When I first began blogging, I had this notion: I could use this platform to share with a much wider audience all the interesting ideas I’d gleaned from twenty years of studying literature in an academic context. I felt very strongly that there was no idea that couldn’t be conveyed to a general public; it all depended on how you put it across. And when I became interested in writing more commercially, it was that same belief that motivated me. I had so enjoyed my academic studies and I’d loved teaching students. I am a firm believer that the right book at the right time taught the right way can change a person’s life. It doesn’t have to go that far; the study of literature is full of practical knowledge to be used in the service of living; it’s fundamentally worthwhile.
So I was very disconcerted yesterday to find, on reading a book I’d been saving up for many years by a world-renowned academic critic, that I was thoroughly bored by it. Well, disconcerted isn’t the word. I felt the horror of a prophet who suddenly realises that the God she has served is a fraud. This was a critic I had previously revered, and I found her writing overly verbose, obscure, pointless. Her arguments focussed in on details that were irrelevant and came to conclusions that I didn’t feel were valuable. There was just so much writing, in order to make very little progress at all.
An anomaly, perhaps, a bad day for that critic, or an impatient day for me? But it had happened before, with a book I used quite frequently in my research. I reread a chapter for a blog post I was planning and was astounded by how much unnecessary padding there was, how little I could actually use. I put it down then to my state of mind, still somewhat befuddled by chronic fatigue. Yesterday there were no such excuses: I realised I had fallen out of love with academic writing. And worse than that, I had done so because academic writing itself seemed bloated and esoteric.
Thinking about it, I felt the problem lay between what can be said and what has to be said for a piece of writing to be acceptable within the parameters of its genre. In academia, you need to say so much, in order to be able to say something quite small. The real point you want to make has to come last, like the final pair of cards in a house of cards; you have to build up all that foundation before you can say it: those are the rules. And in the meantime, you save yourself from boredom by trying to be clever with a few details en route, rather in the way ballerinas will hold up a pas de deux by performing multiple pirouettes on the spot. It was not always thus; the old school of critics, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, even Frank Kermode or F. R. Leavis, were writing to be read by anyone keen on books. The educated class was a more homogenous layer of society then, and a more obvious audience. And the theoreticians who came along in the sixties and seventies and changed the face of humanities were not critics who I despised or despaired of. I really enjoyed theory; I do wonder, though, whether academia went wrong when it stopped writing for a general reader, and became a competition among peers.
Much has been said about the crisis in humanities, its imminent death, its irrelevance, and I have staunchly argued against it all. I’m still firmly in favour of academic study. This is because there is no alternative to academic writing other than commercial writing, and ‘commercial’ is defined as popular enough for the mass market to hand over money in exchange for its ideas. Very few people are willing to pay for writing that challenges their beliefs, argues for different principles, that simply says things they do not wish to hear. Academia and literature are both essential, then, in keeping us real and honest and attentive to uncomfortable moral implications.
The issue is not so much what is said, as the way we say it. Books are written in order to tug at the nerve ends of a reader’s sensibility, they are written in states of passion and outrage, they appeal to our fiercest emotions, our sense of justice, our ethical principles. They work because they are profoundly embedded in the disquieting realities of life. Whatever we want to do with them as critics, I think we have to keep our analysis grounded in their vital relevance for the everyday. And I think we ought to write for anyone who is interested in picking up the book concerned and reading it. Now that I am sufficiently outside the university enclaves to look at its products with fresh eyes, I am gutted to realise how much gets produced that is actually quite useless, devoid of powerful ideas. Is it possible that academics could give up being so clever, in order to concentrate on what is valuable because it is true?