Tag Archives: George Orwell

Academic writing

My new article ‘Redetermining paradigmatic norms: is there any hope for academic writing?’ has been published at The Conversation. The article asks whether academic writing has improved 20 years after the Sokal Affair, in which a scholar sent a ‘fake’ article full of obscure writing to an academic journal, to see if they would publish it. They did, and it became one of the most notable (and amusing) hoaxes in academia.  Below is the article in its entirety, or you can read it here.

Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.

The above is an excerpt from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s magnum opus, suitably titled: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein puts forth the fairly simple idea that the clarity of a thought or argument depends on the language we use. What’s ironic about the paragraph is that the thought behind the language is considerably simpler than the language used to express the thought.

This, in short, is what is wrong with academic writing. Many academics still operate under the flawed logic that good writing must be complex writing (or vice versa).

The Sokal Affair

Professor Alan Sokal. Cml3dp/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

This very theory was put to the test twenty years ago, when mathematics professor Alan Sokal sent in a purposefully incomprehensible article to the journal Social Text. His aim was to see whether the journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

The article, titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, was indeed published in the spring/summer 1996 issue of Social Text. In the article, Sokal argued that quantum gravity and physical reality are social and linguistic concepts. One of the quotes from the article reads:

In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the [pi] of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

Once it was published, Sokal revealed that the entire article was in fact a hoax. He called his paper “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations”.

Similar hoaxes have been performed throughout the years, and the Sokal Hoax was used as the basis of an experiment by sociologist Robb Willer at Stanford University. Willer got his students to read Sokal’s paper, telling them that it was either a paper written by another student or an eminent scholar. Willer found that the students who believed the paper was written by a renowned scholar rated it higher than those believing it was written by another student.

‘Explosion in a dictionary factory’

Judith Butler. Andrew Rusk/Flickr, CC BY

Postcolonial theorist Edward Said, whose own work has often been criticised as deliberately obscure, once said that “at some point critics and writers become parodies of themselves.”

From 1995 to 1998, The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Award – much like the Bad Sex in Fiction Award but far less popular on a broad scale – was given to writers and academics whose work proved purposefully dense. One of the more notable winners was gender studies theorist Judith Butler, whose work, according to academic David Gauntlett, is like an explosion in a dictionary factory.

One single sentence from Butler’s work Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time was enough to make her the winner of the 1998 award:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Of this sentence, the late philosopher Dennis Dutton remarked that “it’s possibly the anxiety-inducing obscurity of such writing that has led Professor Warren Hedges of Southern Oregon University to praise Judith Butler as ‘probably one of the ten smartest people on the planet’”.

The complex work of academics and their unwillingness to write for a more lay audience is unsurprising to some commentators. Journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes that the academic industry “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience”, while philosophy professor Terrance Macmullan argues that “most intellectuals simply don’t bother trying to engage the public.”

But what does it mean? Judit Klein, CC BY-SA

Of course, not all academic work is designed to be written for a general audience, which is why academia is distinguished from other kinds of writing, such as journalism. Each industry has its own specific lingo, from medicine to law, complete with its own buzz words and terminology.

When the idea in question is relatively straightforward, however, there is no reason why clear communication can’t be used over jargon. As Gauntlett writes about Judith Butler, “if one takes the time to dig through the rubble, one finds that her ideas are actually quite straight-forward.”

Academia today

It’s been twenty years since the Sokal Affair, but has academic writing progressed? That is, are academics any better at communicating to a wider audience, or to each other?

While some academics strive to keep academia a gated community, others, such as former academic Annetta Cheek, have developed initiatives to promote better communication. Cheek is the co-founder of the US non-profit Centre for Plain Language, which championed the 2010 Plain Writing Act, making it legally necessary for US government agencies to communicate clearly.

Writer Victoria Clayton notes that academics are now more willing to “call their colleagues out for being habitual offenders of opaque writing.” However, she concedes that “the battle to make clear and elegant prose the new status quo is far from won.”

For instance, the UTS Library Academic Writing Guide, released in February 2013, provides a checklist of requirements for academic writing. According to the guide, academic writing must be linear, informative, accurate, and complex, with essays “written using more complex grammar, vocabulary, and structures.”

It advises academics that:

Instead of two short sentences, use more complex sentence structures.

