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« This Week's Acquisitions | Main | Blackie's "Library of Great Novelists," c. 1900 »

December 04, 2004


New Kid on the Hallway

This isn't an example of a good writer (for one thing, I'm in history, not lit, so the conventions are a little different and I'm not sure if my examples would be appropriate), but I once assigned a book (on Robin Hood) that my students hated, so we spent a class untangling why they hated it, and it turned out to be because of style and tone as much as anything else. They demanded of me if I actually enjoyed the book, and I had to explain to them that by now I never really think about whether I enjoy a (scholarly) book or not - it's good if it tells me something that I need to know, and if not, not.


"After all, unlike fiction, a monograph or general survey is (one hopes) about something--and most of us would, I suspect, sacrifice a style-rich but content-poor example of academic prose to something quite the opposite."

In my (very brief - I'm still in grad school) experience this is true more of monographs than general surveys, at least in history. Just about everyone appreciates a well-written book but I've actually seen monographs criticized (in reviews) for being so stylized that the writing actually obscures the substance of the conclusions. (Ironically, this is often the result not of literary theory, but of trying to "dress up" dry, quantitative information instead of just presenting it in a straightforward manner.) Good general historical surveys, on the other hand, tend to be praised in broad stylistic terms: "magisterial", "masterful", "eloquent" etc. Content is still important, of course, but because the survey is ideally aimed at a broader audience than the monograph, readibility is a larger consideration.

As for bad writing of the non-theoretical persuasion - I agree: the passive voice is used too much by people who should know better.

David Katz

I'd forgotten that I wrote about 'an obscure book'..... Thanks for reminding me!

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