Monday, April 17, 2006

Academic Writing

Academic writing has a well deserved reputation for being bad, and having read a great deal of it, I can say that this is usually an understatement. This intense hatred of academic writing was not only brought about by the fact that I've been having to produce a great deal of it lately as I struggle to lash the thesis together, but also by a couple of articles linked to by A&L Daily: one from the Guardian, and one from the Wall Street Journal.

And as so often happens as these articles and my own gloomy struggles with torrid prose were haunting me all weekend I came across a few choice quotes by Robert Penn Warren in an interview he gave to the Paris Review back in 1957. Here is a selection that kept me sane as the thesis came to a limping stop:

Warren: "... But getting back to that shelf of books, the Motley and Prescott and Parkman, et cetera, isn't it funny how unreadable most history written now is when you compare it with those writers?"

... a little later on the same page

Warren: "... If he wants to write a book on history that happens to be good history and good writing at the same time, there isn't any graduate school to try to stop him."

... and a few pages later in the interview, Warren finds the right pace, describing his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and getting down to writing fiction:

Warren: "... I remember playing hooky from academic work to write the thing, and the discovery that you could really enjoy trying to write fiction."

Incidentally, Warren's All the King's Men sits in a pile on my floor waiting for the day that I can play hooky from academic work to read it.

Warren's comment about history that happens to be good writing made me question whether anyone in the academy is writing in entertaining prose these days? Writing the way Gibbon used to, I always forget how good his prose was until I open him back up. For instance, in large histories, given a choice between Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples, Ira Lapidus' A History of Islamic Societies, or Marshall Hodgson's 3-Volume The Venture of Islam I would have to pick Lapidus although his prose doesn't exactly make me want to stay up nights. (And, yes I think Hodgson is a bit out-of-date even though a number of people I know still love it.)

Is it even possible to write a readable history for today's academics? For the past few months The Atlantic Monthly has been running little boxes in its literary section asking: What Makes Good Writing and What Makes Bad Writing? For the record, I usually don't agree with its authors, but still I would like to see a such a box run in something like the Chronicle of Higher Education for academic writing.

Any early season recommendations for either very good or very bad academic writing? This question shouldn't be confused with others about the quality of a book or research but rather this question is only interested in the quality of the prose.


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