In Friday’s New York Times, the novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer wrote a scathing indictment of academic writing. An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece takes aim at the well-known art historian Michael Fried, but it could easily have been written about almost any scholar in the humanities, veteran or novice, successful or luckless. It lambastes the bad, turgid, unclear writing so common to university professors. Following David Morris’s suggestion, it is rightly called academic mumblespeak.

Dyer’s article is brilliant because he adopts the style he intends to mock. To give you just a small taste, here’s how he begins:

In this column I want to look at a not uncommon way of writing and structuring books. This approach, I will argue, involves the writer announcing at the outset what he or she will be doing in the pages that follow.

I found it hilarious, apt, persuasive, and timely. Academics are many things, but good writers we are seldom. We deserve the critique.

That attitude in mind, I was surprised to get in a mild disagreement with some colleagues on Facebook after one of them posted a link to Dyer’s article, along with a complaint that it represented yet another example of anti-intellectualism in the NY Times. I was fascinated and a bit startled to see my interlocutors content to dismiss this piece as useless—save as a lens on the ideology of media (anything you can do I can do meta). This surprise was magnified by the fact that one of the individuals commenting on the post holds a senior position at a university press.

I was likewise surprised that, after I pressed them, my colleagues (including the university press rep) still didn’t see Dyer’s article as but one example of a wholesale problem, but only as a specific critique of a bad writing tic of a single author, Michael Fried. At least one of them didn’t see any reason to entertain gripes from outside academia about writing styles within it.

I’m not interested in chastising my friends in public about a private conversation, and that’s why I’m not naming names here. But I was startled and disheartened to think that this sample of scholars might be representative of a common attitude—things are fine in the humanities, we don’t owe you any explanations, just leave us alone to write terribly. We like it that way.

This is a backwards attitude, and I don’t want any part of it.

It reminded me of another, slightly different response to the relationship between the humanities and the world. Last week Google’s “in-house philosopher” Damon Horowitz wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the role of the humanities in the technology industry, and elsewhere. As Alex Reid reports, with horror, the dozens of comments that follow the article actually express offense at the idea that a technologist might actually partake of the humanities. After all, we’re here to be “unaccountable” (yet fully supported).

Reid concludes that the humanities need to be of the world even more than other academic disciplines. I agree.

My conversation about the Dyer article on Facebook makes me realize that my and Alex’s views are still very much in the minority among humanists. (In fact, I suppose there are some who wouldn’t even call me a humanist anymore.) It’s a disillusioning realization, but one worth having. For years now, many have written about the dire state of the humanities and the liberal arts more generally. Will they be able to survive the financial crisis, the corporatization of the university, the government’s preference for STEM fields, and so forth. By contrast, I find myself wondering if the liberal arts will survive itself.

published July 24, 2011


  1. Jonathan Baldwin

    OK, long rambling late-night response here, Ian – I apologise. But this topic gets me riled!

    I agree that many academics are not good writers, but then why should they be? Many writers would make bad academics!

    It’s also true that many academics are bad teachers. Personally I’d start there if we want to go about changing things. There’s a link between good teaching and good writing – it’s called communication.

    Sadly, academia doesn’t reward that. If you’re good at teaching your subject, and good at communicating it, you’re unlikely to advance very far in your academic career.

    Pierre Bourdieu pointed this out in (I think) Homo Academicus (ironically, for all his great ideas, the man was an incomprehensible writer!) All professions, not just academics, have a need to keep what they do “special”, and to hide the sheer simplicity of it behind obscure language. Plumbers do it, mechanics do it, priests do it, academics do it. If it’s easy to understand, it can’t be special, can it? Legitimacy – academic legitimacy, financial legitimacy, “right to exist” legitimacy – comes from difficulty of access. If it can be understood by just anyone, it doesn’t deserve a university course, an academic salary to teach it, and government funding, does it?

    I’ve spent the past ten years developing an approach to teaching design that begins with what students already know. It works. But I’ve had quite a lot of criticism for it, some of it rather personal. Once accused of “dumbing down” (despite the improved grades and student retention I got) I said I was “dumbing up”. I once heard a much better term for it but sadly I forgot it, so until I remember, that’s what I’ll stick with.

    My writing too has been damned with the praise “it’s very readable”. Every time I try to write a journal article I freeze up after the first thousand words – but when I write blog posts or magazine articles or booksâ?¦ well, I can’t stop myself.

    The irony is, in order to be recognised for what I’ve done, I have to write a 7,000 word article, in “academic language” to explain it, otherwise it won’t get past the peer review.

    Bourdieu describes this as “illusio” – the rules of the game. You have to play by the rules in order to be in the game. Even if your approach is to break the rules. But the rules only make sense to the people in the game, which is why you get the criticisms you mention: charges of “anti-intellectualism”.

    (Incidentally, at the end of one of my courses I found a well-thumbed and annotated copy of Bourdieu’s examination of taste on a student’s desk. After I’d used a party game to explain one of his key concepts, the student had gone out and bought it and a much more readable “introduction”. If I’d taught Bourdieu the way I am expected to, that student wouldn’t have touched that book. But because of the approach I took – the supposedly anti-intellectual one – she did. Funny, that. A couple of months ago a student tweeted me from a visit to Oxford where she’d just held her own in a conversation with undergrads there on the man’s ideas. They’d had the “proper” approach, she’d had the “dumbed down” one. The difference was that she was interested in the ideas because she could relate them to her own life. They were interested simply because it was on the syllabus.)

