One of the most characteristic and annoying tendencies in academic writing is the excessive use of signposting: here’s what I’m going to do, here I am doing it, and here’s what I just did. You can trim a lot of text from your next paper (and earn the gratitude of your readers) by just telling your story instead of continually anticipating this story.
Here is a lovely take-down of an academic author who made the mistake of getting on Geoff Dyer’s nerves. Enjoy. The original from the New York Times.
New York Times
July 22, 2011
An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece
By GEOFF DYER
In this column I want to look at a not uncommon way of writing and structuring books. This approach, I will argue, involves the writer announcing at the outset what he or she will be doing in the pages that follow. The default format of academic research papers and textbooks, it serves the dual purpose of enabling the reader to skip to the bits that are of particular interest and — in keeping with the prerogatives of scholarship — preventing an authorial personality from intruding on the material being presented. But what happens when this basically plodding method seeps so deeply into a writer’s makeup as to constitute a stylistic signature, even a kind of ongoing flourish or extravagance?
Before continuing I will say something here about how I was drawn to this area of research. In the course of writing an article about the photographer Thomas Struth, I remembered that the highly regarded art historian Michael Fried had a chapter on Struth in his book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” (2008), henceforth WP. I’d read only a little of Fried before, but I knew that his earlier “Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot” (1980) was regularly referred to and quoted by art historians. I will show later that one of those art historians is Fried himself, but as soon as I started to consult WP I realized I was reading something quite extraordinary: a masterpiece of its kind in that it takes the style of perpetual announcement of what is about to happen to extremes of deferment that have never been seen before. Imminence here becomes immanent.
I’ll come to the rest of the book later. Here I will simply remark that the first page of Fried’s introduction summarizes what he intends to do and ends with a summary of this summary: “This is what I have tried to do in ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.’ ” The second page begins with another look ahead: “The basic idea behind what follows. . . . ” Fair enough, that’s what introductions are for, and it’s no bad thing to be reassured that the way in which the overall argument will manifest itself “in individual cases will become clear in the course of this book.” Page 3 begins: “The organization of ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ is as follows. . . . ” Well, O.K. again, even if it is a bit like watching a rolling news program: Coming up on CNN . . . A look ahead to what’s coming up on CNN. . . . More striking is the way that even though we have only just got going — even though, strictly speaking, we have not got going — Fried is already looking back (Previously on “NYPD Blue” . . . ) on what he did in such earlier books as “Art and Objecthood” and “Absorption and Theatricality.” The present book will not be like those earlier ones, however, “as the reader of ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ is about to discover.”
What the reader discovers, however, is that Fried will continue to announce what he’s about to do right to the end: “Later on in this book I shall examine . . . ”; “I shall discuss both of these after considering . . . ”; “I shall also be relating. . . . ” Fried’s brilliance, however, is that in spite of all the time spent looking ahead and harking back he also — and it’s this that I want to emphasize here — finds the time to tell you what he’s doing now, as he’s doing it: “But again I ask . . . ” ; “Let me try to clarify matters by noting . . . ”; “What I want to call attention to. . . . ” But that’s not all: the touch of genius is that on top of everything else he somehow manages to tell you what he is not doing (“I am not claiming that . . . ”), what he has not done (“What I have not said . . . ”) and what he is not going to do (“This is not the place for . . . ”). On occasions he combines several of these tropes in dazzling permutations like the negative-implied-forward and the double-backward — “So far I have said nothing in this conclusion about Barthes’s ‘Camera Lucida,’ which in Chapter 4 I interpreted as a consistently antitheatrical text even as I also suggested . . . ” — before reverting, a paragraph later, to the tense endeavor of the present (i.e., telling us what he’s still got to do): “One further aspect of Barthes’s text remains to be dealt with.” There is, I would observe here, a kind of zero-sum perfection about the way the theatricality of the flamboyant, future-oriented sign-posting is matched by all the retrospection. The depths of self-absorption that makes this possible are hard to fathom.
It could be argued that this is essentially an academic habit, and that Fried is faithfully observing the expected conventions — so faithfully that he has become an unconscious apostate. If academia elevates scholarly and impersonal inquiry above the kind of nutty, fictional, navel-gazing monologues of Nicholson Baker, then Fried is at once its high camp apotheosis and its disintegration into mere manner.
Lest you think I have been quoting unfairly, take a break here and run your eyes over a couple of pages of WP in a library or bookstore. You’ll be amazed. You’ll see that this is some of the most self-worshiping — or, more accurately, self-serving — prose ever written. I kept wondering why an editor had not scribbled “get on with it!” in huge red letters on every page of the manuscript — and then I realized that the cumulative flimflam was the it! And at that moment, as I hope to show, everything changed.
Suppose that you meet someone who is a compulsive name-dropper. At first it’s irritating, then it’s boring. Once you have identified it as a defining characteristic, however, you long for the individual concerned to manifest this trait at every opportunity — whereupon it becomes a source of hilarity and delight. And so, having experienced a crescendo of frustration, I now look forward to a new book in which Fried advances his habit of recessive deferral to the extent that he doesn’t get round to what he wants to say until after the book is finished, until it’s time to start the next one (which will be spent entirely on looking back on what was said in the previous volume). At that point he will cross the border from criticism to the creation of a real work of art (fiction if you will) called “Kiss Marks on the Mirror: Why Michael Fried Matters as a Writer Even More Than He Did Before.”
Geoff Dyer is the author, most recently, of “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 1989-2010.” His “Reading Life” column will appear regularly in the Book Review.