Just the other day. Just the other day someone asked me if I thought that academic writing was becoming more ‘authentic’. I didn’t really understand what this meant. But then I got it – ‘authentic’ writing was when academic writers no longer had to contort themselves into writing straitjackets. Write as if they have been taken over by some kind of remote, generic writing genie. Forced to write stuffy, distant and excessively formal prose. Conform to a style of academic writing that William Germano often refers to as inert. Instead, the authentic writer could write as if they were more ‘themselves’.
I had to think a bit about my answer. What choices do academic writers now have, I wondered.
It is certainly now possible for academic writers to make poetry, social fiction, narratives and very experimental texts. There are journals that specialise in these kinds of writings, and others that are not entirely closed off to more experimental texts. There are examiners who are happy to see dissertations written in different genres and media. And you can now buy any number of academic books where writers have played with structure and style. All of these texts now pass the muster as academic because they argue, produce evidence and offer explanations which are connected with other scholarly works, often works that are written in a more conventional register and format.
And many scholars, in and out of the academy and across disciplines, now write for a range of audiences and publications. These writers have had to adjust their writing practices. They learn to switch their writing to suit their purpose and context. For many, this means learning to write in more relaxed ways, using less technical terms and more imaginative examples and categories. They use language, syntax and style tailored for different readers.
However, there are truckloads of academic publications where the writing is more restrained and perhaps constrained. Where changes in academic genres and styles seem not to have made any impression. Now, I haven’t done a formal study of writing genres and styles journals and books. But my hunch, as a regular reader of some of the more conventional journals is tha, even here in the bastions of formal scholarship, there are some signs that writers are loosening up.
Perhaps this is a result – Result!!!- from the relatively recent urgings for academic writers to make their writing clearer. To become more “stylish” as Helen Sword puts it. Perhaps it is because graduate schools pay more attention to writing. Maybe it is also in part the influence of an exponentially increased quantum of writing advice, books, courses, coaches, workshops and retreats. Mea culpa.
Whilet it does seem that those who want to write a touch less formally and/or insert a bit more individuality into their writing are now generally able to do so, you can still find a lot of writing where writers don’t. Won’t. (Can’t?) There’s still enough tortured prose out there for critics to take pot shots at. To write those columns about how academics can’t write. To give out smart-arse prizes for the most obscure and difficult to grasp text. Apologies for the slightly off colour term here, but I can’t think of a better one.
I’d like to think that the day of the smart arse writing critic and dead academic texts are coming to an end. And that there is enough evidence to suggest that this is true.
But what do you think? How would you sum up the current state of academic writing? Are the textual experiments just interesting activities in the margins? Or they are one end of a writing practice that is expanding and in flux? Are the various audit practices that exist in various countries pushing people to stay within narrow genres and styles? Or are audit criteria the last stands of disciplinary tribes whose writing practices are under duress? Ghosts of texts and practices past. Or is academic writing just not what it used to be? Do academic writers have more choice than ever before? Are we now taking the craft of writing seriously?
I’m still thinking about my answer to the question I was asked. Is academic writing becoming more ’authentic’? I’m not sure I know an answer.