The other day, I had a discussion with our acting director on what are the standards for good writing. As a graduate student, I have witnessed numerous writing styles published in academic journals. Some are written in straightforward plain English; some are less accessible to read, as those written by Derrida, Lacan, Spivak, and Homi Bhabha. Whenever I attempt to read these great thinkers, I would often find myself trying to single out the main arguments from their obscure styles—convoluted syntax, jargon with special connotations, and complicated sentence structures. I have heard people complain about these authors: “Their writings are too incomprehensible!” “Why can’t they write in a more reader-friendly way?” My discussion with the acting director on the standards of good English writing remained unresolved. We were uncertain whether it is appropriate for us to decide if these great thinkers compose good writings, but we agreed without any doubts that these authors are super intelligent.
Bearing in mind the question of what makes good writing, I started to read one of Barbara Johnson’s essays “Bad Writing.” In this short article, Johnson defends at least three types of “bad writings.” One of these “bad” qualities lies in obscurity—that readers assume a text to be bad if it is difficult to read. “‘Don’t understand!’ becomes an accusation,” and readers blame the “incomprehensible writing” as “the cause of incomprehension” (Johnson 160). However, Johnson argues, it is unfair to critique authors simply because their works are difficult to read. Readers can at least suspend their judgment and reflect more on their own reading attitudes, skills and strategies (Johnson 160). Johnson notes, “[a]fter the theory revolution it is no longer possible so serenely to separate style from thinking, idea from language” (162). In other words, complex theoretical thoughts sometimes require convoluted expressions. Style and thoughts are in a unity. Reading thus becomes demanding. To appreciate such complexity needs a set of advanced reading skills that readers can hardly achieve unless they are properly trained. No other way out.
Therefore, obscure works are not a result of bad writings. They are just difficult to read, foreign to our established mindsets. To read them needs time and reflection. Johnson notes “[u]nderstanding the conceptual breakthrough … depends on pausing there long enough” (164). She also points out, “[t]hought as a break is different from thought as a chain” (165). Whenever we pause and attempt to comprehend the obscure writings, the fluency of reading is surely to be interrupted, but the breaks are also chances for our mindsets to welcome transitions. To digest new and complex knowledge cannot be an easy task. It needs time and effort.
Last semester, a course instructor criticized my writing style as convoluted and complex. She also mentioned that I failed to follow the spirit of Barbara Johnson who can express complicated arguments in a clear and accessible way. Such accusations made me feel so anxious to the extent that I started to deliberately avoid composing complex sentences. I was disappointed that she did not appreciate the designs I embedded in the selection of words and paragraph organizations that were intended to respond to the main arguments and to relate the resources I read. I understood that my reader-instructor expected a style of clarity. But what if my arguments are complicated and they need complex organizations? Does a student assignment have to be explicit direct and simple-minded? Does it mean a complicated student assignment can only be marked as a product of bad writing? After reading Johnson’s essay, I might challenge the instructor’s critique: why can’t the instructor follow the spirit of Barbara Johnson to read—to pause and reflect when reading a student’s assignment?
Should the instructor respond to me, she might say it is both impossible and unnecessary to invest so much time in reading a student’s assignment. If a student has complicated ideas, they have to be expressed in an explicitly direct manner so that instructors can comprehend them at first glance. I can understand this excuse. Nowadays, instructors are often so fully occupied with teaching duties, research tasks and administrative jobs that they can hardly spend more time than necessary on reading students’ assignments. Within the limited time, instructors don’t expect to encounter obscure works at the student level. Otherwise, they might tend to assume the convoluted writings are a product when students fail to try harder to express in a clearer way. However, in the meantime, we will find instructors tend to spend hours readings the obscure works of Derrida and Lacan. Why can’t they spare more time on the obscure students’ writings? The disparities in writers’ academic achievements and social status are another factor to affect instructors’ reading attitudes and expectations. As Johnson notes, most obscure works will keep being condemned by most readers until they enter into the canon, and only since then, readers can attempt to appreciate the poetic genius in the obscurity (160). As for students’ works, they are far from being recognized by academia, not to mention the canon. No wonder instructors tend to underestimate the possible significance and academic contributions in students’ writings. At the student level, writing styles are supposed to yield to the expectations of their readers.
Cruel reality, isn’t it? What can we do? Can we still write like Derrida if we have complicated thoughts to express? The strategy I propose is to keep writing. Keep writing the way colonized writers “write back” to colonizing powers in postcolonial studies. Like them, we can use writing to issue our subaltern voices when we practice complicated thoughts. Keep writing in the spirit of Derrida’s “as if.” Write as if we are complicated scholars, who always attempt to develop sharp arguments while balancing between complex ideas and the accessibility for readers. Keep writing with a consciousness to look for potential quality readers in academia—compose quality papers, send them to journals, respond to feedback from editors and reviewers, and try to get them published.
Now, we can repeat the question “Why can’t I write like Derrida?” in a plain tone, without agitation or anxiety. Repeat it as a rhetorical question because it no longer is an unsolved problem. I can write like Derrida, but sometimes, I choose not to. Now, I will consider the factors, such as context, reader and genre, before I make the decision whether it is necessary to write like Derrida.