A Bad Theory of Mediocre Writing

To bad practice he has prefixed the bad theory which made the practice bad; he has given us a false theory in his preface, and he has exemplified the bad effects of that false theory in his translation.

Matthew Arnold (On Translating Homer, II, §58)

Last week, I promised I’d write a bit more about Eric Hayot’s views on academic writing in continuation of my last post. Once again, I want to make clear that I admire Eric’s writing, and even many of his ideas about writing. My problem is that he seems to take a dim view of mine! While he suspects that we are at bottom in agreement about the essentials, I’m having a hard time seeing the common ground. After all, I conceive of academic writing quite explicitly as “the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people.” And here’s what Eric says on the first page of his book:

Conceiving of writing as the process whereby you put down thoughts you already have will give you a bad theory of what writing does and can do. As an idea of writing’s purpose it tends to make for mediocre writers and mediocre prose.

That’s pretty strong language, and I’m going to have to defend myself against the charge. But only by half. Obviously, I can’t grant that I have a “bad theory” of writing, but I can suggest that Eric has a bad theory of mediocre writing. He may have a perfectly good theory of “great” writing, but as he surely knows, and even partly concedes in his own case, most writers aren’t that great. Indeed, most aren’t even trying to be great. In my defense, then, I want to suggest that I have a pretty good (perhaps even great) theory of mediocre writing; more precisely, I have a theory about how mediocre writers can improve.

I think my tolerance for mediocrity is really what distinguishes my approach from Eric’s. We can see it in the way he talks about his own drama of composition:

Let’s start with fear. I am terrified — seriously terrified — of academic writing. Nothing that I do confronts me as strongly with a fear of total, consuming incompetency and inadequacy. The problem is that I’m trying to be great, and I am (quite reasonably, unfortunately) afraid that I am not great. (P. 17)

Again, let me grant that this may be a good theory of great writing. This may be how great writers feel and it may describe the mood in which they do their great writing. (There’s anecdotal evidence for and against the theory, I should say.) But, as he has learned even in his own case, it doesn’t apply to more ordinary kinds of writing.

When I write for Printculture, or when I worked as a journalist at the Associated Press, I never felt the anxiety I associate with scholarly writing. I also don’t feel it when writing e-mails, annual reports, grant applications, or grocery lists. Those kinds of writing can be boring or institutionally complicated, but they don’t involve a confrontation with the fear that I am not as good as I would like to be. (p. 18)

He presents this in a self-aware and critical tone. That is, he knows that some of his readers will suggest that he just relax a little and stop trying to be so great. Perhaps you could replace the fear you feel with the calm knowledge that you’re not as good as you’d like to be and that you will naturally improve as long as you work carefully and conscientiously at your tasks? But Eric explicitly rejects this strategy.

Unfortunately, as some level the ambition to do great work — to write something that matters not just to me but also to the community of peers I care most about, the people whose work I respect and admire most — is central to the ethos of why I write scholarship at all. I cannot imagine giving up on it, since to do so would be to settle for producing mediocre essays. As a matter of career survival, it is possible to get by on work one knows is mediocre, but, for me at least, such a thing would make it impossible to go on. I don’t have to be great, but I have to be trying for greatness. (p. 18)

There it is again: that underlying contempt for mediocrity. It is here coupled with his theory of greatness: you have to be trying to be great. I will leave it there for now and let you ponder the philosophical question of whether the surest way to become great is to intentionally pursue it as a goal. Need I say Zen in the Art of … ?

More later.

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