I’m irritated

I began reading the essay anthology Best American Essays 2006 the other day, and so far I’ve read only the two introductions and the first essay, but I’m looking forward to making my way through it slowly over the next … who knows … month or so. I didn’t get off to the greatest start with it, however, as Lauren Slater’s introductory essay (she is the guest editor of the year’s volume) irritated me. I was irritated by some things in the essay itself (which I will detail shortly), but I was also irritated because Slater writes in this introduction about people getting angry at her because of what she writes, and I didn’t want to fall so predictably and irritatingly into that camp.

She describes the controversy over her 2004 book Opening Skinner’s Box (apparently I missed this controversy entirely) where people got upset at the way she wrote about science. I don’t know anything about Slater, although Opening Skinner’s Box sounds as though it might be interesting. I’m curious now to know more about her. Does she generally make people irritated and angry? If so, in a good way or a bad way? But I’m always on the lookout for interesting nonfiction, and she might be a good writer to pursue.

But her essay here makes me not to sure. It’s true, I did like some things about it. When she discusses the essay genre, she sounds pretty sensible:

Essay writing is not about facts, although the essay may contain facts. Essay writing is about transcribing the often convoluted process of thought, leaving your own brand of breadcrumbs in the forest so that those who want to can find their way to your door. Essays, therefore, confuse people.

But I’m not so sure about this bit, on an Elizabeth Hardwick essay:

The essay was an artery connecting the mind of the reader with the writer, the writer bare and unpretentious, the writer without the veil of character, without the rouge and foundation that compose fiction, which is, when all is said and done, a game of dress-up.

I don’t think I buy this notion of fiction as a game of dress-up, at least not when it’s juxtaposed against the essay as pure self, as revealing the body beneath the costume. Isn’t this a rather naive way of viewing the truth that both genres tell? An essay isn’t pure communication from person to person, first of all, or pure self-revelation, and second, fiction strikes me as much more complicated than what might happen when an author dresses up and pretends to be somebody else.

And then she discusses academic writing in a way I don’t like, juxtaposing its density and jargon to an essayist’s reliance on clarity:

Unlike academic writing, the essay can be defined by its insistence on, and celebration of, the vernacular, a lyrical way of speaking that aims always at inclusion. The academic learns to hide his insecurity behind bloated verbiage. The essayist cannot hide his uncertainty, and by admitting it, he can hope to transform it.

I don’t think this is fair to academics, first of all, although I do agree that a lot of academic writing sucks. But certainly not all of it does, and there is a lot that is quite good. I was just saying to the Hobgoblin the other day that one of the things I appreciate about my graduate training — training in academic writing largely — is that my professors really valued good writing. I struggled with my sentences when I was writing for them. Now, yes, anyone can trot out examples of bloated academic writing and crystal-clear essayistic writing, but I don’t think the opposition Slater sets up between academics and essayists holds up, and it’s this method of setting up false dichotomies that’s irritating me.

And then I’m not sure she recognizes that sometimes density of language is necessary and that there is a place for jargon. She says this about academic writing:

I also learned a lot about the language of academia, and this has helped me clarify principles I believe are relevant to the writing of good essays. Academia, at least the part I saw, thrives on jargon. For instance, it is not uncommon, on the Slater-Hater listserve, which has thankfully moved on to other discussions, to read this sort of thing: “We identified the same correlates for MMPI-2point codes types in VA men as Gilberstadt and Duker did for the same MMPI two point code types 40 years earlier.” Or, “Self-esteem as a construct has a validity rating of .02% when compared to a two tailed t-test reliability rating of 4.”

Now, these last sentences don’t make sense to me, but I’m sure they make sense to the group of scientists who were involved in the discussion, and, given that context, those two incomprehensible-to-me sentences are probably the best way of saying what the people involved wanted to say. There’s a place for specialized language, language it takes training to understand. Sometimes people use that language in order to confuse or mystify others or to make themselves sound smart, but sometimes they use it because it’s the best way of saying what they need to say to the people they want to say it to.

But I feel bad for getting irritated because Slater also says this in her introduction:

Being the object of such predation over an extended period of time has led me to think a lot about the critical role of kindness in writing and in life. It has led me to see that I, like the academics of whom I speak, have in the past written pieces with too much tooth, something the press generally rewards. I no longer write this way. I cannot abide ill will in my own work, and I dislike it when I see it in the work of others. I now believe that good writing, and good living, must have a core of gentleness.

