Avoiding The Bears

When monographs attack

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Quick note: I spent ages trying to think of an appropriate title, and I couldn’t, so I defaulted to a tried-and-tested formula. Apparently I’m not allowed to use said formula for the title of my thesis, which I feel is unfair.

I’m an idiot, perhaps this is why I can’t read books

Let us imagine a book. The book deals with some very interesting texts and makes some fascinating points about them. The author displays impressive depth of knowledge and their research is very thorough. This book is, I’ll be honest, a real book, and I’m getting the nice stuff out of the way so I can devote the rest of this blog post to why I hated it.

I do feel bad about this. I’m not going to name the author, publisher, topic, etc. And like I say, there were some damn good things in it. But what frustrated me, what led me to scrawl angry pencil all-caps notes on my notepad (being temporarily computerless in the library due to an unfortunate but comical tripping-over-while-carrying-my-laptop incident) was the fact that said good stuff was buried under a mountain of bloody obfuscation.

The writing was not good. Lord knows, this is not a crime, and I’m not prepared to start throwing stones in the direction of another person’s academic style without good reason. What annoyed me about it was not its occasional clunkiness – man, at times my writing is so clunky it reads like travelling on the Hammersmith and City line on a Saturday – but the ways in which it seemed purposefully difficult. The style was very self-consciously ‘academic’. Rhetorical terms and philosophical concepts were not always explained. Sentences were long and loopy. Most notably, the writer quoted extensively in multiple languages. As well as long quotations, there were a flurry of short embedded ones in the body of the text. No translations were offered. 

I’m used to early modern authors doing this, but this was published a few years ago. Mate, this ain’t the Republic of Letters, and you’re not Erasmus. I am glad you are comfortable and confident operating in multiple languages. I am impressed, and I wish I was as good as you clearly are. Such evident skill must be a boon to you as a scholar. But if the point of your book is to communicate your ideas, rather than simply to demonstrate your abilities, I don’t think your ‘no translations’ policy helps.

I know, I am a terrible colonialist eejit and showing my privilege, etc. But look, the book was in English. If it was in French or Urdu this objection would still apply. It seems like basic good practice to me: if you quote something in a language other than the one your work is in, offer a translation of that text into the language your book is in. If your book is in Swedish, translate it into Swedish. If your book is in English, translate it into English. Include the original as well, so people who have the skills to read it can do so (and, y’know, judge you). By writing in English you send out a message that this book can be read by people who can read English. If you have objections to Anglophone cultural hegemony (which would be perfectly reasonable), write in a language of your choice. This particular book was about English texts, so it made sense for it to be in English.

It would be great if all of us who embark on studies of early modern texts could fluently and confidently read, and communicate in, the varied array of languages that our subjects do. I think it’s absolutely key to think of early modern texts in terms of international, multilingual contexts, where texts and ideas and people are all moving and changing and being translated… And I am well aware that native English-speakers, especially those from Britain, are proverbially rubbish at operating in other languages. Not all of us, that is – hello fellow native English-speakers, many of you are brilliant at other languages – but there’s a stereotype that we’re bad at this, and that stereotype’s not entirely untrue. Full disclosure: I find languages difficult, and I get hideously embarrassed by my own failings in them. I mean, when you meet people from other countries, and they speak English, and then they apologise for not knowing a word or something… gawd. I want to drop to my knees and cry ‘Please forgive me, I can’t even order a beer in your language without making an almighty tit of myself.’

Such failings are often blamed on our frankly risible approach to language teaching in this country, of which my school career could be seen as an undistinguished example. I didn’t study French at secondary school because my school took the practical approach of dividing the year in two when we arrived and teaching half of the kids French, half German. Hence why I can yammer ungrammatically in German to reasonable effect but get nervous when I have to order a sandwich in French. Really nervous. Especially in Paris, where they look at me with deep-seated loathing and then fill my baguette with tuna regardless of what I thought I ordered. This is not a euphemism.

I certainly didn’t study Latin or Greek. I don’t want to get particularly class-war about this but just to note that if you learn something as a child that makes you more likely to be confident approaching it as an adult. I’m not going ‘oh woe is me my school didn’t offer classical languages’ because 1. I know it’s heresy but I reckon learning how to decline Latin verbs is probably of limited use to most people, and 2. Given how we reacted to quadratic equations I have a really vivid idea of how well my classmates and I would have taken to ‘Quintus est in horto’. But just to say that, when I studied Latin during my Master’s, those who had studied it at school were leaps and bounds ahead of those of us who hadn’t.

This isn’t unfair – they had worked hard and deserved the skills they had. The onus was on us to improve, as it should be. I don’t want to blame my rubbishness at languages on my perfectly good secondary school, because I believe I have more responsibility for my education than that. As an adult I’ve worked to get better, especially at things I need for work. In practice, this means that I’m far better at reading other languages than speaking them (fairly standard, I think) and I use a dictionary and grammar a lot when I read. I’m not arguing – at least, I hope I’m not arguing – that I don’t think people should write in a particular way because it’s inconvenient to me and people should dance to my monolingual, Anglophone tune.

My point is that it is quite likely that someone picking up a work of history may well not have had the same education that its writer had. Just as my excellent Latin teachers made their teaching accessible to us Latin dunces as well as challenging the star pupils, the writer may need to include supportive apparatus to open up their work to those who have a different knowledge base to themselves.