    Incidentally, you could point out that your critics are wrong: Anti-intellectualism is when people’s views are condemned simply because they are based on evidence and consideration rather than passion and ideology – see critics of “the intellectual liberal elite” in the US. Suggesting that good ideas and sound reasoning should be made palatable to “the masses” is not anti-intellectualâ?¦ it’s pro-intellectual!

    So I agree and disagree: on the one hand some great academics are just not very good writers and what they need are people like us to help them communicate – I’d rather rewrite someone else’s great research than engage in subpar investigations of my own because I find communicating ideas as interesting as having them. (Sadly, there’s no reward in that). I wouldn’t criticise those who just are not good writers, or are writing for a specific audience.

    But some academics are forced into bad writing by the conventions of our trade – I think that’s what you’re having a go at rather than the academics themselves? How to change that? Well how about launching a journal of accessible research? (Or isn’t that what newspapers and magazines are supposed to be? Again, as I know to my cost, getting an article in there just doesn’t cut it when the promotion round comes along. There’s an inverse relationship between the number of readers you get and your salary, I think).

    A third group, though, are those who seem to delight in the idea that if an idea is a good one, it should be protected by incantations in case ordinary people discover it. And anyone who doesn’t is condemned. Those people I really cannot stand.

    In the UK we actually have a potential solution in the offing. Every few years all universities submit their research for peer review and the outcome determines funding for the next few years. This time around we were asked to submit evidence of “impact”, and future funding decisions would be made based on this. Sadly, this was interpreted as an attack on blue sky speculative research – which might be a fair interpretation. I interpreted it as saying “look, I did this research in to subatomic particles and I wrote an article about what I found for a children’s magazine” or “I looked at how good design can help reduce crime and I gave a talk on it to the local women’s institute”â?¦ I think all research projects should have that “impact factor” built in – not impact on other researchers, or on the field, but on ordinary people. I suspect that even the most seemingly esoteric research projects can be made interesting to any group, and the act of trying to do it is exactly the sort of intellectual excercise so-called intellectuals should relish.

    Learning shouldn’t be difficult, it should be easy. It should be not learning that should be difficult.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Thanks for this lengthy comment Jonathan.

    But some academics are forced into bad writing by the conventions of our trade – I think that’s what you’re having a go at rather than the academics themselves? How to change that?

    This does seem like a key problem, right? Journal and university press editors should be working to rectify this. That’s why I was so discouraged to learn that my friend the university press editor didn’t seem bothered by anything other than the NYT’s purported anti-intellectualism.

    But then again, there are still some who know they want to do otherwise but can’t or won’t change, for reasons you point out (including the wizards incanting over their cauldrons).

    I think you’re right that the specific problem of bad writing is tied to a more general problem of academics. But I’d locate that problem in the trouble we have finding a place in the world and in our to those who are not academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. That’s a problem that includes communication, but one that is not limited to it.

    Good point about anti-intellectualism, as well.

  3. Brian Herrera

    I’m always perplexed by even the most clever critiques of “bad writing” in the academy.

    As a writer who writes in a variety of contexts, I tend to view what we do in the humanities in terms of genre. Typically, humanities scholars write within the broad genre of “scholarly non-fiction” even as we occupy a more particular niche like “literary criticism” or “African American history.” (Not unlike the way a writer of romance novels might write within a niche — civil war or vampire lesbians – of the romance genre.)

    A genre writer is only rarely well-known beyond aficionados of their genre. Moreover, those features of a genre author’s writing that signal their competence (even artistry) to genre-aficionados are often viewed by non-aficionados as proof of their hackery. (This is signaled by the Dyer quote you highlight.) Occasionally, a genre-writer might reach an audience beyond their subgenre’s presumed readership, sometimes even accomplishing “crossover” status. But most genre writers labor within the genre’s relative obscurity because that’s what and who most genre books are for.

    Writing is hard. And no academic writer I know sits down to the work of writing with the intention of “I’m going to write this sentence so it offends someone’s love of prose.” Most write to expectations assumed of their perceived readership. (These assumptions are routinely enforced by peer-reviewers, university press editors, tenure/promotion committees, etcetera).

    The fact that there are few professional incentives for writers of scholarly non-fiction to seek a wider readership is a worthwhile BUT separate issue from periodic, arbitrary and easy assessments of “bad writing” in the humanities.

  4. Ben Tilghman

    Ian, your description mirrors exactly the response I got when I posted Dyer’s article in Facebook. I, too, was astonished by the immediate dismissal of Dyer’s satire, and the refusal to see it as more than a takedown of Fried.

    Jonathan, thank you for an articulate and encouraging comment on the stakes here. My wife works for an educational non-profit, and is continually astonished that graduate students receive no training in pedagogy and that success in the classroom is not the first criteria of measuring an academic’s worth.

  5. Ian Bogost


    I very much appreciate the perspective you bring to the discussion. But I think the two problems are related. I think the isolationism is just as big a problem as the bad writing, and that the two are codependent.

    Genre writing is always quirky, but its examples usually do not distinguish themselves by reveling in their awfulness. And genre writers also reach significant audiences. I really find your analogy to be a brilliant one, but alas also a terribly depressing one actually to adopt!

    Writing is indeed hard. Making things is hard! I think humanists ought to seek wider readerships on principle (more on that linked in the article), but even if we bracket that argument… as for incentives… isn’t this the same group who constantly argues that we do things for their own sake in any case? And God help us, who often participate in teaching writing as well?


    I’m strangely relieved to hear that you had the same experience, even if I’m also discouraged to hear it. I had wondered if perhaps my encounter had been unusual.

