Coterie Writing

David Damrosch in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The problem isn’t that academics “can’t write,” as is often claimed, but that we are typically engaged in what scholars of the Renaissance know as coterie writing. In 16th-century England, for instance, small groups of aristocrats such as Sir Philip Sydney, his sister Mary Herbert, and their circle would compose poems for their mutual entertainment, circulating them privately from one country estate to another. Scholars today may reach a somewhat larger circle, but most academic writing is part of a continuing conversation among a coterie of fellow specialists with common interests and a shared history of debate. Even for scholars who are elegant prose stylists, it isn’t an easy matter to make the transition from writing for Milton’s “fit audience, though few” to a larger but less fit readership.

In speaking with colleagues who have written trade books, I have often found them using quite negative language to describe the task. “I had to dumb it down,” I’ve been told. Or else they may hold the line and keep on writing much as they would for a university press, but then find their manuscript being eviscerated by the editor and copy editor. “They took out all my footnotes,” one friend complained gloomily. The books I’ve heard described in such terms have usually had disappointing sales.

The current conflict in Iraq has led me to wrestle directly with these issues. Deeply disturbed on many levels by the run-up to the invasion, I was particularly concerned with the rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations” that was often used by proponents of the war and echoed uncritically in the press. It occurred to me that discussing a favorite text of mine, The Epic of Gilgamesh, could provide an effective way to show that the cultures of Islam and “the West” are not inherently, eternally opposed civilizations, but are outgrowths of a common cultural matrix.

More here.