The demand to be deliberately complex is sutured into the very fabric of academic life. But complexity shouldn’t be confused for intellect. Writing in a more straight-forward way does not necessarily mean compromising on quality; as George Orwell outlined in his essay Politics and the English Language: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

While academia is indeed a specialist area like any other, ideas that are of importance to society at large – gender, race, equality, health, democracy – deserve to be discussed in a coherent manner.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Literary Science Fiction

Science fiction is often viewed as an inferior form of literature; despite the prolific, intriguing and insightful works of such authors as Frank Herbert (of Dune (1965) fame) and, of course, Isaac Asimov, the genre has taken a back seat to the more respected genre of literary fiction. For instance, in an interview with Anthony Burgess for the LA Review of Books (interviewed by Jonathan Lethem), Burgess stated emphatically: “I don’t read science fiction”, prompting the notion that many authors are hesitant to align themselves with the genre (despite the author’s arguable engagement with science fiction in his work The Wanting Seed (1962)). Science fiction is so often associated with ostensibly low-brow cultures that many avid readers dismiss the genre as too commercial, clunky, juvenile or lacking in the literary prowess of more literary novelists. But many science fiction authors, if indeed they ought to be called such, have attempted to shut down this assumption. In his introduction to Ender’s Game (1985), Orson Scott Card writes: ‘a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel […] If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for their impenetrability.’

The science fiction genre is split into various sub-genres, including cyber-punk, sci-fi noir, space opera and sci-fi westerns, but also includes more literary works by authors more often associated with literary fiction. Often it is forgotten that such illustrious authors as Mark Twain and Jack London also penned works considered to belong to the science fiction oeuvre (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and The Iron Heel (1908) respectively). J.G Ballard, whose semi-autobiographical work Empire of the Sun (1984) celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, penned some of the more intriguing works of sci-fi including his The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966). His short story collection Vermilion Sands (1971) also provides generous insight into the mysteriousness surrounding the darker side of sci-fi, though most would know Ballard for his salacious and controversial novel Crash (1973). Ballard is perhaps one of the few authors who has successfully managed to negotiate between the psychological explorations of humans known to high-brow literature, with the speculative imagination of science fiction.


The science fiction genre is often split into two groups: hard and soft sci-fi, the former featuring meticulous scientific detail of astrophysics and chemistry, while the latter involves more elements of the social sciences, including psychology. The latter, moreover, is much more character-oriented, making it a more palatable version of sci-fi for those reticent to engage in the genre. Although George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are perhaps the most notable of this stream of sci-fi, others, including Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo and many others have dabbled in the experimental process of literary science fiction. One of the more obscure, psychological works of literary science fiction is Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975), a incredibly complex work that rivals the lyrical complexity of James Joyce. The criticisms of this infinitely complex work have apparently come from within the science fiction community, though the work has been praised as a revolutionary work of literature, as well as an unsolvable riddle. Its influence can be seen in later novels including Jonathan Lethem’s science fiction work Amnesia Moon (1995), with comparisons often made between the work and Thomas Pynchon’s equally complex Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), written two years before Delany’s work.


The master of lyrical prose and a frequent individual on this blog, Vladimir Nabokov, possesses the rare chameleonic quality of adopting different literary styles. In his work Ada or Ardor (1969), Nabokov turns again to the theme of incest that proved so integral in his seminal Lolita (1955), and the book provides an alternative universe and history of the earth, where the United States (including Central and South America) have been colonised by the Russians, featuring provinces such as Estoty and Canady. Nabokov provides the same meticulous detail that he devotes to his earlier works, and explores his characters with the same intimacy. Similarly, channeling the imaginative Borges, Italo Calvino, most known for his metafictional If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) and the speculative Invisible Cities (1972), dabbles in the sci-fi genre with his collection Cosmicomics (1965). Featuring cover art by MC Escher, the collection features a narrator, Qfwfq, who narrates all except two stories, one of which is the romantic ‘The Distance of the Moon’, based on romantic relationships between people who jumped from the earth to the moon and vice versa. Similarly to Nabokov, Calvino provides alternate and elaborate histories of the earth, featuring time before the universe, and discusses notions of civilisation, geographic development, guilt, fear and love. Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics (2009) features both the stories from the aforementioned edition as well as the short stories from his postmodern sci-fi short story collection t zero (1967). The interplay between science fiction and literature seemed to reach its artistic pinnacle in the era of postmodernism, with Kurt’s Vonnegut’s phenomenal Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) revolutinising the relationship between the two, featuring an historical account of the bombings of Dresden amidst an intergalactic zoo that mates humans and animals. It seems the heyday of literary science fiction was the 60s and 70s.

