Academia As Pie-Eating Contest

Some wag once said that academia was a pie-eating contest in which the prize was more pie. The reason this evokes rueful chuckles from academics is that, like all good jokes, there is truth in this hyperbolic description. (The more gloomily inclined among us will recognize a deeper existential truth in here: life can all too easily feel like a treadmill.) You read, you write, you teach, you ‘conference’; if you are lucky, you get a job. Then you read and write and teach and ‘conference’ some more. If all goes well, you secure tenure and promotions. You’ve ‘made it.’ Then you continue reading and writing and teaching and conferencing–this last part can be especially pleasant if it involves travel to salubrious destinations. Some folks are considered ‘lucky’ if they can stop teaching and concentrate on reading and writing. (I’m leaving out, for the time being, all the gruesome administrative tasks that most academics find themselves saddled with.) This, I think, is where the bit about ‘more pie’ comes in.

If the reading and writing is going well–that is, if you are getting published in the ‘right’ places–you can count on more publishing opportunities: invitations to contribute to edited collections; proposals are read with more alacrity; journal acceptances magically become easier. Moreover, if there is one feeling an academic is extremely familiar with, it is the horrifying sensation of realizing that the moment a written work is ‘done’ another ‘must’ be commenced. Even those who have moved on beyond the supposed ‘publish or perish’ phase of tenure and promotion acquisition sense the ‘what have you done for us lately’ question directed at them. If you have ‘produced,’ you must keep ‘producing.’ Or run the risk of being condemned as ‘useless’ or sinking into a slough of self-loathing. Small wonder that most academics continue to feel unaccomplished even as they rack up impressive publication and research records.

Writing is hard, good quality research is hard. So whatever relief one might feel on having ‘turned in’ some substantial piece of written work, it is all too easily replaced by the sinking feeling that this whole grinding, excruciating, process must be repeated if one has a ‘rep to protect.’ A good piece of writing is a very tough act to follow and the academic might be excused for feeling some resentment at being expected to ‘perform’ all over again. (The suspicion arises that it might have been better to not have ‘performed’ in the first place.) The unfinished creative task is always a terrifying space; anxiety and self-doubt lurk among its environs and must be confronted time and again as we traverse it. Weariness is experienced all too often, all too easily. Why not just lay down the pen and call it a day? What if you have no more to say? Whence the expectation that a ‘seeker of knowledge’ must continue to seek his entire life?

Note: Similar considerations apply, I’m sure, in some variant or the other , to all other professions,

Freud As Writing Stylist And Pedagogy Instructor

In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture¹(Oxford University Press, New York, 1978), Peter Gay writes:

All of Freud’s biographers devote an obligatory page to the efficiency and beauty of his prose–not without reason. Freud’s stylistic achievement is all the more remarkable considering the spectrum of his publications…Freud’s case published case histories–a genre that normally repels grace or wit–are classics in the literature of detection. Freud was a born writer who never neglected the essentials of his craft….his earliest surviving letters demonstrate that his energy, wit, and lucidity were not painfully acquired but were part of his character….He disciplined his ear by reading French and English all his life…He read continuously and intensely…Freud could derive instruction even from the laborious syntax and rebarbative vocabulary of academic writers; he learned what to avoid. But his real teachers were stylists who were enemies of obscurity and strangers to jargon….he highly valued, and rapidly absorbed, the qualities that distinguished other favorite authors: vigor, precision, clarity. [pp. 50-51]

Gay, of course, read Freud in the original German, so he knows better than I of what he speaks, but even I, who have only ever read Freud in translation,² via the usual Standard Edition route, have not been left unaffected by Freud’s limpid writing style. The Good Doctor is a pleasure to read; I unhesitatingly assigned large tracts of primary texts to students in my Freud and Psychoanalysis class a few years ago, telling them that while the material was ‘dense,’ it was clear and would reward close attention. The case histories–of, for instance, Dora, or the Rat Man–I recommended as short stories of a kind; they are literary in every way, and draw us all too quickly into their artfully constructed worlds. His later ‘cultural-literary-anthropological’ speculative essays are masterworks of erudition expressed with grace and style; they can be profitably read by any intelligent person.

My mention of teaching Freud brings me to Freud’s special qualities of exposition. (His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis is a widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and still provides the best entry point to psychoanalytic theory.) Gay makes note of his talents in this domain and thus provides direction for not just writers but teachers in the classroom too:

He kept [‘the mode of discussion’] intact by employing devices that have been, the envy of professional writers: informality, surprise, variations in pace, adroit admissions of incomplete knowledge, patient handling of knowledge, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors. [p.55]

Indeed. When I look back at any successful classroom teaching–or academic conference presentation–these devices have always played a crucial role. They forestall boredom and stultification; they invite interactive inquiry; they provoke creative responses. We should all be so lucky to have our writing and reading and conversation informed and infected by ‘surprise,’ ‘variations in pace,’ and an ‘inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors.’ The world springs into sharper focus and becomes anew; what more could we want from our learning and teaching?

Lastly, Gay is a masterful writer himself.

