December 3, 2004

All happy families  

Caleb McDaniel is hosting a Good Writing Contest (cf the Bad Writing Contest I mentioned below) so if you know of any stunning passages that have been published in the past year, you should send them his way. On his way to the announcement, he spells out the interests that motivate this debate and tries to see beyond them:

Heated exchanges about academic writing have the flavor of a family feud: both sides claim to have the family's best interests at heart, and indeed, both sides may be right. The poststructuralists got their start trying to save the humanities from one of their former stalkers -- scientistic structuralism. What happens when one takes off the sheep's clothing to expose a wolf, and finds another sheep inside?

Call me an optimist, but I suspect the humanities are more hearty and hale as disciplines than many of their disciples seem to think. I boldly predict that something like the humanities will exist as long as humanity does. And I further modestly propose that for every sentence of "bad writing" one can point to in a journal of the humanities, someone else could produce countless counterexamples of "good writing."

All this may sound sensible enough, but he's already being warned in comments about the dangers of trying to arbitrate taste -- and this despite the humble disclaimer at the end of his post! Is it surprising that the idea of good writing should fall in so easily with the idea of bad writing? Look again at how naturally the critiques of the Bad Writing Contest could apply to Caleb's Good Writing Contest as well:
  1. bad writing allegations are as old as Socrates' denunciation of the Sophists, figures who, Ferguson recalls, "were foreigners, 'provincials' (in the eyes of Athenians) who lacked legal standing in Athens" (p. 15);
  2. the Bad Writing Award is unfair and high-handed, "a matter of bad faith to take a single sentence out of context and charge it with obfuscation" (Culler, p. 43);
  3. the clarity Dutton et al. prize is, in fact, an unstable political concept, always begging the question, Michael Warner notes, "Clarity for whom?" (p. 115); and
  4. the language of "good writing" is inadequate to "the experience of women and minorities" (McCumber, p. 66), who are bound to speak an unfamiliar language as they acquire equal rights and political power
Does this mean good writing is just as bad as bad writing? I don't know, but it seems clear that politics and aesthetics aren't working very well together. Perhaps figuring out how to write them both into the same sentence -- with or without all the offending commas and hyphens -- is a worthy preoccupation for the everlasting humanities Caleb boldly predicts? Keep this in mind when you send him your entries!

Abigail Byers  {November 12, 2008}


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