    There are many ways to measure worth, and I’m reluctant to ask for one and one alone. But if we focus on writing without assuming that such a focus means ignoring something else, then it just seems reasonable that “Is their writing any good?” is a reasonable question to be able to ask of scholars!

  6. David

    A good thing to read 2 days before I hand in my diss proposal.

  7. dmf

    at least here in the US a big part of the problem is the lack of teaching via close-readings, such that long before the current technology people were learning a stylized kind of cut and paste, name/phrase dropping, research/writing that has much more to do with imitation than with understanding. As long as we keep the current sped up PhD model that we have here in the US I don’t see how this changes. Certainly it would be helpful if professional teachers got some proper training on how to teach but first they need to know what they are talking about. Ian’s making things point is on the right track but I think this is also like the difference between an engineer and a technician to the degree that a tech is trained to a manual but engineers have to think through how to frame a problem or invention/innovation such that it is both manageable and yet broad/inclusive enough to make a difference that makes a difference. The more we think of the history of various disciplines/works in terms of prototypes the better.

  8. Casey O'Donnell

    I’m not a very good writer. I think good writing is critical for the broader dissemination of research and understanding of all work, humanistic, scientific, otherwise. Why single out any single vein of academic work? I think what we do is important enough that we write about it in ways that get read.

    I’ve started enlisting really good writers who moonlight as editors to help me improve, because I’m not that hot. I’m not dumbing it down, I’m helping it get read. Often times an editor/good writer makes my writing smarter and more readable. Even basic stuff, one my favorite gems recently was, “I will continue to argue, despite your profession’s resistance, on active construction rather than passive.”

  9. Grant Simpson

    Ian, do you find the continual deferral of the argument that Dyer discusses a problem in general or just outside of an introduction?

  10. Brian Herrera


    I don’t actually agree that what I’m calling “scholarly non-fiction” revels in being bad.

    I am suggesting that many basic conventions of the genre of “scholarly non-fiction” are read (by non-aficionados, especially) as proof of its being “bad writing.” (Just as many core conventions of romance or scifi might condemn the authors similarly.) The examples vary from critic to critic – sentence structure, style of argumentation, vocabulary, abundance of citations – but these core conventions of the genre become the evidence in the “bad writing” claim. It’s a teleology, really. And even the smartest “bad academic writing” screeds don’t actually help to clarify questions of audience (insularity) or questions of form (“bad” writing).

    The big gap in my analogy revolves around “the purpose” of scholarly non-fiction as a genre, especially in comparison to other examples of genre writing. Most genre writers presume their readers to be reading for pleasure (whereas scholarly non-fiction somehow retains the monastic self-abnegation mandate of the medieval university).

    So, for me, the “bad writing” thing is a red herring. As I see it, the “problem” with academic writing is most productively formulated not in terms of “what” (form) or “who” (audience) but “why” (purpose). Can we, without self-flattering canards about pure scholarship, be honest about WHY we are writing these books? And why we are writing them the way we do? I have no answers but that’s a conversation I think worth starting and sustaining.

  11. Bill Coberly

    One would think that the incentive for writing clearly and well would be to ensure that your audience is more able and willing to understand your work, such that they’ll talk about it more, thereby granting you prestige and fame, which will in turn enable you to write more things for better journals. That said, my connections to academia are mostly through my friends and my wife, and not myself, so maybe I’m just being naïve.

    On topic, I think, as Mr. Baldwin points out, a lot of the tolerance for lousy writing in academia does come from that (probably unconscious) desire to keep academia sacred and mysterious.

    I wonder, though, if this isn’t a bit self-defeating. Completely disregarding whether or not one “ought” to keep academia entirely separate, I think that sort of sacredness only works if the general public thinks what you’re doing is worthwhile. If people respect you and genuinely believe that you have access to some kind of secret, mysterious information, then maybe it makes some pragmatic sense to maintain that attitude. But if they don’t already believe that, then I think trying to speak in a private language will just make the average person raise his or her eyebrows and write you off as just another crazy person.

    As a small-scale example, when I was an undergraduate philosophy student, I found myself much more willing to try to slog through Wittgenstein’s dense and confusing text than I was Hegel’s, because I believed, (rightly or wrongly is not the point here) that Wittgenstein was more worth my time than Hegel was. I was willing to forgive Wittgenstein’s dense text or even ascribe it to some kind of mind-boggling genius far beyond my own humble brain’s abilities, but I just thought that Hegel was a lousy writer.

    I’m not sure that the â??general publicâ? really views humanities academics as some kind of sacred and privileged group of people– I think they tend to view them as ivory-tower BSers. As such, I wonder if turning a blind eye to mumblespeak is not only bad for the communication of ideas, but for cultural perception of academic study of the humanities as a whole.

    Anyway. Thanks for posting the Dyer article and your thoughts on it!

  12. Ian Bogost


    I agree with the latter part of your comments, but I’m not sure I see how that’s connected to teaching via close-readings? Can you explain more?

  13. Ian Bogost

    @Brian Herrera

    I think we’ll have to disagree on the bad writing point. The question of why we are writing this way, I agree that’s a fine one to ask, and likely a productive one. As others have pointed out in these comments, the reasons are complex and partly institutional. But contrary to some of those implications, I don’t think we are being “coerced” or even “interpellated” into this style.

    @Bill Coberly

    I agree with your conclusion… as well as with Jonathan Baldwin’s earlier point that obfuscation is a kind of shamanism. The irony is, humanists are the ones who are always talking about “making sense” of culture.