So how can I get irritated with her when she speaks so well about kindness and gentleness?  How intensely annoying!


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

15 responses to “I’m irritated

  1. Cam

    I have this book but I think it is still in the bookstore bag — hasn’t even made it to the shelf yet! I should go dig it out and read this intro.

    I’m totally confused by the last sentence quoted. Writing must be gentle? What? While I too tire easily of a combative voice in some writing, I’m not sure that I understand what she means. Taken at face value since I haven’t read the complete article, this sentence seems rather pollyanna-ish. How can it be truthful if it is always gentle? As much as we wish it to be, life is not always that way. Is this a corollary to the quotes I’ve seen recently attributed to Zadie Smith regarding the morality of one’s prose style? (Sorry can’t reference as I pretty much scanned the posts & decided not interested in reading beyond the fold. Maybe I should have.)

    An interesting question to ponder: what is the essay? Is the selection of essays in this book representative of the genre, or only one person’s perspective of what constitutes the genre? Why compare the essay to academic prose? An academic paper is not the same thing as an essay. A magazine article is not the same thing as an essay. Yet, in some cases, an essay could be either academic or journalistic, right?

    It seems that Slater doesn’t see them as the same genre and yet seems to be bashing one because it doesn’t measure up to the (arbitrary) standards of the (superior) other genre. Is that gentle prose? (e.g., Your writing sucks but I’ll point out in a nice way what a fine example it has been with regards to stylistics considerations to avoid????)

    Am I just being completely dense here and so totally out of tune that I don’t understand the meaning of ‘gentle’, ‘kindness’ or ‘moral’ when referring to one’s style? I definitely need to go read this intro essay.


  2. Maybe it is due to the fact that I didn’t study lit in college, but some of what she wrote…whoosh went over my head to be honest (maybe I shouldn’t admit to that). Sometimes it is a little too convoluted, and are essays meant to be that way. I think I have the 2005 edition, but now I am going to have to check. It’s funny that she writes about gentleness in writing, but I am not entirely sure she exhibits that herself. But maybe it is just late and I need to read this in the morning. Luckily the essays will be by other authors!


  3. My comments pretty much echo Cam’s and Danielle’s. Someone needs to show up this Essay Bully mucking around in the Writing Playground.


  4. Kindness in writing? There must be something I’m missing here, otherwise I find it ludicrous, completely off the subject. Can you imagine what would be the result if, for example, Virginia Woolf or Balzac had decided to be gentle and kind in their writing? Even kindness in non-fiction doesn’t seem apt at all. If she means that too much sneering and finger-pointing is bad, it all depends on the writer’s skill, in my opinion.


  5. Del

    I don’t know that I think kindness is essential in writing, or in writing essays, but many of us do admire it in critics. I believe that Michael Dirda and Margaret Atwood, for example, both tend to refrain from reviewing books they don’t feel they can review positively. I wonder what such reviewers would have to say about the anthology you mention. I’ve recently finished it and share your sense of disappointment, though perhaps for somewhat different reasons. The collection seems to me to be top-heavy on the theme of death, for one thing, and some of the essays seem rather…well, one wonders what the point is. One wonders how far from her primary field a writer can reasonably be “allowed” to stray. As a musician, I’ve occasionally found the writings of famous scientists writing on musical themes to be misinformed, at best, but because the writers were well known as scientists, who would question their “wise” thoughts? Similiarly, I wonder what is reasonable to expect in the way of literary essays and anthologizing from a person who is primarily a psychiatrist?

    I’m also reading The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006 and finding it much more satisfying. I’ve avoided this series in the past, mistakenly thinking is was a Chicken Soup For the Soul kind of thing, but it strikes me so far as being a much more well-rounded collection of writing than the Best Essays 2006 volume.


  6. So how can I get irritated with her when she speaks so well about kindness and gentleness? How intensely annoying!

    Oh, I think this is a very easy thing to do and I think you are quite right to be annoyed. Here is a writer who has taken a stance and is now afraid (or seemingly afraid) to defend their position. That sort of “Why can’t we all just get along?” mentality is grating not to mention bor-ing.

    I’m not saying that kindness and gentleness aren’t good things. They are wonderful, but what is the point of reading a writer who can’t get worked up about something and then defend it when it comes under attack?

    Gee-whiz. That’s whole point of writing in the first place – to be passionate about something and to talk about it with anyone who will listen!

    Wow, I’m getting worked up here.

