Critical Intellectuals on Writing

A neglected book offers insights into how prominent scholars produce their work. Scott McLemee makes a recommendation.

November 10, 2010

In 2003, the State University of New York Press published a collection of interviews called Critical Intellectuals on Writing, which received a handful of reviews, and sold a few hundred copies, but did not create much of a splash. That has always puzzled me a little. I’ve reread the book (or at least grazed around in it for a while) once or twice per year since it came out and found it, above all, a useful volume. It is a stimulant. It jump-starts my brain and provokes the urge to work.

It is not habit-forming, in the usual sense. But it is helpful for generating some perspective on one’s intellectual and writerly routines -- the first step towards forming new habits.

Critical Intellectuals on Writing contains excerpts from discussions with more than two dozen prominent figures in the humanities. You have Judith Butler and Richard Rorty; Donald Davidson and Luce Irigaray; Stanley Fish and lesser fishes. (A complete list is available here.) The transcripts originally appeared in JAC, which used to be known as the Journal of Advanced Composition. At some point the journal dropped that title while rebranding itself as “a forum for interdisciplinary inquiry into rhetoric, writing, culture, and politics.”

The volume’s editors are Gary A. Olson, who is now provost at Idaho State University, and Lynn Worsham, now a professor of English there. Their introduction makes a distinction between academic writing, which is “inherently conservative inasmuch as it seeks … to fulfill the relatively narrow and policed goals and interests of a given discipline or profession” and intellectual work proper, which they define as “relentlessly critical, self-critical, and potentially revolutionary.”

This passage was cited with interest by one of the few bloggers to have noticed Critical Intellectuals on Writing. I’m not about to rain on the parade of anybody who finds the distinction to be novel. If someone wants to use the book as a kind of introductory Whitman Sampler of critical theories, then that’s O.K. too. But to my mind, its value lies elsewhere.

Most of the interview extracts focus on composition -- the process of turning one’s ideas into words on a page. (Or hard drive, as often as not.) The exchanges usually begin with some variation on the question, "Do you think of yourself as a writer?" The discussions often go on to descriptions of work methods and reflections on how the act of writing and the process of thinking influence each another.

There are occasional bits of intellectual autobiography or rejoinders to what the interview subject may consider misreadings of his or her work. While sometimes interesting, they are not why I revisit the volume every so often. There are scores of books by and about most of these figures, but Critical Intellectuals on Writing is the only place you get a glimpse into their workshops.

The famous Paris Review interviews – running to several volumes, and now available online – did this sort of thing for novelists and poets, of course. But this may be the first time anyone has documented this many of the ceremonies dedicated to the lesser muses of theoretical prose and scholarly nonfiction.

I turn to Critical Intellectuals on Writing when my own productive routines seem to be collapsing or (worse) turning into a rut. This doesn’t mean I raid it for alternative methods or models to imitate, exactly. Rather, it is a matter of gaining energy from the accounts of how other people go about the work. Their reflections on the process -- including the moments of difficulty or perplexity – seem to recharge my own batteries.

Without claiming that it conveys the full depth or variety of the book, I'll offer a quick anthology of memorable passages.

The philosopher Donald Davidson recalls how a friend suggested that the way to write a paper was “to begin by asking a question that anybody could understand or by posing a problem in such a way that anyone would see that it was a problem.” He says he followed this approach for a long time and found it useful – but still finds himself getting tied into knots.

“I often imagine the first sentence,” he says, “and then ask myself, ‘Wait! What comes next?’ Pretty soon, I’m writing the whole paper in my head, and any problems in the composition or organization of the text stops me from writing the first sentence for fear that I would somehow be trapped. When I do finally write something, I often find that the first couple of pages, which usually sort of ease me into the subject, are better left out. So, I’ll throw away these painfully constructed early pages completely.”

Slavoj Žižek pursues exactly the opposite course in composing his psychoanalytic and philosophical writings. “I never write in my head,” he says. “I don’t begin with an entire line of thought in my head. I write in complex units – let’s call them ‘abstract units’ – in which each unit develops one line of thought, usually in three or four pages, and these units more or less correspond to the subchapter headings in my books. I simply write these units and then it’s a matter of how to combine them into larger units…. You can imagine how much I had to copy, cut, and paste – using scissors and tape – before personal computers, so PCs come in very handy.”

The linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky, who publishes a new book every other Thursday, indicates that he almost never sits down to plan one in any detail. When he decides to produce something, it is usually “because I’ve thought about most of it before, or lectured on it before, or written a letter to someone about it.”

The word processor had a transformative effect on his writing: “I discovered that there were a lot of things I could do that I’d never done before. For example, I’d never done much editing, simply because it was too much trouble; I didn’t want to retype everything. And I never did much in the way of inserting and rearranging and so on. Now I do a fair amount of that because it’s so easy. Whether that shows up differently for the reader, I don’t know. But I know I’m writing quite differently.”

Many of the interviews were conducted in the 1990s -- so the topic of how shifting to the use of computers has influenced the writing process tends to come up often. Today it will seem mildly antiquarian to read the account by J. Hillis Miller, the paleo-deconstructionist literary critic, of how he produced his early work:

“There was a period a long time ago,” Miller recalls, “when I wrote on a typewriter and then revised with a pen, writing things up and down the margins and on the backs of pages. Then there was a long period, essentially when I was at Yale, when I wrote longhand in notebooks. That allowed me to revise on the page and on the back of the page. (If you were to see those notebooks, you’d find them totally illegible.) Then I would read the manuscript onto a tape; it would be typed by a secretary; then I would revise it; and it would have to be typed again.”

For some reason the term “phallogocrat” comes to mind. Now he uses a Mac.

During a recent rereading of Critical Intellectuals on Writing, one set of reflections jumped out as especially interesting and suggestive. In it, the feminist philosopher Sandra Harding describes her strategy of writing with an eye to finding the toughest knots or obstacles in her own thinking.

"I usually start with an argument in mind – some view I’m criticizing, not necessarily an individual, but some assumption or some claim – and develop a little paragraph or argument.” She creates an outline, then prepares “little abstracts of the arguments in different sections, and then I start on whatever I think is the hardest section to write.”

This means going “from an abstract to an outline to say a six-page version of a forty-page paper, and then I pick whatever's the most problematic aspect – the thing that I can’t envision, that’s least clear to me – and I try to write that section up into, say, a ten-page version. (I am for a paper that’s at least fifty percent longer than what I’m going to have to end up with.) Then I go back and work with the other sections, kind of growing them up and keeping them in balance with each other…”

Putting the first draft aside for a few weeks, she may return to find that “the paper is not where I thought it was.” This means starting over. “My computer directory is full of these different versions of the paper,” she says, “and later I may go and take a paragraph or a section out of one after I’ve got the second paper well formulated.” This is not just composition by accretion but writing as process of discovery.

The novelist John Gregory Dunne once stated that "writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe." There is something valuable about this sort of demystification. The interest of Critical Intellectuals on Writing is not that it defends "the pure good of theory" but that it respects the craft of plumbing. Or so it seems to me.

Two more final thoughts. As noted, the book was published in 2003. In the interim, the very nature of writing and publication have changed, and "composition" now can include building a website or collaborating in ways that go beyond earlier forms of co-authorship. If someone decided to prepare such a book in a few years, it might encompass very different sorts of conversations from these.

Meanwhile, I'll recommend the book to people trying to think about their own habits and attitudes about writing -- and point out that, after several rounds of purging my overcrowded bookshelves, it has survived. But then, that's also because Critical Intellectuals on Writing is not really available in e-book format. (It seems there was a PDF at one point, but that's not the same thing.) SUNY Press should consider this a hint.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top