiferous aether – in order to refute it. Post-modernism be its very name is a refutation of literary Modernism and it’s companion Structuralism, after all. But while a physics student can review Lavoisier’s work on oxidation or the Michelson-Morley experiment to understand why those theories are outmoded, the au courant English instructor always has this nagging sense that the distinction between one school of lit crit and another is… personal taste.”

      I can understand this. But physics is furthered by the refutation of theories. I don’t believe literature is furthered by the refutation of theories of literary criticism. Furthermore, as in philosophy (which is more my game, to be honest), when a they begin discussing a thoroughly debunked theory, science professors will talk about it only in a historical context. I can’t imagine a psychology professor espousing the virtues of phrenology, for example, as a perfectly practicable science. Learning about the history of your trade is one thing, but those courses have indicative names like “Renaissance Literature” and “Victorian Literature” and “Post-Colonial Literature.”

      But the course was “Critical Writing,” which ostensibly aims to teach a person “how to write critically,” by which we mean “how to write critically now,” by which we mean “how to write criticism that is relevant now,” by which we do NOT mean “how to write criticism how they used to write it.”

      • Notelrac said

        “I don’t believe literature is furthered by the refutation of theories of literary criticism.”

        I guess you’re just not tempermentally suited to get an English degree in literature…

        “But the course was “Critical Writing,” which ostensibly aims to teach a person “how to write critically,” by which we mean…”

        Perhaps you should consult with the professor teaching the class to determine the ostensible aims, and determine if your list of “by which we means” is apropos. Or you can post a link to the class syllabus, and we can all take a look.

      • thebeerphilosopher said

        “I guess you’re just not tempermentally [sic] suited to get an English degree in literature…”

        Reread what I said. I said that LITERATURE is not furthered by the refutation of literary theories. Criticism certainly evolves, but none of it affects literature. And since when did degrees have anything to do with temperament? For the record, I’m poised to get my English degree with honors. Maybe I’m not even-keeled, but I know my stuff.

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