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Thursday, 04 May 2006

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Mike S

Scott, perhaps you're a good person to ask this question: Is it me, or do some grad students have an intense, almost paralyzing fear of sounding "overwrought," as you put it? I mean, if ever there were a discipline in which sounding overwrought was somehow a virtue, English would be it. Before going further, let's take a stab at defining "overwrought." How's this: prose that is unnecessarily long-winded, self-indulgent, and/or ornate. Prose that uses "declaim" instead of "cry." Prose that is somehow a bit "much."

And isn't this all a matter of taste?

As I was saying, overwrought is not a word that most of us would like to have used to describe our prose. But aren't some of our favorite writers unbelievably overwrought? How about them Victorians? How about Henry James? How about Fitzgerald? Ginny Woolf can even get a tad purple at times. But do we lambaste these writers for their being overwrought on occasion? More often we call them eloquent and poetic and brilliant. Their prose sparkles. It rarely glares.

So I ask you why grad students (especially of the English Lit variety) and critics praise a quality in canonical writers that in their own writing is the very thing they abhor.

N. Pepperell

I'm fairly sure that this was one of the first posts I read here, although I didn't read it when it was originally posted - I stumbled across somehow while looking for materials to help communicate writing skills to undergraduates, some time in October 2005, I think... I didn't use it for my undergraduates - their problems were at a more... fundamental level - but I did bookmark the site... ;-P

Rich Puchalsky

Since this is one of the few blog posts that has had a poem written about it (no, I won't bother to re-quote the whole thing one more time) I should point out that the lines "Looking back / (the cyborg runs, headless)[...] Looking back, tapping, / For one last unfired" predicted this re-commenting behavior of yours...

Who was it, in another thread recently, who wrote that when they felt that they weren't writing well, they liked to re-read old writings that people had once congratulated them on? I wrote that for many people, this would just result in self-slagging of the old writings. I expect that in another year, there will be another version of this post with more comments which will in part criticize your older comments. After many years, the accreted layers may build the thing back up into something like the length of the original essay. More years after that, it'll be, "you know, I don't see what was so bad about my honors thesis, for its time" and you'll write a whole new piece about trying to understand your younger self-criticizing self, except this time it'll be the much-revised "How Not to Open, Close or Anything In-Between an Academic Essay, A Decade Later" text that you'll be slagging.

Don't get me wrong, each step of the process is entertaining. But it is like watching something between the discovery of perpetual motion and the the ecosystemic recycling of some rare raw material. It'd be difficult to judge whether it's open, closed, or anything in between.

Craig

Another way to look it at: if you didn't think that things your wrote in undergrad, or during your M.A., or during PhD coursework weren't naive, silly, over-the-top, etc, then I'd suspect there is something wrong with you! I look at things I wrote last fall and I cringe.

This likely -- or so I've convinced myself -- accounts for why I haven't put anything through peer review for publication. I don't want my first serious essay to be a piece of shit or something I'm embarassed about in five years.

I'll disclaim that the style of my most recent piece was described as both "excellent and well written" and "academic and boring". No one, at least, complained that it was too over-wrought or filled with convoluted, hard to follow sentences. This isn't to say that I subscribe to some sort of plain-language ideology, mind you.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Mike, "overwrought" is my favorite word to describe "overwritten" prose because of the false etymological connection, i.e. it looks like its past tense. I think the problem with overwrought prose, however, is simply that it's overwrought given the context. Here, in a blog post, it's unnecessary. Sometimes I do it for effect, but sometimes it's just a failing of the medium, in that it's very rarely edited more than two or three times over, at most, two or three days, so there's no opportunity to prune what's written. That said, my dissertation's incredibly overwrought right now, because I'm more concerned with producing pages than prose, but at some point in the near future I'm going to need to correct that. Contra Craig, I'm a bit of a plain-language ideologue, in that I believe there's no need to make complex subjects even more complex by "describing" or "explaining" them in complex prose.

The writers I admire boil down the complexity into digestible bits. And, to be frank, I don't trust authors who don't; by which I mean, I don't believe they've fully understood the material if they're not able to communicate its content in prose any person of above-average intelligence could understand with a little effort. This isn't an argument against "difficult prose," then, but "needlessly difficult prose." Prose in which the difficulty has some other, ostentacious and/or lazy and/or both origin. Because there's a difference between terrible prose--say, Talcott Parsons--and needlessly difficult prose.

That said, I agree with Craig, although I'd accelerate his time-scale. I wince when I re-read what I've written the day before and curse the stupidity, hubris and laziness which contributed to its "quality."

N.P., in my dreams my sparkling prose will convert non-blog readers into regular blog readers, but alas! you already had a blog when you stumbled upon mine. That said, I'm so glad you did. Rich too, for that matter, although I don't think he "stumbled" so much as followed the links.

Rich, as I stood at third base acquiring bruises the size of softballs yesterday, I actually regretted not creating a more elaborate and entertaining gloss. The ruse, however, was no ruse, as I was pressed for time but desirous to keep up my non-systemic-TypePad-failure-streak of posting alive. So I could start the meta-meta-commenting today, if need be. I actually like the Borgesian quality of the project you outline. I need never write another blog post; I can simply continue to comment, to refine, to perfect the posts I've already written. In the end, I'll have a full account of both 2005-06, but also of all the things I wrote about in that period. Then I could sell it as a novel, and everyone would read it and refer to each chapter in shorthand. "Wow, Fred, sounds like you had one of Scott's Mornings . . ."

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