Saturday, April 09, 2005

Reaching the wider public 

Jared Woodard, over at A Gauche, has an interesting piece asking who's reading secondary literature these days.

I've long thought that if a lot of academics' salaries weren't hanging on not doing anything like this, easily the best way to make intellectual advances would be through institutionalised academic blogging. That way, arguments could be made, refuted and modified rapidly, without wasting the reams of paper which usually go on padding out - i.e. summarising previous arguments, or couching the writer's own arguments in analytical/critical jargon - the three or four new points that any given piece of secondary literature usually has to make on its subject. With such padding removed, most people could take an interest in the discussion, and certainly advances would be more rapid.

But as long as academic literature remains in print, then arguing that these books aren't best sellers because people simply aren't interested in the subjects they cover is to misplace the blame completely. I know many of us like to think that we're unusual in our interests, but almost all areas of research - particularly in areas like philosophy, politics and history - could have a resonance well beyond the study or the lecture hall. Certainly, there are some areas of research which have no more than esoteric interest, but if that's in the nature of the subject matter, why complain when it receives no wider audience?

Of course, the real problem in reaching such an audience lies in the fact that most secondary literature is written incredibly badly. How people can spend so much time reading great literature of the sort produced by Plato, Rousseau or Marx, without their talent rubbing off in at least a small way, I don't know, but hundreds do. I know that claims of this sort, and calls for more lucid prose in general, usually garner accusations of dumbing down, but it's not condescending to write a book or an article that at least approximates the standard vocabulary of a reasonably intelligent non-academic in the 21st century.

This point goes without saying when it comes to fiction. What makes a long-lasting best-seller? A subject matter with reasonably universal resonance, sure, but also a writing talent. For example, I think Voltaire's ideas are for the most part complete crap, lacking real depth and originality at every turn, but he could write very well, and books like Candide are read for fun by a lot of people even now, where many more interesting thinkers from the same period are not.

Thus, like the vast majority of the reading public, I would never choose to read Judith Butler over JK Rowling, but that's not because I'd rather spend my time reading about wizards than thinking about gender performativity and the deconstruction of heteronormative discourse. It's because the way in which Butler writes - witness these phrases alone! - is inherently alienating. (Incidentally, a friend recently referred to married couples as heteronormative dyads - I nearly belted her).

If academics are serious about reaching wider audiences - and I don't really believe most of them are - then they need to take a lesson from those works which do reach such audiences, and learn to write.

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