Blog Post

Professors are from Mars, Journalists from Pluto

People who cite Derrida often don’t know the work of James Wood and those who love Wood can’t stand Derrida. Why the divide?

The Berlin Wall crumbled more than a decade ago. Meanwhile the barrier separating those who write in the press about literary matters from those who work in the academy continues to inch up brick by brick. We honestly don’t know who lives and works on the other side of the partition and we have little interest. How many fans of Arcade, for example, have read a book this year by any of the leading literary critics in the popular press?

On the whole journalists and academics live on separate planets. They may hear of each other but they write for distinct audiences, begin from different working assumptions, and, above all, use divergent languages and methods to evaluate literary works. There is suspicion or contempt of each other but mostly the relationship is of mutual neglect.

Both sides lose out from this isolation. Journalist critics miss the intellectual fervor in academia, the conflicts, the research, the historical investigations, and the complex attention paid to production, dissemination, and consumption of literature. This is why their work often appears to academics as superficial, hasty and simplistic, not always nuanced to the intricacies of literary study.

Conversely, we academics might learn from the flexibility of journalists as they cross genres. Trained in the weighty dissertation style, it is hard for professors to shift up and down. Above all, we are not attuned to language and style of those who make their living by writing literary criticism.

In a resent post, Lee Konstantinou expressed surprise at the bad writing that comes from the computers of literary critics. In a profession sensitive to style and form, this bad writing is disturbing.

It is true. We don’t learn how to be interesting stylists. No one teaches us in all the years of undergraduate and graduate schooling how to write a gripping first sentence. The very idea of engaging with form rather than just with content embarrasses us. Do we find attention to ornamentation meretricious? Writing for the sake of writing decadent? Although we work with metaphor, we don’t know what to do with one other than throwing it in our Cuisinart.

Sadly, we prefer our colorless cell of functional writing, distrusting the sirens of the aesthetic, plugging up our ears to their song. (See my previous post.)

We have much to learn from our colleagues in the press whose advance depends on a catchy introductory paragraph. But we don’t listen because they are so far away. This situation, of course, is the product not of bad personal decisions but of a decades-long process in functional differentiation and professional compartmentalization. Boundaries have been erected between disciplines and knowledge continues to be portioned into autonomous zones.

This broad professional specialization, if inevitable, does not mean that there is no de-differentiation, as sociologists refer to it, a counter-reaction to differentiation. As individuals we can fight against these processes and build channels of communication across disciplinary divides. If we really believe in interdisciplinarity—if we think that the English and History departments should talk to one another—we should be willing to promote exchange with writers outside of the academy.

Let me turn to a few examples: the literary world in Greece has been much more integrated. The very distinctions between journalistic and professional criticism has only recently been made. The right to write seriously about literature was not appropriated by a trained elite. Doctors, lawyers, business people or any other person could write about poetry in an authoritative manner. As a result, writers have a larger audience than the limited one we are accustomed to. Critics have to think how to present their work to those outside their field.

There is similar interaction between academia and popular writing in places such as Turkey and Puerto Rico, to name just two examples. Others can point to similar cases from around the globe.

We obviously can’t go back to the world of New York intellectuals, to the literary milieu of Edith Wharton, or the salons of Weimar. We have to deal with the disciplinary separation we have been given. But it does not mean that we can’t cross boundaries ourselves and see how writers in the popular press craft their sentences, frame their arguments, and address their audiences.

Writing on literature should not be like living on a lonely planet.

Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010).  His book, A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet, was published in 2014.