On the divide between academic writing and literary writing

Tea and book

This is a great article by Aaron Sachs in The American Scholar. It popped up, of all places, on Hacker News. Citing the divide between literary writing and academic writing, Sachs cites Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing in support of his argument that the latter can so often obfuscate meaning and bore the reader: 

Klinkenborg acknowledges that his doctorate-holding peers will have to “unlearn” or “overcome” their academic training, because they’ve been taught that the only point of reading is to be able to summarize the main point of what they’ve read. Meaning is reduced to “what can be restated.” And our impatient reading (or skimming) habits can translate into didactic, condescending writing habits: we start by planting signposts, and then we rip them out of the ground and use them as cudgels. That’s bad enough in itself (and no reader will appreciate the head trauma), but such techniques also come with opportunity costs: they relinquish the possibility of implication, the invocation of deep cultural and linguistic resonances, “[t]he ability to suggest more than the words seem to allow.”

I’ve often felt the tug of academia and know that most of my family think that it would be the ideal career for me. However, I can’t help but think it’s a bad idea, given those with PhDs are already more likely than most to suffer from depression, and mental illness is on the rise in the academy.

More prosaically, however, is just the style of writing I’d be expected to produce. Although there are notable exceptions, the system seems to reward turgid writing with little impact in closed journals. Not really my cup of tea.

Image via Aga Putra