Saturday, March 24, 2007

At the Times

Jonathan Rosen has an interesting piece about my colleague David Damrosch's new book on Gilgamesh. (Here's the Amazon link--sounds pretty interesting, eh?) Which also reminds me I meant to link to a piece David published a few weeks in the Chronicle of Higher Education (that link should work without a subscription) about the risks and rewards of academics writing "trade" books for a wider audience. Here are the opening paragraphs:

The American public has a deeply ambivalent attitude toward scholarship. Parents are eager to have their children taught by leading scholars but are often bemused by what the scholars actually do, particularly in their work outside the classroom. Regularly mocked as purveyors of arcane topics in clotted prose, professors often display a reciprocal ambivalence toward the general public. To call a young colleague's work "rather ... journalistic" is to signal a negative vote on tenure. As much as we might like to help shape public understanding on contentious issues — and to earn royalties in the tens of thousands of dollars rather than in the tens of dollars — we hesitate to set aside our highly honed analytical skills, our close attention to history, nuance, and shades of meaning, and start turning out sound bites in prose.

The problem isn't that academics "can't write," as is often claimed, but that we are typically engaged in what scholars of the Renaissance know as coterie writing. In 16th-century England, for instance, small groups of aristocrats such as Sir Philip Sydney, his sister Mary Herbert, and their circle would compose poems for their mutual entertainment, circulating them privately from one country estate to another. Scholars today may reach a somewhat larger circle, but most academic writing is part of a continuing conversation among a coterie of fellow specialists with common interests and a shared history of debate. Even for scholars who are elegant prose stylists, it isn't an easy matter to make the transition from writing for Milton's "fit audience, though few" to a larger but less fit readership.

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