  14. Ian Bogost

    @Grant Simpson

    Sometimes signposting is helpful and even necessary in books. But the degree to which many humanists use it (Fried is a comical satire of one, almost) is really out of control.

    Overall, it’s just worth remembering that the style is not separate from the substance.

  15. David Rylance

    Hi Ian. I generally agree with you, we could lift our game. Or try to. But I get why it was dimissed as anti-intellectualism because this review is. Broadly speaking, it never ceases to amaze me how the quality of academic writing causes such umbrage at the Times, given that the paper almost never bothers engaging with academic books anyway. So, this zeroing in on Fried as ‘the perfect example’: it’d be like reviewing a work of avant-garde poetry that experiments for 500 pages strictly in the “Nantucket” form and then declaring the sample both comprehensive as well as representative of the low standards and cruder conceits of the contemporary poem in its totality. Relying, of course, on the presumption that no one will actually read enough of this stuff to challenge their bullshit presentation of it. Which is why it’s hard to know what exactly it means to say that the humanities need to be of the world if by ‘the world’ you mean this antagonistic gatekeeping of publications like the Times and its ‘distinguished contributors’ that thrives on presenting itself as the only addressable world, and the only world worth addressing. “If only Negri and Hardt’s Empire had been just that little bit clearer, then we would have run with its ideas!” Know what I mean?

    And, actually, for as many cases as I can think of that prove your point about the stilted metronome of academic writing – the “this, now this, now this, remember this, it relates to this” of it – I can think of just as many where that’s not so at all: consider almost any of the Zone Books publications; the academic histories published by Verso; the University of Minnesota Press is also a strong case – like Cary Wolfe’s ‘Posthumanities’ series, which would fall, squarely, into ‘academese’ and yet, to my mind, produces highly stylish research books without missing a beat. So what already existent academic works count when it comes to understanding the conventions of the trade? Is the problem really an absence of diversity in the writing or rather that aesthetic impressiveness is not, perhaps, what academic writing is about, first and foremost? (And should it be? I don’t think it’s as obvious as all that.)

    Moreover, ‘turgid’ and ‘unclear’ writing in the humanities are usually not the same type of academic writing. For example, you can rightly call Avital Ronell difficult – or ‘unclear’ – but you can’t call her prose style unstylish – or ‘turgid’. Now, certainly, if you wanted to mount a case that Ronell is ‘turgid’, she’s not turgid in the way that’s been demonstrated here, as a lack of stylistic brio. On the contrary, it would be open to the claim that itâ??s far too orphic. True, Dyer writes: “There is, I would observe here, a kind of zero-sum perfection about the way the theatricality of the flamboyant, future-­oriented sign-­posting is matched by all the retrospection. The depths of self-­absorption that makes this possible are hard to fathom.” On the most abstract level, that might seem to comport to a negative caricature of such deconstructionist writers, to continue with the example. But it doesn’t hold up because the other criticism levelled at deconstruction-based writing is that it’s turned academic analysis into a set of amorphous literary conceits and thus isn’t rigorous enough. What Dyer is putting forward in his criticism is the explicit contention that the writing isn’t literary-minded at all but, rather, ONLY lattice-work, ALL bureaucratese. More to the point, you’ll notice therefore how the site-specific nature of the applicability of one criticism to one kind or mode of academic writing gets run together into a characteristic of Academic Writing™, creating the impression of a sort of ideologically thickened hidebound mush mind, proof of the hive of ‘academic groupthink’.

    Likewise, Judith Butler tends to be turgid but – despite the ignorant carry-on about the complicatedness of her sentences – she’s not at all unclear, presuming, of course, you’ve read enough in the discipline to get her fairly technical references. I mean, Gender Trouble didn’t become a seminal work of queer theory in and out of the academy because it was simply impossible to make head nor tail of what it meant or so unpleasant to read no one could get past the first chapter. Given that, I think the resistance to your agreement with this article has less to do with a refusal to entertain “gripes from outside the academy about styles within it” than the fact those gripes, as expressed in this article, arrive via the same selective reification of ignorance, through the same anti-intellectual institutional sources, that turn their ‘valid point’ into more bait for their hook. If we’re going to accept criticisms of academic writing, the Times is the wrong place to start: we need to begin somewhere more relevant, like paying attention to academics from other disciplines, artists and independent researchers, those who don’t end up being asked to review books for the Times, the kind that at least have some fundamental sympathy with the goals of academic research, in the marginality of their own practice, and who don’t wish every academic tome written had been authored by Shelby Foote.

