Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Slow Reading and Slow Writing: A Return to the Art of the Essay

Have a read of Lindsay Waters, 'Slow Writing; or, Getting Off the Book Standard: What Can Journal Editors Do?', Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 40 (2009), 129-143, where he talks about the tyranny of the monograph in the academy and calls for a return to the art of the essay. He takes a fairly savage swipe at Žižek and his lack of clarity, and the tone of the article sometimes makes me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps this is not so much to do with me disagreeing, but more because I ask myself whether I am guilty of writing hermetically, for three other people who have written on the subject, or whether I do manage to express myself to an interested reader.

The article is deliberately provocative, and the critique of jargon is interesting, and likely won't be much appreciated by many, shall we say, theoretical scholars.
We need to slow down and remember that the essay has been the main form for humanistic discourse. The book is an outlier. Many of the writings that changed the direction a scholarly community was marching toward were essays. Think of Edward Said’s ‘Abecedarium Culturae’ or Paul de Man’s ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality,’ to stay in recent history and not begin, as I easily could, an epic catalogue from Montaigne’s ‘De l’amitié’ onward. Some of the most important books are collections of essays not unlike journals, sometimes assembled with no pretence at forging a unity of them, such as John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. (pp. 132-133)
In an article that looks at what the role of editors can be in this new world of the essay, he might have mentioned that Freccero's book might not have seen the light of day nor taken the form it did had it not been for the editorial work of Rachel Jacoff. And it might also be said that for publication purposes, edited volumes are not actually counted (they aren't for the RAE). This too surely needs to change.

Whatever one's views of Waters' article, surely one can never be reminded often enough of the importance of good writing, of craft, of making oneself understood and of being clear. Ars longa, vita brevis.

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