November 30, 2004

Just Being Difficult? How About Just Being Anne Rice?

So the academic side of blogovia is all a-twitter about the new book Just Being Difficult, written as a fairly belated response to a Bad Writing Contest which mocked, well, some bad writing on the part of academics.

Everyone--duck! That whooshing sound you just heard was academia missing the point. Again.

So Erin O'Connor links to a Bauerlein review of the book, and both of them make some good points about Just Being Difficult's failure to address the underlying critique of academic writing that was implicit in the Bad Writing Contest from the beginning, and then various commenters weigh in defending the prose of theory-heads, or mocking it, or whatever. Blah-blah-blah navel-gazing cakes.

That's great. I'm here to submit a much more humble thesis for the existence of silly prose in the theory-laden humanities: the Anne Rice syndrome.

Anne Rice is (in)famous in fannish circles for her lofty pronouncements concerning her disdain for the editorial process. She disdains editors entirely, in fact, which, if you've read anything she wrote post-Queen of the Damned, is glaringly apparent. It is also glaringly apparent that Ms. Rice not only would benefit from an editor, but that she needs an editor who will lock her in a basement until such time as she learns that "more" doesn't always equal "better" in terms of descriptive prose. But I digress.

It seems that Anne Rice syndrome has taken hold of the humanities with a vengeance. This is not to say that editors don't exist--throw a rock toward any humanities gathering and you'll hit two or three of them--but that since the advent of the Theory Star editor-types are perhaps a bit more reluctant to curb the prolific prosody of these folks than they would have been previously. And it probably doesn't help matters that these editors have spent their academic careers reading (and writing) in the same style. I humbly submit that many of them may no longer recognize turgid, overblown, practically nonsensical prose as such.

And no, I'm not saying that as a luddite who has "never approached anything difficult," or who "doesn't understand that difficult subject matter must be addressed in similar language, making it therefore difficult"--I'm not looking for See Spot Deconstruct or its ilk. I've waded through the theorists and understood their concepts, often in SPITE of their prose stylings, not because of them.

What I'm saying is that theorists are human, and therefore just as subject to human failings as, say, a newly-minted movie star. When you're surrounded by people who tell you you're fabulous, that your thoughts are as manna from heaven, that you're "provocative, avant-garde, challenging, et al," you cannot be entirely blamed for believing it. And neither can other people, who will ape your style, or be a bit too in awe of you to curb it. And so a vicious cycle begins, which culminates in mocking and haughty self-defense. Just check out Anne Rice's homepage or do a search for her on Fandom Wank for the proof.

So what to do? Well, I'd suggest Remedial Writing 101, except that nowadays it's taught by the same Theory Star Wannabes who clutter the humanities with dense--not challenging, just densely structured--prose.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at November 30, 2004 08:56 AM

I'd suggest beating them repeatedly with Richard Lanham's Revising Prose. One PoMo scholar (probably more than one) said "difficult ideas require difficult writing." Um, no: they require clear writing. Muddy writing, jargon-filled or not, reflects muddy thinking. It's all bafflegab.

Posted by: Michael at November 30, 2004 09:08 AM

Holy crap, I took a class in Marxism from one of the writers mentioned in the bad writing contest. I got an A in that class too. So what does that say about ME? (Shivers.)

Posted by: Jonathan at November 30, 2004 10:20 AM

I'll take your word for it as far as the ruck of the humanities goes, but I have never been able to get more than fifty pages into an Anne Rice book without throwing the thing against the far wall and screaming "Damnit, man, quit talking and bite someone!"

Posted by: ManFromPorlock at November 30, 2004 12:55 PM

Tom Clancy is another author who just screams out for an editor. I don't know if he eschews them on prinicple, or if they're too in awe of him to edit. I used to like his stuff, but after The Bear and the Dragon I swore I'd never get taken in again.

Posted by: Laura at November 30, 2004 07:11 PM