    Still, for all that, because I want to address more directly the idea that style and substance are inseperable (with that phrase usually meaning something like good style = good substance, bad style = bad substance, though why is it bad substance can’t come with good style or vice versa, why the inseperability of style and substance isn’t actually something you might want or need to split or seperate in some fashion, I don’t know: why are we obsessed with reading things through for art all the time, doesn’t the usefulness of art ever have a limit? Is technicality just isolationism or is it specifically the means by which disciplinary knowledge comes to actally produce insights which then can be re-elaborated eloquently? Does qualification for academy mean being you always have to be a Harpers-endorsable “essayist”?) – still, for all that, just hypothetically, let’s accept the stylistic criticism as it comes through the vector of the Times. Leaving aside the point it seems to underline that academics are culturally irrelevant precisely for being aesthetically ‘unpleasant’ (thus coding the productivity of thought must also entail a socially endorsable aesthetic harmony, which seems distinctly middlebrow to me), frankly, I can’t imagine anything worse, academically speaking, than having to face a sort of NYT-mediocre(but eloquent!) walk-through of concepts every time I picked up a book of philosophy, rather than being met with the density of a bunchful of references fisted together into a single sentence – as you often find in continental philosophy – that marshals those concepts together precisely so as to leap on to another plateau. In a sense, I like the headache inducing difficulty and, what’s more, I think it has a use: having to parse out each and every step in beginner’s detail over and over can actual deaden thought and not allow the intensity of concentration that the cryptographic shorthand of academic writing in its most dense philosophical modes allows. Isn’t saying all academic writing should be eloquent a little like saying only the pretty girls get to go to the prom? Some academic writers are blessed with the ability to achieve that concentration of conceptual reach while also being able to command a fluid open style. But that’s also a gift and what’s more, it’s not always academically a very useful one. I can list, right off the top of head, several academics I find totally overblown because of their excellent, accessible style: from those I personally find obnoxious, like Paul Berman, Pascal Bruckner, Amartya Sen, Richard Wolin, Cass Sunstein, to those I find just sort of mostly mediocre theoreticians – certainly way more misses than hits – but excellent stylists: Sherry Tuckle, Zygmunt Bauman, John Gray, Tony Judt, Mark Mazower, recent Peter Sloterdijk — I could go on. Not to mention the generic ‘Gladwell’-like ‘non-fiction’ the academy also spews out like a fatty sausage factory. Aesthetic improvement isn’t going to necessarily revolutionize the way academics write things worth reading because the level of the content itself induces them to write they write the way: not the conventions and not the talent but the concrete abstraction and the detail. Academic writing can be criticised, rightly, for grinding the gears of language but such stylistic traits are also common â?? as in, not just habitual but texturally â??courseâ?? â?? for a reason. That’s the discursivity in academic writing. It looks like itâ??s taken over the top in Friedâ??s book with all his self-conscious parsing of the discursive difficulty he perceives in his steps but is this not perhaps caused precisely by all the crap academics get over the lack of clarity to their writing? And that raises the real question: are we criticising â??mumbleâ?? or are we just criticising how â??academics speakâ??, period?

    Speaking for myself, though it often isn’t much fun, I find a compartmented thesis-y argument is actually awfully handy for later reference, especially if you’re a student: you track across the argumentative steps in seconds via those â??hooksâ??. And that’s the thing: academic writing addresses a profession that also teaches and it involves both teachers and students who make use of that writing (despite what the NYT thinks) in a way that’s often more functionally oriented than aesthetically driven. The aesthetic character then will be far more akin to industrial design than to the writerly artistry of the well-wrought urn. It ought to be more like a well-arranged remote control unit, not a Cubist painting (if we’re being normative, because I do like it when academics do produce their remote controls as Cubist works of art. I just don’t think every academic is a Picasso of the word: otherwise, they likely wouldn’t be an academic.) So I find this demand for literariness intriguing: how it seems like the objects of the academy, when it comes to the humanities, cannot be countenanced as technical, ‘circuitry’-based artefacts. In a way, this is a conceit of the humanities most of all, that our work is some sort of disciplinary ‘art’, which you saw symptomally expressed in the baulking at the idea of a technologist partaking of the humanities. Humanities research is simply not meant to be something so plain as reports on knowledge because, after all, the humanities don’t deal in “real” knowledge, now, do they? That’s for the ‘hard’ sciences. Thus, if they aren’t accessible in their style, or they aren’t pleasant to read, then what’s their point, huffs the Times on popular opinionâ??s behalf (thatâ??s to say, on behalf of the insipidities it purveys as what people really think)?

    You’d think that academics were paid to be a wiser sort of punditry, and were failing to live up to their mandate, like sports commentators who suddenly decided to narrate the on-field action in Klingon. Worse, stilted Klingon! But public intellectuality is only one role of the academy: an important one, one that needs to be built on more in terms of the people – you know, the poor, the uneducated, the sick, the imprisoned, those who are as unlikely to give a fig what the Times thinks as they are to have been inside the grounds of a university. Still, public intellectuality is not what should become the grounds from which we define the academy’s responsibilities comprehensively, because, in the end, it mostly winds up meaning we talk to ‘the public’ and not the people. The liberal arts will not have saved itself if the only way to get an appointment teaching them is to be the next A.C. Grayling or Sean Wilentz.

    Add to that another related point: a lot of hard and new ideas take time for their writers to synthesize. What about, for instance, Graham Harman’s remark that Tool-Being is like the Commodore 64 compared to the laptop of his The Quadruple Object, bulkier and more mechanistic because so much from-scratch innovation went into it? I’d hardly call Tool-Being an unstylish book but I wonder if it would pass muster by the standards of either this article or the Times. Which shows that writing’s just as often not merely a stylistic but also a conceptual matter, disynchronously from style, in terms of the effort that goes in to even being able to articulate at all such difficult concepts. And this applies even when well-written prose involves some technical difficulty. Like I doubt you’d be altogether thrilled to be told by a NYT reviewer that your Unit Operations is simply bunk, not only because it should read more like, but also because it should only read at the level of intellectual engagement of, Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, right?

    So I agree with you that academic writing can be worse than wretched. It can be dull and it can be a wank – though usually not both at once. It can be totally schematic or a bouquet of over-ornate clichés blooming off to nowhere. And there’s a marked tendency to turn otherwise interesting topics into a bowlful of curds and whey. But when, like this review, you recognize no real distinctions or range in academic writing, or when you refuse to assess that writing as writing from the perspective of a professional method of communication that will derive its style from its main uses, its deadlines, its constraints and its most common functions, like reference and research, such a ‘review’ becomes not an exercise in useful criticism: it’s just a repeat episode in a regularly scheduled ridicule.

