The Quality of Writing

In 2003, a surprisingly short decade ago, the National Book Foundation gave the award for “distinguished contribution” to Stephen King. Harold Bloom, the well-known literary critic and professor, was so infuriated that he wrote a the column in the Boston Globe decrying the “Dumbing Down of American Readers.” Now its easy for me to call him one more Harold of the apocalypse, but periodically I experience frustration with the same phenomenon: bad writing is popular. My personal frustration is with Dan Brown, a fellow Amherst graduate, who is making millions publishing vapid Indiana Jones ripoffs. My frustration stems mostly from the historical misinformation he presents, often with a dishonest claim to veracity. I know its labeled as fiction, but I’ve encountered multiple people who became very confused about the line between history and fantasy. Perhaps the most well known error is his bald-faced claim that the Priori of Sion was real, despite being known as a hoax for decades. But like Harold Bloom, I am simply failing to appreciate the value of writing that can reach a wide audience. It may seem crude, cliche, unsophisticated, and unimaginative, but writing that commands the attention of a wide audience cannot be dismissed. To do so is the peak of elitist arrogance, personified by the quivering jowls of Harold Bloom.

A similar problem exists within academia itself, particularly (in my experience) in the social sciences. Modern social theory is written in such a convoluted jargon of its own that I fear it will rapidly turn into a separate language. This is particularly clear in the case of Jared Diamond and a certain Amherst professor. Jared Diamond is the author of several well known books in the field of anthropology, which is odd for someone who has received no education in the field. In response to his book Collapse, the Amherst professor in question and several of her colleagues wrote Questioning Collapse, which largely contradicted Diamond’s work. Now Diamond is guilty of several things: his research was bad, he ideologically supported Western imperialism, and, despite his many claims to the contrary, was kind of racist. However, the crucial difference between the two books, is that Collapse compelling and readable to a wide range of readers. Questioning Collapse is loaded with jargon and incomprehensible to the uninitiated. No matter how thoroughly  Collapse was analyzed or proven false, Questioning Collapse will never be read by an audience anywhere near as large as Collapse.  If it’s purpose was to reeducate those tragically mislead by Diamond’s lies, it failed. At least the myriad of books analyzing The Da Vinci Code are written for a larger audience, though they too will never compete with the original for the public’s attention.

So what is the quality of writing per say? Well to a certain extent I’m unfairly conflating two kinds of writing. Academic writing has the sole purpose of communicating information, and, if it cannot be understood, it is bad writing. This is why Judith Butler has often been criticized for producing the worst writing in academia. Consider this little gem:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

She will claim on occasion that she writes that way because the material is complex. However, if you actually put in the work to translate this incoherent rambling, you’ll realize that it could all be said with much more pith and simplicity. Foucault, on the other hand, (in my opinion) actually tried to keep things simple and actually was limited by the complexity of his subject matter.

In contrast writing for the sake of literature has artistic goals beyond the process of communication. And if the goal is aesthetics, does the scope of the audience matter? Obviously Harold Bloom doesn’t think so. As usual, this question simply implies that there are competing systems of value, none of which have any inherent superiority. All types of writing gain value solely from their readers. And if millions of people enjoy the torrent of books produced by Stephen King, then that is a distinguished contribution, however “poorly written” they might be.


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