Adventures in the Word Trade

On March 23rd, Terry Castle gave a talk in the Yale English department about academic writing and read from her new book The Professor and Other Writings; on March 25th, David Shields spoke at a Master’s Tea in Pierson College about his new book Reality Hunger; and on April 1st, James Longenbach gave a talk in the Yale English department on “the art of writing badly.” What linked these events for me, other than the fact that they occurred in less than a week and a half, was the attention to the question of writing -- who it’s for, what it’s for, and what we make of it.

Castle’s talk, in the end, seemed to be little more than a complaint about jargon in the academic profession.  Her handout, originally designed for a graduate course, gave students pointers on things to avoid in writing, the kinds of things editors will eventually take them to task for, but there was a bit of a polemical edge to it as well -- in picking on the use of terms such as “hegemony” and “interpellation,” she was targeting not so much the specific meaning of those words (as derived from Althusser), but rather their far too ubiquitous use (and possibly misuse) in the many theses that cross her desk.

Fine.  But there was another aspect to her talk that bothered me: the “this is the end of days” tone that one finds in many of the Baby Boomer generation coming up to retirement while recognizing that much of what constituted their glory days may not in fact stand the test of time.  Jargon has destroyed the profession, we learn.  Maybe so, but if so, it happened on their watch.

The sourness of this point, for me, was dramatized by Castle reading from a memoir in which, as a young would-be graduate student in the early ‘70s, she came into contact with a dope-smoking professor who may have intended to seduce her before learning she was a lesbian.  In recreating the hip jargon of that era -- not only in her reminiscence but also in far too many verbatim transcriptions of her journal of that time -- Castle made a point she didn’t seem to want to acknowledge: every generation has its way of speaking to others in that generation, but how seriously should we take such efforts to “talk the talk” of the time?  Current grad students may outgrow their jargon too, but might they not, when also silver-haired and fêted, choose to amuse the youngsters with the Althusserian, Derridean lingo of their day?  In Castle’s memoir, the old guard, all-male previous generation of academics seemed barely worth more than a dismissive glance.  But what will be the fate of the stoned, free love-seeking, in touch with their feelings generation Castle revisited?  Too early to say, but I was not encouraged by the prospect of “tell-all” memoirs rubbing our noses in Reichian drivel for the sake of verisimilitude.

David Shields is a critic and was a novelist, but the argument he presented to the audience in Pierson College was that the novel is not equipped to address the times we live in, for that a new form is needed: the lyric essay.  What that might require could perhaps be found in the direction Castle was taking: in her case, giving up stilted, depersonalized, overly abstract (supposedly “objective”) academic writing for something more personal, subjective, revealing.  In Shields case, giving up the deliberate creation of a fictional world for a first person rendering of one’s intellectual state in the world one actually inhabits.  My first thought was: if the novel is not adequate to these times we need better novelists -- the novel itself is whatever we make of it.   That said, I’m quite sympathetic to Shields’ idea of dropping the “traditional” novel in favor of something more experimental -- but then that was always the frisson of reading Beckett, Proust, Miller, and others who don’t really write “novels.”

Is Shields’ new book something along those lines?  Well, at least his talk made me want to read it.  The less interesting, to me, aspect of his presentation centered on the issue of appropriation. His book is a “mash up”: a tissue of quotations borrowed, edited, re-used as he sees fit.  Far from the work of academic citation, this method wants to treat the printed world as writers in the time of Montaigne could: whatever they read was grist for the mill and could be put to what service they liked -- of course, those texts were mostly in Latin and not protected by copyright.  So that part of Shields “defense” of his method became an argument, not about fiction vs. non-fiction, but about how writers should treat the writing of others, which might lead to the kind of “if it’s online its yours” cut-and-paste methods that too many students already use in the writing of their papers.

I’m willing to believe Shields may be enough of a stylist to get away with it, but I’ll have to read the book to see.

Finally, Longenbach, a critic of poetry and a poet, wanted to draw our attention to how often “bad writing” appears in the work of good writers.  What he meant by this was actually the art of what he called “dilation”: those passages that seem simply to pile up words, sometimes abstract terms, sometimes cursory details, in such a way that risks the reader’s boredom.  It’s always gutsy to talk about bad writing when reading to people from one’s own prose, as the tendency of any audience members to drift off might signal that one is reading an example of the problem one is addressing.  But the overall point of the presentation was to alert us to how often, in poems, one can't address the quality of a given line or passage without taking into account its context.  A memorable line may be that, but a limping line may limp for a reason.

Castle's writing may well have been an example of what Longenbach meant by "bad": plenty of longeurs meant to recall a by-gone idiom that bored the crap out of me.  Longenbach's prose escaped the faults Castle pilloried -- no jargony terms were used -- but the essay didn't offer the kind of engaged and personal address to the work that Castle called for and, for some, evinced, and seemed not to satisfy Shields' call for the lyric essay, what's more Longenbach dutifully provided a handout with his many quotations from poems duly noted.  Shields didn't read to us, but one suspects that it's easy to write well if one steals only from the best.