Note #1: For some bizarre reason, the title of Gay’s book is missing an Oxford comma.

Note: #2: Here are a series of posts on the wonders of translations.


Taming The Beast: Writing By Deleting Text

Some six or so years ago, I began work on a book. I’m still not done and the end isn’t in sight either. I’ve alluded to this state of affairs on this blog before: on my About page where I make note of the extremely impressive and portentous title the book bears, and once, in a post on the anxieties of the ‘creative process’ when I confessed I seemed to be permanently adrift in that terrifying stage where you feel like a dog’s dinner is considerably more promising in its appearance than your dearly beloved project. In the intervening years, I’ve finished other books, so all is not lost, but this unfinished work is now an albatross and a millstone and several other metaphorical burdens to boot. Almost three years ago, as I returned to teaching after my academic and parenting sabbatical, I realized my ‘book’ did not deserve such a dignified title; it was merely a file containing some ninety-five thousand words of notes culled from various sources and some assorted ramblings scattered throughout, posing as commentary and annotation and critique.

This morning, during my hopefully daily editing session that I’ve set aside to work on my book, the word count approached sixty-nine thousand. I’ve finally begun to tame the beast, in the best possible way, by cutting it down to size. Twenty-six thousand words have bit the dust. The file might grow again but for now, matters appear considerably more tractable than they did three years ago.

There is some deeply satisfying about deleting troublesome text, words and sentences that refuse to behave, to make sense, to conform, to fit in. Negotiations have failed; expulsion is the only way out. And so it happens; I highlight the block of text, and Ctrl-X the sucker. If it’s lucky, it goes into a separate file called ‘bitbucket,’ possibly to be salvaged for future use and reintroduced into another version of the manuscript; if I’m feeling particularly ruthless, I do not bother with such niceties. History informs me that I’ve never, ever, reused anything from a bit bucket file; it’s merely there to provide a kind of security blanket, a fallback measure of sorts; but once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on, and that’s that. There’s no looking back. (There are, of course, many deletions that occur because I’ve carried out an efficient rewrite of the same material; that’s satisfying too in its own special way; the succinct, sharp, expression of a thought in a sentence remains an aspirational ideal and much brush needs to be cleared to bring that about.)

Deleting text is an old writing technique; it’s one of writing’s great pleasures. Sure, there are times it’s agonizing–thus leading to the sober gnomic advice to not be afraid to kill your darlings–but truth be told, very little regret ever evinces itself. The text to be deleted stands in the way, obscuring the promised view; shoving it aside gets rid of the dross, letting the gold shine through.

I really should have been working on my book instead of writing this post. Tomorrow morning, and more deletions beckon.


Cioran on Academic Writing’s ‘Forms of Vulgarity’

In ‘The Addict of Memoirs’ (from Drawn and Quartered, Arcade Publishing, New York, 1983/2012), E. M. Cioran writes:

Is there a better sign of “civilization” than laconism? To stress, to explain, to prove–so many forms of vulgarity.

Bergson is said to have said–somewhere–that time spent in refutation is time wasted¹. There is, evidently, a sympathy between these pronouncements that I make note of. Cioran suggests laconic forms of expression avoid three undignified sins that burden our writing. For in stressing, in explaining, in striving to prove–requirements placed upon us by the need to persuade, to change minds, to engage dialectically–we may go far afield of our original intentions were in writing. We write to communicate but only secondarily to persuade; what matter if we don’t?

Cioran’s assessment of the dialectical aspects of writing are harsh but rare is the academic writer who would not heave a sigh of relief were he or she to be spared their burdens. Consider, for instance, the trappings of academic writings: the elaborate piling on of references in opening sections to indicate–to referees, almost never to readers–that adequate scholarship is on display, the careful invocation of select objections and their refutation to shore up the central thesis presented. the footnoting to account for shades of meaning or to point to subsidiary debates, the careful setting of the stage for the presentation of the thesis, and so on. Such is  the overhead these place on any piece of academic writing that a common complaint made by readers–even if not always verbally articulated–is that a little too much fluff obscured the author’s central points. (I’m not discounting the importance of the references the author-researcher provides to future scholars in the field; merely that these accouterments are, at one level,  entirely peripheral to the points made by the writer and are only present because of the location of the writing within a particular social structure of inquiry. And as my nod to referees above indicates, within the context of a system of peer-review these considerations can quickly fade into insignificance.)

These ‘forms of vulgarity’ may too, force writers into forms of expression they are not competent at. Not everyone can explain or refute or prove as well as they can state a bold or original thesis; to indulge in these can weaken the work presented, which is both the writer’s and the reader’s loss. The provision of a claim or thesis in splendid isolation may be as productive–if not more–of thought as the provision of an elaborate package of arguments, objections, counter-objections, refutations, and so on; if we are to suggest further avenues of inquiry or to cut to the heart of the matter, a concise, powerful, and laconic statement may work best. Perhaps the reader can construct objections and see if the thesis presented stands up to them. Perhaps the writer and the reader–together–may then bring the writer’s work to fruition. Which is how it normally goes, in any case.

