Who Gets to Read and Write

PERMISSION TO WRITE AND READ

I have a memory of reading comments on a high school Humanities paper I wrote. I have no idea what the paper was about, but the comments focused on my writing style: don’t write lack a pompous academic, write like yourself. My internal response was: why wouldn’t I write like a pompous academic if I could. To my mind, writing like an academic – pompous or otherwise – was to be celebrated not criticized. My teacher’s criticism was about style, tone, and accessibility. It was also about form.

We are taught to write, to construct sentences following established rules of grammar and conventions of syntax. We are taught that certain styles of writing merit more attention and reverence than others. John Steinbeck over Stephen King. Some writing was off limits as if reading it would upset the reader or established norms of the novel. Again in high school, we had to get parental permission to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple but not to read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles or watch Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of the same. Clearly, race was an issue, and my teacher, acknowledged – but did not to her credit apologize for – Walker’s depiction of female sexuality, lesbian or otherwise as being a potential point of contention with our parents.

What I have taken away from my high school reading and writing experience is that we are not supposed to have access to everything. To be absolutely clear, I do not agree with that idea at all. It was the unintended lesson I learned from being told to write differently and to read specific things.

OPEN ACCESS

This lesson was reinforced as I continued on as a student in my graduate program and as my time as a professor as well. As a graduate student, I was nudged to write to suit the structural and aesthetic expectations of my professors, panel conveners on conference committees, and ultimately dissertation committees – who seemed as interested in my use of semicolons as in my arguments. As a professor, my writing was evaluated by anonymous panels of readers who decided if my writing was worthy of publication in journals or with their particular publishing press. An addition to tacit expectations to write in the style of such-and-such journal or editor, was where I might want to publish.

For those of you who might be reading this that do not come from an academic background, very few ‘credible’ books or manuscripts are published outside of university or specialty presses, with the notable exception of professors working in fiction. To publish with a certain university press can lend your book even more credence and prestige. The university press is often the apex publisher for academics. Most academic journals are also housed within university presses, but with journals the reputation stems more from the specific title rather than the publisher. What this system creates is somewhat of an echo chamber of books written by talented and knowledgeable people for an audience of talented and knowledgeable people within that same field. Writing about the isolation and remove of academia from mass markets is nothing new. It is lamentable. The ideas, and not everyone is groundbreaking, stay hidden, read by a few. Journal articles suffer a similar fate. This closed system of publishing and reading can create an intensely rigorous community of scholars who are highly informed on a given subject, but it can also create a conservative sense of style and expectation. What this system absolutely accomplishes is a divide between academic and popular or trade presses, effectively limiting access to this work.

The next time you happen to be in your neighborhood bookstore take a look at the publishers of some of the books, particularly in the non-fiction section. You might come across some academic/university presses. Yale tends to be a press that sells well in popular markets, but chances are you will see popular or trade presses on the shelves. The current combined print and e-book bestseller list for nonfiction in the New York Times features zero books from university or academic presses.[1] Many of the authors on the list are not professors or academics, that is not to say there is nothing to learn from them or that their writing is any less skillful. To be accurate, there is a mixture of authors with academic posts (Yuval Noah Harari, Stephen Hawking, Hans Rosling, Michelle Obama, and Doris Kearns Goodwin) and those who do not (Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, and Sally Field). The academics who are on the list have crossed over. They are experts and pundits whose writing careers have attracted the attention of popular culture. So, yes it does happen.

A large part of my interest in the relative invisibility of academic writing comes from the fact that so much of it, particularly in the arts and humanities, comments on popular cultural forms and yet we know almost nothing about how current scholars/artists are writing about artistic work and the world in which it is made. The readership of academic writing tends to stay within academia: students assigned various articles or books and professors reading colleague’s work or conducting their own research.

If you are on campus or are an academic, you likely have free and easy access to journals and books through your library and its subscription to various databases. These databases (JSTOR, Project Muse, etc.) can be accessed online from your home, tablet, or phone with relative ease. However, if you are not connected to a college library, then you may not have easy or any access to this body of work. Public libraries might have subscriptions to these, or similar services, which patrons can access only on site at a branch library.  Most public libraries will also request books through inter-library loans if they do not have a title in their holdings. It may seem like a very small errand to run if you actually want to read some of this work. Comparatively to the ease of access on campus, the extra steps needed for the rest very well can keep us from reading and learning.

RENDER OBFUSCATION OBSOLETE

Added to this archival isolation is the fact academic writing doesn’t have the best reputation for being stylistically accessible. It is accused of being obtuse, riddled with jargon, and needlessly complex syntax. There is undeniably some truth to this. Remembering that we are taught to write, this style is largely inherited. We learn to write to the tastes and expectations of the professors and editors evaluating our writing. The question to ask, I believe, is: why does this persist? Might there not be a way to allow academic research to cross over into a more popular style?

NOGO Arts wants to find out if this is possible. We believe that there needs to be a more fluid and consistent relationship between academic writing/criticism and the rest of the world. How can we help empower the casual reader to feel comfortable to read writing previously marked as erudite? Can academic authors shift stylistic expectations to include a broader less disciplinary specific audience?

OPEN THE GATES

Historically, this divide between academic writing and popular writing was championed. It was an expression of the town/gown divide (the social and cultural distance between academic campuses and the communities in which they reside). Often the more difficult or obscure the writing was, the more it was held up as being important; the logic being that it was difficult, then it must be important. Language is important here too. We need to break through the assumption that big vocabulary words are roadblocks, and we need to admit that they can be roadblocks. It is important that we recognize that academic writing is a manifestation of privilege, in spite of many progressive ideas espoused in that writing.  

NOGO wants to bring writing in the arts and humanities into more direct conversation with a larger community to dismantle that privilege. There is not reason to keep research whose intent is to spark conversation and share ideas behind the gates of academia. We believe there is a potential to ignite a different kind of writing around performance and the humanities that goes beyond the declarations of personal taste and plot synopses that are typically found in newspaper reviews. We also believe that we can and should explore new ways of writing about the arts and humanities. Traditional forms (i.e. the essay) might not always be the best medium. Above all, NOGO Arts wants to make sure that people can have easy and convenient access to this work.


[1] New York Times, December 9, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/combined-print-and-e-book-nonfiction/?module=DropDownNav&action=click&region=navbar&contentCollection=Books&version=Nonfiction&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2Fsection%2Fbooks&pgtype=Reference

Todd Coulter