Part II: The anxieties I’ve faced & the changes I’ve made in developing my style
“Literature’s worth lies in its power of mystification, in mystification it has its truth; therefore a fake, as the mystification of a mystification, is tantamount to a truth squared.”
– Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller (1980)
“Tennyson’s aesthetical imperative renders the emotional expression in ‘Mariana’ an effusive endeavour.”
That’s the title I came up with for my first ever undergraduate essay.
If you don’t understand what it means, then congrats – you’re perfectly normal. I’ll also let you in on an embarrassing secret: I didn’t, and still don’t quite know what that sentence means. Being classic Jen, however, I went ahead and waxed faux scholarship on Tennyson anyway, thinking that my gung-ho efforts marked the instauration of a path to glorious professorship.
Eh, fat chance. The feedback that I got from my tutor Hannah was at best a kind of baffled bemusement, and at worst the worldly disdain of someone who’s ‘seen it all before’. Let’s just say it took me an entire year to convince her the way I write isn’t symptomatic of a “worrying lack of conceptual rigour” – a comment which I received in my first term report. And a most sobering one at that.
Don’t worry, Hannah, I actually know my stuff, I just have a thing for screwing my presentation up with florid fluff.
After all, my logic back then was that lit crit ain’t the real McCoy if people who aren’t lit critics can – god forbid – understand what lit critics (established and wannabe alike) are saying. I mean, I didn’t plough through them Derridean/Deleuzean/Spivakean labyrinths all these years for nothing. Heck, it didn’t even matter that I had no clue what ‘semiotic performativity’ or ‘strategic essentialism’ meant (or if they even mean anything to begin with), all I knew was that it sounded über-erudite and super cool, so surely, my 18 year-old self thought, if I incorporated these terms into my writing I’d too be über-erudite and super cool.
Three years down the line, I’m glad to say that I’ve now grown out of this (il)logic. These days, I believe that lucid intelligibility is far more superior to deliberate obscurantism, and those bygone days of me genuflecting at the shrine of Poststructuralist theorists are but a distant memory.
If I sound a bit sentimental, that’s probably because I am: it was, after all, a passionate love affair. Back in high school, I remember saving up for a copy of Hans Bertens’ Literary Theory: The Basics, and fangirling over Derrida’s smouldering mien while burying my head in Barthes’ S/Z. Upon starting a degree in English literature at just about the most English university you can get, though, my love goggles for French scholarship was all toast. ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say!’ became the clarion call of the day, but for the longest time I refused to obey (and no, I didn’t spice my prose up with triple end rhymes either, but that would have added to my tutors’ collective dismay anyway). (Ha – see what I did there?)
But here’s the million dollar question:
Why did I find it so hard to write simply and directly for so long?
And what appeal did I see in stuffing my prose with jargon and making it a chore for everyone to read?
With the benefit of hindsight, I can now offer several reasons:
- I wanted to come across as an aspiring literary theorist. And I thought my passion would manifest in a quasi-theoretical prose.
- I didn’t really know what I was saying most of the time, so I subconsciously thought to compensate for the dearth of ideas with an elaborateness in rhetoric
- As a second-language English speaker, I was self-conscious about the capability of my intelligence and the extent of my knowledge, so I sought to set myself apart from my peers by adopting a ‘niche’ style
- I thought I was being, well, über-erudite and super cool, innit.
Ever since my disillusionment with the ‘Theory’ behemoths, one of my favourite books has been Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (1997), in which the authors basically call the jargon-loving crew out on their opaque BS:
“Postmodernist writings use scientific (or pseudo-scientific) terminology without bothering much about what the words actually mean. They import concepts from the natural sciences into the humanities without giving the slightest conceptual or empirical justification [and] display a superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant. The goal is, no doubt, to impress and, above all, to intimidate the non-scientist reader, to manipulate phrases… [and] to exhibit a veritable intoxication with words, combined with a superb indifference to their meaning.”
Guilty as charged. It’s still somewhat embarrassing for me to admit, but to ‘impress’, ‘intimidate’ and ‘exhibit’ was exactly what I had set out to do at the start of first year, which of course backfired for as long as I kept my rhetorical freak show up.
To give you an idea of what a hyper-exhibitionist wreck I was, I’d call Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady a “meta-trompe l’oeil” without understanding what a ‘trompe l’oeil’ actually is, bulk up my ‘Middlemarch and gender’ essay with polysyllabic mouthfuls like “a defining encapsulation of George Eliot’s dialectical wisdom”, and mindlessly bandy about buzzwords such as ‘liminal’, ‘segue’, ‘paradigmatic’ etc. The worst thing, though, is that I wasn’t even coming up with ground-breaking or mind-blowing theories. I was literally just hijacking bits of what I thought sounded sexy, and littering them all over my essays like they be piñata confetti*.
Interestingly, I’ve come to realise that there is a direct correlation between self-confidence and style. When I first started my degree, I was pretty much the picture of Dorothy in Oz sans Toto, trying to navigate my way solo through a routine of weekly essays before I could even say Kansas. As a way to cover up my anxiety, then, I resorted to showcasing false confidence by trumpeting ‘big words’, thinking that this would somehow make up for what I thought were ‘small ideas’ on my part. But gradually, I grew to realise that this approach just won’t fly, and that inaccessible literary criticism is nothing but a bunch of words whose existence won’t ever extend beyond the ivory-tower guarded archives of JSTOR.
My Eureka moment, however, didn’t really hit until I had a chat with a cocky but exceptionally talented English student on one occasion last year**:
ME: “You do so well mate, but to be honest I don’t think the others are any less intelligent or hard-working as you. Why don’t you gimmie the skinny on your Midas’ touch?”
HIM: “Heh – whenever I go to lectures and see everyone lapping up whatever the critics have to say about a certain work/author, I laugh. What these people don’t realise is that they’ve got no creativity! They don’t really know what they themselves think about anything, so all they can do is rewrite some shit someone else has already said about something, and then repackage it in their own words, which, of course, is always going to be inferior to the original. I just say what I think. That’s it, really.”
At that moment, I realised this was exactly what I’ve not been doing – saying what I wanted to say, and more importantly, believing that what I had to say was valuable on its own terms. This is why, for the longest time, I couldn’t understand the ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’ principle: I was never really saying what I meant about anything. Instead, I would always try to paraphrase viewpoints already expressed, or reproduce theories already posited by others. Deep down, I knew that I was too self-conscious to put my real opinions out there, because I was afraid that people would laugh at whatever I had to say, that somehow my views just didn’t hold much weight or contained enough depth.
Our exchange marked a watershed for me though, because since then I’ve basically resolved to just say whatever the sodding hell I want to say about literature. If I didn’t like a certain poem, I’d explain why I didn’t like it; if I thought a specific work resonated with me, I’d talk about why and how it was wonderful to me; if I didn’t really agree with a theory, I made damn sure to question its validity and challenge its assumptions. In other words, the former ‘I’ of self-doubt gave way to a more courageous and less self-conscious ‘I’, which has in turn taken precedence over critic ‘A’ or theorist ‘B’ in my writings.
Suffice it to say that from then onwards, my relationship with criticism and style has become a lot healthier. That energy I once used for the unthinking endorsement of others, I’ve now invested into the uninhibited expression of my personal thoughts.
And I’m happy to say that it’s been a surprisingly liberating ride so far.
*Love that I’m on a rhyming streak today – note that it’s usually alliteration.
**Not after a few drinks on his part though, so if his words seem a bit dickish, I’d put it down to liquid honesty.
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