It happened again last night.
I was at dinner with a group of smart, honest colleagues–a small table-ful of the people in my field I respect most. The conversation turned to another colleague, one who everyone at the table admires, not just as a scholar but as a force of nature. He is enormously productive, a serious scholar–and, damn him, he sometimes reaches a broad audience. In discussing this man’s recent work, one of my table-mates said, “I must confess: he writes so beautifully that sometimes I don’t trust what he’s saying!”
It was meant as a quip, but there was a serious point to it. I have heard this line for nearly 30 years. I’ve heard it in the sciences and I’ve heard it in the humanities. Among some academics, style is a demerit. Attention to rhythm or sonority or, Twain-help-you, wordplay, marks you as unserious, a mere Sophist rather than a Philosophe. Serious researchers are too invested in their ideas to pay attention to communicating them. They have been in the lab or the archive generating data, or in the stacks reviewing the historiography, or at their desktop spinning cotton candy out of the latest theoretical buzzwords. Attention to audience is mere marketing, a sell-out. Turgidity is the mark of a true scholar.
The fallacy involved in this slight on stylists is the confusion of pleasing with slick. Somehow they think that if your prose is graceful you must be doing something slippery that they don’t understand. You must not be revealing all your evidence, or your argument is merely clever instead of well-substantiated. The conflation, frankly, can only be made by someone so grossly unattuned to style that they can’t distinguish wit from reasoning–or persuasion from persuasiveness. But there are a lot of such people in academia, and some of them are distinguished scholars and scientists.
In a way, these crass critics are right. Style can be used to make a point. Scholars who I consider stylists (Hisa Kuriyama’s Expressiveness of the Body is a good example) use word choice, rhythm, sonority, image, and structure to help convey a point. It’s an idea journalists and English majors take in with their first undergraduate lattés: style operates on the aesthetic level, where argument operates on the rational level. A persuasive argument is layered, using evidence, argumentation, and aesthetic elements to make the case.
Pulling that off makes a piece more rigorous, not less. Whether it counts as good academic writing is another story.