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!