Eric Hayot, who writes lucidly about Ezra Pound and many other things, has written a book called The Elements of Academic Style (2014), which is also entirely worth reading. He pitches it explicitly to scholars and students in the humanities, but I have no doubt he’s right to think that his advice generalizes beyond that context. I’m not writing this post to praise Hayot’s book, however; you can take a look at it yourself and see what you think. I want to take issue with something he says on the very first page, something I think touches a vital nerve in writing instruction and, indeed, in practical scholarly writing. It goes to the very purpose of academic writing, the question of why we write.
“Writing is not the memorialization of ideas,” Hayot begins. “Writing distills, crafts, and pressure tests ideas — it creates ideas.” This has the important consequence, which he gets to a few sentences later, that “you cannot know what your ideas are, mean, or do until you set them down in sentences, whether on paper or on screen.” Hayot doesn’t hold back here: “Conceiving of writing as putting down thoughts you already have will give you a bad theory of what writing does and can do,” which, he argues will shape your practice. “As an idea of writing’s purpose, it tends to make for mediocre writers and mediocre prose.” If you want to rise above this mediocrity, he argues, you must be “open and generous and unafraid”, working at “the intersection of an intention and an audience” where new ideas emerge in “a larger, complete performance” of writing. It’s all very heady and inspiring stuff. And who wants to be a mediocre writer with a bad theory of his practice? Not me. Still, something about this conception of writing doesn’t feel right to me.
The view he opposes sees writing as “a necessary but tedious step in the distribution and fixation of ideas”. My view is that academic writing is the art of writing down what you (yes, already) know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. The goal of academic writing is not to distribute your ideas — something that is arguably better done in the classroom and at conferences — and certainly not to fixate your ideas — a hope I’ve never really heard scholars express. The current publish-or-perish regime in academia does leave many people with the impression that the purpose of academic writing is to document their ideas, i.e., to demonstrate to hiring and tenure committees that they actually have ideas, and, in that sense perhaps, to “memorialize” them, but I think we all still understand this to be a secondary function of academic writing, not its primary purpose. What I reject is the notion that we write in order to discover or create ideas. The purpose of academic writing is to expose ideas to criticism. And this requires that we write down what we already think, not that we wait to see what we think after the “larger, complete performance” of academic discourse has already begun.
Hayot suggests that this performance is constituted by “the openings that appear at the intersection of an intention and an audience”. I am also happy to specify a “here” of academic writing. When we write, we step into the clearing that has been prepared by our peers in the discourse, and there we expose ourselves to the possibility that we are wrong. I’m not sure it requires generosity of us, but it does require us to trust in the kindness of strangers, i.e., to presume that we will be read charitably. It takes courage, precisely because we may not be entirely unafraid. It certainly requires us to be open — mainly about the grounds we have for holding the beliefs we do. These, after all, are what we are presenting to our peers for critique. When we write with sincerity (as Pound noted through one of his famous mistranslations of Chinese writing) we “stand by” our ideas.
It can’t be true, I want to say, that you don’t know what you think until you write it down and that, when you do begin to write, you immediately open your thinking to a process in which it becomes something else. It must be possible for your reader to gain access to your (prior) intention through your writing so that, if you are wrong about something, the reader has an occasion to correct your thinking. I think the underlying misconception here — or at least my underlying disagreement with Hayot (for there is the possibility that I’m wrong about this, of course) — is that writing is a “performance” of our ideas rather than their representation. More seriously, Hayot seems to think that our ideas are always only whatever they mean in some “larger, complete performance”, that they have no individual dignity or integrity, that they are forever “emerging” before an audience, that they can’t be tested one at a time (as Pound, by the way, also hoped they could). I believe we can write down what we think, and that we can learn how to do this well through practice.
All this may just be a difference of emphasis. (I, too, sometimes discover what I think when I write; Hayot, no doubt often, writes something down he’s known for a while.) I agree with Hayot that academic writing is not merely the memorialization of ideas and certainly not the tedious business of distributing them. In fact, I worry that by conceiving of writing as the “creation” of ideas we merely conscript it into the tedium of “knowledge production”. We think of writing as something that is supposed to add something to culture (as if we need more of it!) rather than conserve what is of value and correct what is mistaken. Scholarship is the exposure of ideas of criticism from competent peers. At the intersection of that intention with that audience a possibility does indeed emerge — the possibility of scholarly discourse. We must remember that academia traces its origins back to a garden in ancient Athens and perhaps, then, we can give the last word to Ezra Pound himself: “We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to ‘the needs of society’, or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.”