The assumption that a genre containing the rigid and systematic element of science cannot exist alongside the flexible and imaginative world of literature is therefore somewhat of an erroneous notion; older examples include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and anything by H.G. Wells, as well as the ever-popular works of Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury’s colourful works (including his consequential Fahrenheit 451 (1953) undermine this notion, and yet the prominence of science fiction as a literary endeavour remains problematic. In 1998, Lethem wrote of the death of science fiction in society, arguing that the passing over of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in favour of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama: ‘stands as a hidden tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream.’ But perhaps science fiction’s inclusion in the mainstream of Hollywood itself has actually dampened its reputation in a literary context. The poor adaptations of such illustrious works of science fiction including Asimov’s I, Robot series is a testament to the inability, or unwillingness, of the mainstream to remain faithful to the originality of the genre’s genius. By elaborating certain plot points of characters, the science fiction adaptation rarely does justice to the actually intricate psychological elements of the novel’s world. But simply the assumption that science fiction and literary fiction are incompatible is erroneous; the term ‘literary writer’ almost ought to be obsolete, since so-called ‘literary writers’ have continuously engaged in science fiction, such as Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1975), part of the 70s pinnacle of literary science fiction, and, of course, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), despite the fact that he chose not to read that particular genre…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Great Representations: 11 Book Covers

It is said that readers shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. However, books such as Nicole Matthews’ and Nickianne Moody’s Judging a Book by its Cover (2007) suggest that covers have more significance than we acknowledge. In a time when brand authors and branded books are becoming commonplace, it is always refreshing to see a bit of thought put into the cover of a book. Below are a few of the more intriguing, clever book covers from literature that utilise an aspect or theme from the story itself, while others are just simply amusing.

There are very many sexually-suggestive covers for this infamous book, whose first edition was simply a blank hardback. This cover from Corgi Books ads a touch of humour to a story renowned for its lyricism and dark humour.

This playful yet subtle cover designed by Jamie Keenan explores the theme of innocence, uncertainty and deception.

Like the aforementioned Lolita cover, this Picador edition of Thomas Pynchon’s complex epic Gravity’s Rainbow plays up to the sexual, destructive nature of the book.

One of the strangest postmodern novels (although there is great competition), Ballard’s Crash features the psychological fetish known as symphorophilia, which describes the sexual gratification one gets when participating in a car crash. There are several book covers that explore the fusion of sex and cars, but this seemed the most creative and inventive.

If ever there was a novel to entice one to learn the piano, this work by Anthony Burgess would have to be at the top of the list. Better known for A Clockwork Orange, Burgess infuses the work with dark humour and poetic language. The cover on the left brilliantly details the sexual/musical nature of the book, while the right cover is even more ‘playful’, (though a rarer edition).

Italo Calvino’s mise-en-abyme, or novel-within-a-novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, is an extraordinary work of postmodern experimentation and metafiction, rivalled only by his other masterful Invisible Cities. The above edition evidently displays the self-referential traits of the book.

Granta’s 110th issue, ‘Sex’, features Roberto Bolano’s fantastic, frank, profanity-laden short story The Redhead. The cover’s photograph is taken by Billie Segal, and is expertly suggestive, yet functional, and altogether deceptively innocent.

Considered the fundamental novel of the Jazz Age, this old cover of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby captures the hedonistic yet hollow nature of the flapper generation. The Y used as the cocktail glass adds more depth as a metaphor for the simultaneous materialism and loss of self that Gatsby encounters.

A concept design, this edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has cleverly been made to mimic a matchbox, with the spine of the book resembling the striking surface. While most designs of this book are obvious and predictable, this one is much more subtle and creative in its suggestion of fire, although it is not available for purchase.

Borges’ Labyrinths seemed almost too obvious, and there are a few covers that feature a requisite, predictable maze. This one at least seemed to be a bit more original in its approach, not simply depicting an ordinary maze, but rather a hall of mirrors, something much more confounding in order to do justice to Borges’ stories and essays.

This complete and unabridged work is that of George Orwell’s 1984. Featuring censorship, Big Brother, and dystopia, many covers rely on the obvious, with most depicting an ominous eye. This cover goes one step further and incorporates the actual element or illusion of censorship.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized