The Problem Is: You Write Too Well
During the last few years of my mother’s life, as the symptoms of her multiple myeloma worsened, she spent a lot of time in her doctor’s office. When I asked after each visit what he had said, she always claimed that he was “very pleased.” She said he’d assured her she was “doing really well.”
My mother’s sun-will-come-out-tomorrow outlook was one of her many appealing qualities. Unfortunately, it was a trait she did not pass on to me. After each visit I would interrogate her. What, exactly, did her doctor say? I wanted to know about the problems and the concerns; she never seemed to hear any. But I had spoken with the doctor directly about my mother’s illness, so I knew there were always problems and concerns.
I was reminded of the conflict between what people hear and what is actually being said last spring, when I spent a day talking with untenured professors about revising their dissertations into book manuscripts.
All of the faculty members I met had managed to score a great teaching job right out of graduate school. They had impressive pedigrees and a lot of enthusiasm. But many of them kept making the same strange remark—one that tends to pop up whenever I speak with folks who are hard at work massaging their dissertations into book manuscripts. “People on my dissertation committee,” explained several young scholars, “said that I write too well.”
At first those remarks made me wonder what kinds of idiots are overseeing the process of doling out Ph.D.’s. Are there really academics who spout such nonsense? If so, those people should be sued for scholarly malpractice.
The only thing that kept me from dismissing the claim outright is that there seems to be a general sense in academe—usually expressed only verbally—that if you write too clearly or too well, you will be punished. You have to prove that you’re a member of the club, that you’ve been initiated into the guild. That can mean conforming to models, even if they’re not good models.
The historian George M. Trevelyan wrote: “The idea that histories which are delightful to read must be the work of superficial temperaments, and that a crabbed style betokens a deep thinker or conscientious worker, is the reverse of the truth.” But adherence to a crabbed style is common in academe. Is it possible that academics exist who want to see their own bad prose, their hideous tics of mind and sentence, replicated in their students? Are there really people who would tell their students, “You write too well”?
It seems preposterous, beyond a caricature of academe. But after a recent column of mine, someone in the comments section wrote, without a trace of irony: “Isn’t ‘well written’ a subtle insult to most academics?”