Note #1: I would appreciate a reference so I can reassure myself I’ve not made up this line.

An Anxiety-Provoking Description Of The Creative Process

There are many, many, descriptions of the stages of the creative process. Some have been memorialized into pithy, quasi-inspirational, meme-worthy statements that can be shared on the net, all the better to encourage anxious, insecure, doubt-ridden procrastinators, distracting themselves from their creative ‘tasks’ by incessantly checking their social media feeds.  Roughly, they amount to this: you have an idea; you think it is great; you get to work on it; you ‘find out’ it is actually a very bad, very unoriginal, very vacuous, superficial idea, one which no one in their right mind would ever have had; then you ‘find out’ your idea is not so bad; you continue working on it; finally, you discover that your original idea, having been modified through these creative interactions with you, is now actually a great idea after all. Hurrah. Or something like that.

These descriptions, which are intended to reassure ‘creators’ that their moments of self-doubt and anxiety are going to find a terminus of validation, include, as can be seen, a crucial, seemingly indispensable stage in which you are convinced your idea is no good. This turns out to be a little disquieting for two reasons: a) we do not know how long this stage lasts; b) we know all too many ‘artistic’ projects end up in the trash heap (those novels whose manuscripts remain filed away in drawers; those poems we burned, literally or electronically, before someone else could read our doggerel verse; those drawings we crumpled up and threw away; those sculptures pushed off the pedestal.)

And so we find ourselves anxious again: Are we in the middle of an especially long ‘this-is-shit’ stage, or are we experiencing the death throes of an abortive, hopelessly misconceived folly that should never have seen the light of day? To give up prematurely is to invite a fearsome cognitive dissonance whose dimensions can only be imagined; we risk subjecting ourselves to the worst condemnation of all, our own, the one in which we castigate ourselves for lacking backbone and ‘moral fiber,’ for giving up all too easily.  No facile solutions present themselves; no matter how familiar you might find your own ‘process,’ the uncertainty of the ‘this-is-shit’ stage is always novel, always as forbidding as before.

So there is no good news here, I’m afraid.

As might be surmised, I’m writing this post because I’m in the middle of a ‘this-is-shit’ stage, one that has lasted a long while.  My verbal descriptions of the writing I’m trying to pull off always generates encouraging responses from my listeners–‘that sounds really interesting; I look forward to reading a draft when it is ready’–but matters worsen considerably when I return to my ‘writing desk.’ There,  masses of notes and observations and ‘insights’ refuse to resolve themselves into a coherent structure; no argument emerges; the threads and braids I seek to weave do not hang together. There is no magical insight to be had; I can only keep returning to this scene of the crime, hoping a clue or two will emerge from the murk. Cold cases suck.

Self-Promotion And Failures Of Generosity

Like most authors today, I am expected to hustle a great deal–to ‘market’ my books.  I am supposed to set out a shingle on social media–like a Facebook page, or a special Twitter account. I should post news of reviews, flattering things that people have said about my writing, and provide updates on podcasts, interviews and the like. I have to solicit reviews and blurbs and kind words, hope for retweets and ‘Likes’ and status shares, ask friends on Facebook to spread the word on their pages, and all of the rest. When a favorable review goes into print, I bring it to everyone’s attention: my Facebook friends, my Twitter feed. According to those authors who self-publish, and I am not one, except for here, this work can take up so much time that there is little left for actual writing. C’est la vie de l’auteur.

This constant hustle is more than a little wearying. You are constantly aware of being a supplicant with an outstretched bowl, a nuisance of sorts; it is all too easy to spiral down into a bottomless pit of self-loathing and diminishing self-esteem. Even worse, you can become awfully self-centered, coming to regard all around you as potential avenues for the exploration of marketing pitches. Your hammer is the marketing pitch, the marketing plea, and everyone is  a nail. In behaving so, you can easily forget that reciprocity remains a virtue.

I’ve just concluded an email conversation with a senior journalist whom I’d approached–after I’d seen him mention my latest book on Twitter–to perhaps write a review of it. (Yes, I did search for my name on Twitter, hoping to find a mention of my book. It’s like googling yourself; we do it all the time.) We chatted, and in the course of this conversation, which included some kind words about my writing, he told me how, on several occasions he had been approached by other writers for similar ‘favors’. Sometimes he obliged; sometimes he didn’t. But without fail, none of the authors he thus helped ever reciprocated the favor; not one said anything about his writing in a similarly public forum. He concluded with a laconic ‘People are like that.’

I wonder if I have been ‘like that.’ I wonder, if this constant hustling of mine has made me blind to the duties I owe those who have deigned to help me. In my constant, anxious hustle to hawk my writing, to self-promote and aggrandize, I might have committed many failures of generosity–the kind that bothered my interlocutor.

I’ve written, here on this blog, on the need for writers in this brave new social media dominated world, to take care of each other. I’ve also written about the need for academics to send encouraging and appreciative words to their counterparts when they read something by them that they like. I have tried to live up to the standards I have sought to promulgate. But I have no doubt I have failed.

Time to relearn those lessons.