  16. dmf

    sorry my own inability to write on display,I’ll try again. my experience has been that people tend not to be taught texts in depth in the sense that they are not taught, line by line if needed (this was how I studied Husserl with one of Ricouer’s students such that we were learning to read/philosophize as much as what he said and then we went home and worked on whatever wasn’t covered in class which was a lot, I never got to study poetry but I think some lit-profs do something similar), to understand how the writings they are reading developed, why choices were made, what were the tensions or possibilities at hand what was more inchoate, and how and why do the works (or parts of works) succeed or fail.

    but instead get these massive reading lists which are skimmed over (often in effect replaced rather than supplemented by secondary lit) and turned into various short-hand themes, often even one-liners or just naming

    author-ities, which then get cut and pasted together in papers.

    Often there isn’t really an equivalent to say the experiences of starting in a lab or a studio where in addition to studying the finished classics/standards one learns the nuts and bolts and slowly moves onto coming to see how things get framed and analyzed and then start designing/experimenting. Even english depts tend to separate litcrit from writing programs.

    not sure if that’s helpful or just more of a tangle, good thing I left the academy rather than adding to the confusion.

  17. Jose Zagal


    So you’re basically saying that the medium is the message, and that the medium could use some improving? I’m all over that.

    Dyers notes the default format of academic research papers as serving the dual purposes of helping the reader skip/skim to the bits of interest and preventing authorial personality from intruding. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that (those would be the genre-specific characteristics that Brian alluded to earlier in the discussion). I agree with Dyer that some people go too far. Academics need editors! 🙂

  18. Adam Ruch

    Ian, this is a pretty sad experience you’ve had, though not terribly surprising to me. I’m a media/cultural studies/game studies/technologist kind of hybrid myself so I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of ‘genres’ of academic writing if we might continue that analogy (here I am editing a blog comment since we’re talking about eloquence…). I *hate* the obfuscation of meaning that seems so vogue in critical/cultural studies. Certain authors revered as idols that one can literally dedicate one’s entire career to READING seems really counter-productive to me.

    I actually think of myself as a writer before I think of myself as a researcher. I respect and cherish the craft of writing itself. The thing is, you have to do good research to have anything worth writing about. But if no one can access your meaning or insight, you’ve failed. I feel the same way about teaching, as was mentioned above, they’re hand in hand. If we aren’t passing on our knowledge to someone, its just masturbation.

    To that end, the wide dissemination of ideas is vital. Are we as scholars associated with a ‘hip new media’ better placed to do this? I like the ideas above of presenting at the women’s shelter or writing a kids book about atomic physics a lot… I try to do the same thing when I write for the Australian version of Kotaku. I simply can’t afford not to adjust my style there, but I can still get a lot of the same meaning out. I can at least get a lot of the same discussion happening that occurs at conferences. Isn’t that the goal?

  19. Ian Bogost

    Cheers for that Adam.

  20. Nathan Piazza

    The fact that many humanists react to pieces like Dyer’s as if it were self-evidently anti-intellectual likely stems from the long-standing association of the values of “clarity” with positive journalistic and technical modes of communication. And indeed, in this thread it would seem the information theoretical model of language as a transparent vessel for conveying ideal modular concepts seems to have a certain implicit sway.

    From such “clear” writings we expect to derive instant understandings and turn around blog-time critical reactions. “Idle talk”, Kierkegaard would have called it.

    Among others who railed against this model of intellectual discourse, I can count Ruskin, Nietzsche, and Adorno. Indeed, it’s widely been seen as a threat to rigorous thinking since the rise of newspapers. Were all these intellectuals just trying to win a turf war with popular culture or inflate their own importance?

    The process of reading can work on us in many ways. In my experience, quick digestion and immediate reaction are indeed often the enemy of understanding. In fact, these days it’s all but impossible for undergraduates to engage with difficult texts in any attitude other than the one they bring to online music reviews or episodes of Jersey Shore. Even newspapermen like “The Wire’s” David Simon have railed against this culture of quick understanding and quick opinion, since by now the erosion of our attention spans has rendered not just dense philosophical tracts inaccessible to most readers, but even pulp novels and standard news features.

    Certainly there’s a lot of academic work that could be improved by a copy editor at Time or Newsweek, but isn’t our expectation of instant understanding a bigger problem? And isn’t the complaint about academic hackery cloaking the way our collective attention deficit disorder creates widespread resentment for even moderately demanding critical thought?

  21. Mark N.

    @Nathan: The mention of Nietzsche is interesting. I suspect he wouldn’t like simplistic newspaper writing, true. But when he directly writes about writing, his attacks seem oddly similar to this article’s line of attack. The writers who come in for the most scathing dismissal from Nietzsche are academics, who (he alleges) put out dry, meticulously footnoted tones written in academese, too boring, verbose, and lifeless to be useful for anything.

  22. Ian Bogost

    @Nathan, Mark

    Yeah, I don’t think the argument against turgidity is also automatically an argument for instant understanding. Style is a thing to be savored just like ideas, but much academic writing has the vice of complication for reasons of mysticism, as others here have mentioned.

  23. Ian Bogost

    @David Rylance

    I had somehow passed over your comment before.