    This is a little like an old joke about Psychology and English majors. People who major in psychology are often trying to root out the cause of their own problems in hopes of a cure or just understanding. People who major in English know what is wrong, have no illusions about overcoming it, and are just trying to find the best way to tell the world all about it.


  7. I’d be annoyed too if I were you. I am confused as to why in her introduction to essays she feels the need to take swipes at academic writing. But then what gets me is the quote on being gentle and kind. So if she bashes other kinds and styles of writing in a gentle way it’s okay? If she’s inspired controversies, I wonder at her turnabout, if that’s what it is. Doesn’t seem very genuine. But then I’ve not read the intro or anything else by her so maybe it is sincere.

    Love Jamie’s joke! I work with pyschologists and I was an English major and it is evident that sometimes jokes have a grain of truth in them 🙂


  8. How interesting! Interesting, too, to see the different ways Slater’s quoted paragraphs can be interpreted.

    In the second quote, I assumed she meant that the essay was more personal and revealing of the author than fiction would be. Although both may assume a role, the essay is closer to the thoughts and emotions of the writer than even an autobiographical fictional character.

    While not all academic writing is unintelligible, a great deal of it in the last 3rd of the 20th century was almost coded in its use of jargon. I hate having to struggle with the meaning of each sentence. I love those critics who speak the vernacular and make their points clear. They are a pleasure to read and help me understand elements I might have missed.

    Even the statement of “too much tooth” I take to mean that Slater opposes the kind of criticism that resorts to savagery and personal attacks, and not that she opposes a frank and honest discussion. I agree with you on this one, Dorothy; I prefer a gentler approach to criticism.

    This is such a fascinating post; I may have to get the book!


  9. Hmmmm yes, I can quite see she’s annoying. ‘The academic learns to hide his insecurity behind bloated verbiage.’ Ok, so this statement is clearly not true across the board, but it’s presented ot only as if it were a correlated fact, but as if it tells a truth about a certain kind of writing. Then after all this to claim she’s kind and gentle! Grrrrr!


  10. As a matter of fact, I can testify that technical jargon writers often fail to do their best effort at conveying their complex ideas with simpler words. I am certain there is a bottom-rock level of jargon that we will always need (as in how would you name best a skew-hermitian sparse matrix?), but much too often do I read pieces where jargon-dropping acts as a decoy to conceal a concept either simplistic or immature.
    I am sure I’d have closed the book upon first encounter with the ‘brand of breadcrumbs’ bit, and burnt it outright, had I come across the ‘mind artery’ stuff. Maybe I am too much of a cartesian reader, but I just do not buy into this sort of puffy allegory.


  11. Love Jamie’s joke! I work with pyschologists and I was an English major and it is evident that sometimes jokes have a grain of truth in them

    You should be careful with that joke, Stefanie! I find that English majors always laugh, but the Psych majors usually frown. I’ve known one or two to get violent (and that counts the one I’m married to).

    I suppose it’s because they thought they were fooling someone. 😉


  12. Well, to address your question regarding Slater, I don’t find her worthwhile at all. I suppose I am one of the readers who doesn’t like her and find her books poorly-written self-indulgent go-nowhere pointless pieces of…
    okay, I’m taking a deep breath.

    ANYWAY, I have this collection sitting on my nightstand and hope to dig into it soon, although I for one will undoubtedly skip her introduction! If you do read her, please let me know what you thikn. I find her one of those writers who gets off on being controversial, who purposely writes in order to fulfill that space, and I just don’t think she’s a true essayist or even nonfiction writer.


  13. All right, I was going to agree with the irritability everyone else seems to be feeling here, but was completely sidetracked by Stefanie’s and Jamie’s comments: quite obviously I majored in psychology and minored in English, as, anyone who reads my blog knows, I spend lots of time rooting out the cause of all my problems, so I can tell the world all about it. (And I laughed at the joke.)


  14. Oh, thanks for all these great comments — I was feeling so mean for posting what I did, but now I feel justified! It’s interesting the way a lot of people object to Slater’s call to be kind — I feel conflicted about it, but mostly I agree with people that her call is disingenuous and just doesn’t make sense. I feel a little conflicted because I do think that intentionally mean criticism can be a problem, but for the most part, I think people have a duty to truth, not to kindness.

    Courtney — thanks for the perspective on Slater’s work — I was hoping to hear from someone who’s read more of her. I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading more of her work (although one never knows).


  15. Pingback: Snow day! (notes on reading) « Of Books and Bicycles

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