Not long ago, this column took up the perennial issue of academic prose and how it gets that way. On hand, fortunately, was Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, a smart and shrewd volume that avoids mere complaint or satirical overkill.
Bad scholarly writing is, after all, something like Chevy Chase’s movie career. People think that making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: to borrow Todd Berry’s assessment of his comedic colleague, “It’s as easy as looking at fish in a barrel. It’s as easy as being somewhere near a barrel.” Besides, it’s gone on for at least 500 years (the mockery began with Rabelais, if not before) so it’s not as if there are many new jokes on the subject.
But Billig did make an original and telling point in his critique of pure unreadability – one I neglected to emphasize in that earlier column. It has come into clearer view since then thanks to a new book by Carl H. Klaus called A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (University of Iowa Press).
Klaus is professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa and founder, there, of the Nonfiction Writing Program. He is also a practitioner and critic of the genre of the personal essay, and A Self Made of Words seems largely addressed to the students, formal or otherwise, who want to learn the craft. Scholarly discourse rarely assumes the guise of the personal essay, of course. But Klaus’s insights and advice are not restricted to that literary form, and his book should have a tonic effect on anyone who wants his or her writing to do more than paint gray on gray.
To put it another way, A Self Made of Words doesn't stress writing in the personal voice, but rather the persona that always operates in writing, of whatever variety, whether formal or informal, autobiographical or otherwise.
Klaus wrote an earlier book called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa), which I have not had a chance to read, but I assume he there goes into the original use of the word persona, meaning, in Latin, a mask, of the stylized kind ancient actors wore on stage to project a character. The author of even the flattest and most objective or empirically minded paper creates or displays a persona while writing: one that is self-effacing and indistinct, yes, but that manifests its authority through self-effacement and the absence of first- and second-person communication.
Impersonality, in other words, implies a persona. So does the introspective voice and intimate tone of a memoirist, with countless shades of formality and casualness, of candor and disguise, possible in between. The persona is not something that stands behind or apart from the written work, though it may seem to do so. The raw material of the persona is language itself -- not just the vocabulary or syntax an author uses, but the differences in intonation that come from using contractions or avoiding them, from the mixture of concrete and abstract terms, and from the balance of long and short words.
Klaus devotes most of the new book to how those elements, among others, combine to create effective writing -- which is, in his words “the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of our communication.” It is not a style guide but a course of instruction on the options available to the writer who might otherwise be unable to craft a persona fit to purpose.
Which, alas, is often the case. Michael Billig did not discuss the academic author’s persona in his book on how to write badly and influence tenure committees – at least, not as such. But it is implicit in his argument about how apprentice scholars orient themselves within the peculiar, restricted language-worlds their elders have created while fighting to establish their claims to disciplinary claims.
In effect, they learn how to write by wearing the personae they’ve been given. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; the experience can be instructive. But the pressure to publish (and in quantity!) makes it more economical to rely on a prefabricated writerly persona, stamped out in plastic on an assembly line, rather than to shape one, as Klaus encourages the reader to do.