    First, I think it’s bizarre to attribute Dyer’s opinion to “The Times.” He’s a novelist. He has a professional writing life. He happens to be writing this piece for the times. Whatever the NYT’s position might be on intellectuals, it has no bearing on my position here, part of which aims precisely to lament the fact that my interlocutors were only interested in that discussion, and not the one about writing.

    Second, I find your avant-garde poetry counterpoint to be very curious. Of course matters of genre, audience, and so forth ought to be taken into account. It’s not just a matter of clarity, it’s a matter of style and editing and aesthetics overall. I think this is essentially what you are saying when you contrast turgidity with unclarity, and I agree with that point–to a point.

    Third, I agree with Dyer’s move that you call “academic groupthink.” I think he’s right!

    Overall: eloquent writing doesn’t have to be “easy” writing. It just has to be good writing.

  24. Nathan Piazza

    “much academic writing has the vice of complication for reasons of mysticism”

    Ian, this is a pretty strong claim, and while I myself have read plenty of work about which I would tend to agree with you – mostly from younger academics – I do think it’s important to realize that when we make this claim, we’re echoing a debate that has been going on for some time now between some pretty heavyweight people.

    Among others, this is the same accusation leveled by Russell against Hegel, Searle against Derrida, and Sokal against Cixous.

    In other words, it’s an inherently politicized claim, and in point of fact, one person’s “turgid, unnecessarily mystifying” prose is another’s work of genius.

  25. David Rylance

    Ian. Thanks for your response. On your first point, I kind of think it’s bizarre not to attribute the piece to the NYT. After all, though it makes a statement in itself, it still goes to the issue of what the Times runs with, what pre-arranged ‘commonsense’ buttons the reviews it solicits, or that are sent to it, press. It also goes to why Dyer would have written this for the NYT and why it’s just not at all surprising to find it published there. I can’t even think of them once running an review endorsing a highly theoretically dense academic work, can you? Compare that to the London Review of Books, for example, which comissions academics to write accessible reviews about the works of other academics. In that context, is there really anything anti-intuitive or that we haven’t heard before in Dyer’s article? It isn’t ‘going meta’ to identify the middlebrow conceit Dyer’s piece shares with the Times unless judging by context at all is to be taken as ‘overmining’. Academic Writing™ has been overtly politicized and attacked as groupthink in ever more sweeping ‘overmining’ claims since the 80s: concordant with neoliberalism tabloid morality but embedded also, as Nathan points out, in the analytic-continental divide. Why isn’t our starting assumption here that it’s Dyer who ought to have been the one to factor the tendentiousness of that history into his review and to work counter-intuitively to it, if he were really aiming to say anything really novel and constructive and anything more than comfortably satirical? Unless, that is, what we have here is not really a sincere identification of a problem but a familiar squib that aims only to push already-existing emotional triggers.

    To the second point: I suppose what I’m saying is that the style of a lot of “non-academic nonfiction” – the eloquence of it – has a substance, inseperable from that style, that congeals articulation via its sort of generic eloquence, such that eloquence does not actually improve it. It’s hard to express but what if certain kinds of clarity actually decarbonate, just as certain kinds of complication or clunkiness fizz? That this seemingly defies aesthetic sense is my point: the aesthetic register here is a decided non-abstract one, based on the idea that harmony of style and substance is what makes writing “good”. In that same sense, the argument for eloquence does entail a dimension that it be ‘easier’ writing: it relies on the notion that some degree of complication is ‘needless’ and that the removal of this needless degree would improve the substantive clarity. I don’t necessarily disagree with this except that the ‘mumblespeak’ you identify is run together here with ‘just being difficult’ when it’s usually more like ‘trying to be simple’: that’s kind of the point, for instance, in your dissatisfaction with Dreyfus in his new book over his concluding with auto-poeisis, right? What I’m actually saying is that academic writing is neither like nonfiction or like avant-garde poetry. And I agree genre, audience and diction all ought to be taken into account. But why isn’t academic writing itself a legitimate genre? And why are academics not a legitimate audience? It’s the sports commentators in Klingon comparison again. In a way, I don’t think we exactly disagree – where you write that writing doesn’t have to be easy to be good, it coincides with what I mean by thinking of academic writing more along the lines of industrial design than the arts. Still, in that exact same sense, I really reject the implication that it’s closed-minded to write in and for our own profession, and that to do so – to have an intra-disciplinary language – is isolationism. And I really find it tendentious to say that bad writing is symptomatic of this ‘inbreeding’. Are electrician’s textbooks ‘isolationist’ to an audience that doesn’t much care to understand electrical infrastructure? Why this suppression of the academy as audience and genre, this relegation of it always to the role of defective producer (which translates out in the wider reactionary imagination as “social parasitism”)? What’s more, why the premise always that obscure writing, undertaken solely for “reasons of mysticism”, is not also a way of producing knowledge, precisely through the interpretive imperative it engineers? That’s not to say it hasn’t become over the top but it’s part of my point as to why it’s not okay to run lack of clarity and turgidity together. The most style-conscious academic works are the ones that really pull off this kind of mysticism. So the problem, in that respect, is an excess of a difficult style you feel is affected. On the other hand, turgidity arises out of a pained, over-elaborate obsessions precisely with clarity, probably even out of fear of being considered too orphic or imprecise. Trying to spoon-feed points into your head via this metronome of latticing gestures. In that sense, I actually think academic audiences lack enough trust in their readers to get difficulty. But that’s probably not suprising when they’re being called to clarity all the time and then told that their clarity is robotic and awful

