Tuesday, September 25, 2007

At the Chronicle: Confessions of a Journal Editor

Jeffrey J. Williams has an interesting essay at the Chronicle, "Confessions of a Journal Editor." It's behind the subscription wall, but here are a few of the flaws he mentions seeing all too frequently:


"Glossomania," or excessive citation. Yes, we know you've been to the library, or at least Google, but sometimes it's too much of a boring thing. Or more likely masking insecurity in a fog of citation. Or simply being lazy. . . .

Indirection. Some journal articles suffer from being excessively roundabout, taking longer to get to the point than Henry James. A common habit in literary articles is to start with a quotation or a description of a literary scene. Sometimes, as in Stephen Greenblatt's essays, that can be a brilliant device, but it is sorely overused and often a false start, the real point being on page 5. Or the main points are buried, in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. . . .

False difficulty. A common expression in the humanities is that an author "complicates" a topic. That is another academic habit of overcompensation, much like excessive citation. Shouldn't our goal be explanation rather than complication?

Of course not everything can be simple, and difficulty might go with the territory. But the reverse does not follow: A torturous explanation does not indicate difficult thought; it usually only indicates bad writing, its faux difficulty presuming its faux profundity. Think of Wittgenstein: He presents us with nubs that gnaw at us, but his sentences run clear. . . .

Lazy language.

Another glitch is announcing or narrating what you are doing, in phrases like "I would like to argue." Such meta-comments might aid in moments of physical intimacy but are usually unnecessary during an essay. Just argue it!

And then there are a slew of phrases that should henceforth be banned. "Always already" was once striking, but that was in 1972 and it's now a cliché. "Cutting edge" is a phrase that is anything but cutting edge. "Problematic" is just clunky, and actually what people probably mean is "troublesome" or "contradictory." . . .


What's interesting about this is that he actually puts into writing some of the moral absolutes that go unspoken in scholarly prose: to "complicate" something is always good, as in "unlike those poor fools who wrote about this so simplistically before." To accuse someone of "essentializing"--well, them's fightin' words.

I'm not necessarily crazy about "I would like to argue," but to me it does serve a useful purpose; in essays when it's used, usually the author is saying something like this: "I'm done with the introductory fluff and the obligatory citing of every article under the sun. Sit up, now, and pay attention; here comes my thesis." In that way, it can be a good signal to the reader, especially if the article is one that you're skimming to see if it's worth reading later.

I know, I know, we've heard some of this before--but being reminded of what to do, as Williams does, can't hurt.

4 comments:

Professor Zero said...

I know "I would like to argue" is clunky but I like it, because as you say it does announce "here comes my thesis" and also because it admits to the subjectivity that does come into interpretation - i.e. it doesn't make fake claims to the inevitability of the argument.

I caught the "I would like to argue" virus from a very smart professor who would say it in class. "We can read this text this way, and that way, and several other ways, but I want to argue that the more interesting / most productive / etc. way of reading it is my latest one. Now I will show you why."

There are of course more elegant ways of phrasing it.

adjunct whore said...

thanks for posting on this...always good to hear an editor's thoughts. i just starting "i would like to argue" because my argument was too buried or not clear enough. it forced me to be concise and upfront about it. but it is an inelegant phrase, no doubt.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

There's no problem with announcing a thesis, if one must, but I get the point of announcing without the squishiness of "would like." It's less direct and really, incorrect, if one is actually arguing something. Me, I try to avoid announcing if I can, because I was brought up to believe that it was inelegant and that we should be able to state a clear thesis without announcing. But I agree it's sometimes very useful ;-)

undine said...

I was "brought up" the same way in grad school, adm, but professor zero makes a good point about what that phrase could mean. I wonder too, adjunct whore, if as you say the phrase doesn't serve as a valuable kind of transition for the final or next-to-final copy.