Is that possible? Of course it’s not always possible. When you’re deeply into a topic it’s easy to forget that others may not know and may not even care what the Schmalkaldic League was and thus that just dropping in unglossed references to it is not a particularly nice thing to do to, e.g., your flatmate who has agreed to read your chapter. You need to balance explaining what needs to be explained without patronising or irritating your readers. But you’ve gotta think about the readers, right?

The problem is that when you publish something, you’re addressing unknown numbers of readers with unknown sets of skills. It is not out of the realms of possibility that someone who cannot read a particular language might pick up this book. Especially as it purports to be on English texts. And it is not out of the realm of possibility that that person might not care enough about what the writer might be saying to work out their own translations. And I would argue that that’s not some terrible failing on the part of the reader. They probably have other stuff to do. They may not have all the skills and prior knowledge that the writer has, but they probably have some the writer doesn’t. The writer should have just added the translations they are clearly capable of doing.

Quality image editing there

I’ve chosen the translation issue because I think it’s the most visible symptom of a general sense I got from this book – that it was aimed at people with a particular range of skills and prior knowledge, and not at anyone else, and that it didn’t need to be like this because argh why. Very basic changes – including translations, explaining terminology – could have made it far more accessible. The ideas contained within it are powerful ones, and the texts discussed deserve to be better known than they currently are. This book was not the best means of communicating either, in my view. More than that: whether the writer meant to or not, they very clearly included some readers in their intended readership, and excluded others. Opening a book and finding that one cannot even read the main body of the text, let alone the longer quotations, without knowledge you don’t have or at least several dictionaries sends a clear message: that this book and this topic is not for you. I’m not saying that academic work should be ‘dumbed down’ to appeal to some cackhanded notion of a lowest common denominator, but that writing clearly and accessibly should be part of what we, as academics, do. I read the book. But I’m a stubborn 4th-year PhD student fairly sure of what I know, with some knowledge of the languages quoted and a long history of reading overcomplex prose. I would not have reacted the same way if I’d opened that book during my MA.

Gonna put this on the first page of my thesis.

I griped about all this to a friend of mine who said, rather reasonably, that it was the publisher’s responsibility to make sure edits were made. I don’t, in honesty, think the publisher was particularly proactive. There were a LOT of typos. There were some funny formatting issues. In short, it didn’t appear that much editing had been done.

I know that publishing monographs is the thing you’re expected to do in order to have an academic career. But the idealist in me persists in believing that, as well as getting on that ol’ professional ladder and contributing to the REF and all that malarkey, you do this because you want to communicate ideas. Isn’t that what we do? Isn’t writing a communicative exercise? Do we value the demonstration of cleverness, or do we value what that cleverness lets us communicate? And when we communicate, do we just want to be talking to ourselves  and to people with similar skills and educational backgrounds to ourselves – or to people who know different things and bring different prior knowledge and understanding to their reading? In other words, are we gatekeeping our own little ivory towers, patrolling the boundaries of our own academic discourse and engagement, or are we opening the gates wide and whacking down the drawbridge and going ‘Hey! Come on in! We’ve slain that dragon you were worried about and we’re going to have a feast! You’re all invited’? It is possible I have run far too far with that metaphor.

My point is, though, that we have a choice, both in our own writing and how we approach others. I’ve fallen into the trap before of being intimidated by ‘difficult’ writing and the display of skills I’m less than confident in, when in actual fact many of the most accomplished people I know are fantastic at communicating complex ideas clearly and accessibly. It is not that hard to communicate things without being scary or patronising. It isn’t necessary, if you know something or can do something, to implicitly punish your readers for not knowing it or not being as good at it as you. Just help ’em out. Open things up. Your reader might be so fascinated by what you have to say, and/or by the texts you’re quoting, that they might go away and have a go at them themselves (I’ve done this more times than I can count). But you need to get them interested in the first place, not scare them off.

At the heart of this is the main issue you face as soon as you step beyond the boundaries of the familiar, whether into another discipline, or another vernacular, or simply into more detailed exploration of issues you haven’t investigated before. Basically, there are many things to know and a lot of skills to gain, and you will probably not be able to gain them all. My PhD bibliography is crammed with books that represent years of people’s lives – skilled, brilliant people. The notion that I could possible ‘master’ all the topics they work on is insane – Casaubon-from-Middlemarch-insane – and monumentally arrogant. The work of other scholars has opened up history and literature for me and made it possible for me to work on my little corner, and for me to be able to relate my little corner to bigger things. I’m madly grateful for the books in my bibliography (not to mention the people who have taught me, because that’s a whole other hugely long post) because everything I do, I’m able to do because people with levels of skill and knowledge that I don’t have have used those skills and communicated that knowledge in ways I can access.

Mainly because he is eminently attractive. I mean, c’mon.

In order for scholarly progress to be made we need to bring our various skills to the table and share them and use them, but in a way that aids our peers rather than scares them off. Scholarly progress – especially now that we’re all interdisciplinary – requires co-operation, and it also requires awareness that very few people can hold in their heads all the skills and knowledge they need to do such work to the level that they need them. You do better interdisciplinary and international work if you don’t try to do it all yourself but share your knowledge and expertise with others and encourage them to share in return. Academia does not consist of people with identical sets of skills – and academic writing should reflect that.

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