    And that touches on what I see to be so wrong in the third point. How come any kind of solidarity with academic practice as a profession – as the humanities simply deserving to be the profession that it is – gets presented as ‘academic groupthink’? Why exactly are we arming the artillery of our enemies? When it comes to how we judge ourselve, how come we won’t allow ourselves to ‘be left alone’ when we can be – not in the sense of a total hermetic seal (which I don’t agree exists: if you want proof, check out how many introductory guides exist on almost any humanities subject) – but rather in the sense that there’s actually a lot to be said for the intellectual importance of an intra-disciplinary shelter as a type of experimental field for assembling concepts – almost like Harman’s object-withdrawl in which the discipline thinks its sensual impressions of the outside world in terms of itself. And why does that seem to miff a ‘respected novelist’ like Dyer? I’d have assumed that a novelist might have had more appreciation for the writing differences between what he does and what Fried does: usually the last thing a writer wants to do is discourse on a subject. But then, there’s also a tendency not of novelists so much but among ‘essayists’ (or novelists with their essayist’s cap on) to think they make the academic superfluous? So I suppose what our bad writing shows is that we’re just wasting space, a logic which you seem to tacitly endorse, though I can’t imagine you agree with it. At any rate, there’s certainly more than a mote of that safe, intrinsic linkingg up of academic intellectualism and fatuity in Dyer’s review.

    Lastly, if I can direct you to a good example of a criticism of academic style that comes from a perspective of fundamental sympathy with the academy (though isn’t any less barbed for that), I think this post by Reid Kane is excellent. He’s actually slightly harsher on what he dubs ‘soft Nietzscheanism’ than I (obviously) am but he makes a strong argument for the problems of an obsession with musciality over truth in continental philosophy.

  26. Ian Bogost


    At some level we can call it just a matter of taste (de gustibusâ?¦ and all that), but I think it’s a shame to play that trump card. Moreover, I’m talking about the present, not the 17th or 19th century, or even the 1970s. I’m tired of moves like “let’s realize that this is really about politics” or “you can’t talk about x without accounting for a,b,c,d,e,f” and so forth. Sorry, this isn’t really about Hegel and Derrida and Cixous. It’s about all the “in many ways” and such that litter scholarly prose.


    Yes, of course the NYT is involved in the publication of this piece, of course it is. But to call that feature of the work the “most interesting” or “most important” or even the “most obvious” wrankles me.

    On the rest of your comments, I don’t know what to say other than that we clearly disagree in some fundamental ways. Reading your comments, you seem to think that this is an all-or-nothing gambit, and I don’t see it that way at all. Let’s remember what we’re really talking about here: its chaff, self-reference, filler, and so forth. Not complex prose.

  27. Karen

    The defensiveness of academics when asked to be accountable for the legibility of their communication knows no bounds, it seems. Depressing.

  28. Nathan Piazza

    “The defensiveness of academics when asked to be accountable for the legibility of their communication knows no bounds, it seems. Depressing.”

    Unfortunately there is more at stake here than “legibility”, or rather, the debate goes to the heart of one’s model of reading.

    And Ian, it’s also about far more than just matters of taste, and I’m sorry if I reduced it to that. But different tastes often are driven by those entirely different models of reading.

    It would be nice if this could just be a simple matter of academic “groupthink” or decadence or what have you. As David has pointed out, however, we’re running at least two things together when we talk about what we don’t like in academic prose. The “bureaucratic” style that is really a side effect of a desire to perhaps be “overly” clear, and the difficulty of writers whose difficulty is, by their direct attestation, an effect of asking more of style than that it be merely “savory” (de gustibis).

    This runs against what we might call the “middlebrow” or positive requirement that style do little more than leave us with an impression of authority and perfect understanding (or the inevitable possibility of “perfect” understanding, when such impressions are not deserved by the writer, in the former case, or earned by the reader, in the latter). Style, in this way, serves the institution more than the content, because the only job asked of it is to shore up an entire discipline’s public-directed claims to legitimacy.

    This is why it’s “bourgeois”, why it’s complicit in the professionalizing concerns of capitalist academic culture, against the most urgent and direct concerns of understanding.

    It reminds me of technical managers I’ve known who are constantly frustrated with their programmers for not just “telling them directly what’s going on” – all the while failing to realize they’d been doing that for weeks.

    Not to put to fine a point on it, but a lack of clarity is often to blame when the reader just doesn’t have the chops to understand, or to appreciate the way the style of a given work is elemental to its communicative effect.

    That’s why this is about far more than “just a matter of taste”, and why it’s politicized. It’s often about people who don’t understand something DEMANDING to understand, rather than demanding more of themselves.

  29. Ian Bogost


    It took me a couple days to get back to this thread. Sure, sometimes an absence of clarity is really a misplaced and unreasonable demand for easy, immediate access. But sometimes (often, really, really often!) it’s the affectation Dyer mocks, playing dress-up as the challenging matter you seem to think is the norm rather than the exception.

    As for the bourgeois professionalization of capitalist academic culture, that position describes a style as much as (more than?) a politics, which is why I brought up the de gustibus argument in the first place.

  30. dmf

    “I say all this without trying to disguise the faults of continental philosophers, which are grievous in their own way. That is their exotic vocabulary and flamboyant style that makes it extremely difficult for people to understand them.

    It keeps people like me in business. Iâ??m someone who understands what the witch doctors say, and then I can go put it into plain English, because much of it can be put in plain English. My joke is that if the major philosophers ever lapsed into clarity, Iâ??d be out of a job.”

    a bit of Jack Caputo as court jester but an excellent and accessible interview: