Great Liberations: Writing Beyond the Academy

Bridging scholarly and popular writing is what good essays have always done. ...

The two of us first met at the NonfictionNOW Conference in Iceland, in June 2017, where we talked about our deep mutual interest in both personal writing—particularly memoir—and well-researched writing. We already knew that we each had books coming out that fall in the same series, but not that we used some of the same approaches in our writing and publishing, approaches that are not necessarily embraced by writers who define themselves more narrowly as working strictly in an academic mode or a literary one.

As we talked over lunch one day surrounded by hundreds of other writers, each with their own reasons for gathering in a place of constant summer illumination, we began to realize that we shared some attitudes toward and concerns about the state of nonfiction and particularly the division between scholarly and popular writing. Over the next year, we stayed in touch and formalized our conversation over time. Here, we map out not only our shared viewpoints but also where our stances diverge as we negotiate and blur the arbitrary divides within nonfiction—and call for others to challenge these divides as well.

Kim Adrian (KA): Bridging scholarly and popular writing is what good essays have always done. Montaigne basically established the essay as a hybrid genre at the very start—equal parts personal and philosophical. I suspect the essay is experiencing its extraordinary renaissance at the moment because this kind of bridging impulse is suddenly understood to be important in a new way—even crucial, given that modern culture is so deeply fractured by specialization at almost every level, in nearly every field of human endeavor. The generalist (read “essayist”) has a special role in such a world: connecting ideas and illuminating hidden relationships between things. Work that bridges popular and academic writing belongs to this impulse. It’s nothing new. But it’s never been more necessary.


Anna Leahy (AL): In Academic Instincts, Marjorie Garber points out that the generalist risks being labeled a dilettante or dabbler and, therefore, not serious enough to be considered a professional. Recent studies suggest that academics, who are faced with tenure criteria and impact factor, don’t feel an obligation to convey ideas to an audience beyond their immediate disciplinary colleagues. In addition, academics consider peer review the gold standard of the profession, despite its flaws (including gender bias and racial bias), and, by extension, may not define the editorial review of mainstream writing as rigorous.

Garber asserts, though, that the amateur and the professional are interconnected, interdependent, and keep shifting in definition and value, and that the separation of the pleasure that defines the amateur from the labor that defines the professional is a false dichotomy. So, your points about the essay form and about Montaigne align with Garber’s assertions and also with your book Sock and my book Tumor. These books were both pleasurable and laborious in the writing and, I expect, are pleasurably challenging in the reading. We tend to have affection for the amateur (read “popular”) and respect for the professional (read “academic”). The two of us, though, strive to be both at once.


Analytic Rage: The Genius of Jenny Diski

By Jenny Davidson

KA: Yes, I was initially drawn to the Object Lessons series because it seeks out exactly this kind of generalist balancing act—a crossover perspective. I view the books in this series more or less as extended essays, precisely because they do this kind of bridging work. I’ve always been drawn to the essay form because of its inherent ability to connect unexpected dots. There’s tremendous freedom in this. Seeking out these kinds of connections allows the writer to go wherever they want—or need—to go in order to explore their subject in the most satisfying way possible.


AL: There continues to exist what the Object Lessons series editors, Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost, call “a yawning gap between academic writing and popular, hot-take journalism.” This gap is maintained by some of my own academic colleagues, though others among them are engaging readers beyond the ivory tower. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed friends outside academia roll their eyes at diction that academics do not even acknowledge as jargon, but many of these readers also tire quickly of clickbait and seek smart books and complex articles that grapple with what it means to be part of humanity. The humanities seem to linger in what many have referred to since the 1960s as a crisis—what I see as a crisis of confidence—but we might address this problem through writing that demonstrates confidence in why what we do matters beyond the perceived confines of our discipline and our immediate peers.

The sciences, which have faced worse enrollment issues than the humanities, have started making clearer why what they do matters. Translational medicine, for instance, is an interdisciplinary effort to apply scientific findings to improve lives, and science communication—public communication of scientific findings—is now a distinct field of study and career path. Though the humanities and many other disciplines appear to value a divide between the scholarly and the popular, disciplines such as creative writing, visual art, and graphic design resist such a clear distinction. Schaberg and Bogost, in fact, launched the Object Lessons series because they believe “there has never been a better time for academics to reach the public directly, and in ways that are compatible with their professional contexts and goals.” We need them to be right.

KA: It’s interesting that the essay is still often considered a dirty word in the marketplace—the death knell of salability—yet writers persist in experimenting with it despite the advice of many agents and publishers. It’s just such a friendly host for work that strives to play with all kinds of heterogeneous elements.


AL: Didn’t Samuel Johnson refer to the essay as “a loose sally of the mind,” and as somewhat disorderly? And the essay, history, and life have all been defined as one damn thing after another, structures we work our ways through to figure out what any of it means.


KA: Yes, and Johnson also called the essay “irregular” and “indigested,” a pretty poor view of the form. But the essay isn’t a complete free-for-all. The best of them tend to hew to certain conventions or, at least, tendencies, which encourage the kind of bridging activity we’re suggesting. One of these tendencies is humility, at least as Phillip Lopate describes the quality in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. Essayists have traditionally been drawn to the small, the particular. Montaigne wrote about thumbs, for instance, Borges about toenails; you and I have written about socks and tumors; other Object Lessons authors have tackled blankets and bookshelves and burgers, even dust and hair and eye charts.


AL: Though our books are not essays, you’ve pinned down an important connection between the essay tradition and the Object Lessons series, not in length certainly, nor in style or voice, which vary a lot from book to book, but in perspective.


KA: In perspective—yes, but also in the way the prose moves. Which is to say, not linearly (as plot-driven fiction frequently does, for example), nor with the kind of modular block-building so often employed in traditional academic arguments, but in an almost lateral or wandering way. For this reason, I’ve always found the essay closer to poetry than to any other literary genre. Perhaps this kind of lateral movement is just a natural outgrowth of taking a more personal stance, which tends to lead to an organically idiosyncratic engagement with the subject. This is one of the great liberations of the essay.

This kind of lateral movement is actually very much connected to the humility trick, in the sense that essayists often use small, humble subjects to leverage their way into heavier topics. My favorite example of this type of maneuver—using small things as lenses to examine larger issues—is G. K. Chesterton’s essay about a piece of chalk, in which he tells a funny little story about drawing some cows on an English hillside, but winds up talking about color, spirituality, and the nature of purity and God. It’s a three-page essay. But he packs it all in precisely because of these essayistic qualities of lateral movement and humility. He uses something small and concrete, something very mundane, to leverage his way into a completely unexpected exploration of a much larger thought.

AL: What you’re describing is something akin to microhistory, which you and I discussed at the NonfictionNOW Conference and in an article for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Microhistory is a term coined to describe the method of using a small span of time to explain a larger historical period—a particular battle to explain the Civil War, in the case of George Stewart’s Pickett’s Charge, or one trial of a miller to explain the 16th-century Inquisition, in Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. But in Object Lessons, we’re not using slices of time. We’re using ordinary objects as slices of the larger culture.


KA: Right. But, of course, we’re not the first to do something like this. Popular writers co-opted the original academic genre of microhistory for their purposes a while back. Writers like Mark Kurlansky drew lessons from the academic microhistory and bridged their way to another genre—the popular microhistory, which, at this point, constitutes a huge and marketable genre.


AL: These aren’t really distinct genres but, rather, academic and popular versions of the same mode of writing. Kurlansky’s Salt and Cod are object-driven histories, as is Tom Zoellner’s Train on the larger scale. Object Lessons books are object-driven cultural commentary, which has a different feel than history. As a result, the series embodies a wider range of styles and voices; each title reveals a particular mind at work. A close cousin to the Object Lesson series might be Graywolf’s The Art of … series, both because of the size and length of the books and also because each of those reveals an author’s mind working through a literary concept like the poetic line or subtext. But the Graywolf series’ topical focus is very narrow—reading literature like a writer—and that series cozies up to academics, to writers like us.

The Object Lessons books tend to employ a more personal vantage point. Perhaps as a result, they often feel collaged, a popular mode for nonfiction writing these days. I’m thinking of writers like Maggie Nelson in Bluets or Sarah Manguso in Ongoingness, which move laterally—and elliptically—according to the author’s consciousness. Or Eula Biss in On Immunity, which weaves together research, cultural commentary, and memoir. Or you—in one chapter of Sock, you include etymology, sculpture, Freud, evolution, anatomical clothing, and your own children’s socks as both “the imprints of their souls” and “dirty laundry.” Or Rebecca Solnit in books like A Field Guide to Getting Lost. (In fact, both Nelson and Solnit do essayistic takes on the color blue.) In her review in the New Republic, Leslie Jamison calls Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby “a collage-style memoir that brings together history and myth, science and confession.” She goes on to say, “Solnit draws analogies between disparate objects and anecdotes in order to make newly available—thawed, edible—those connections she finds between them.” In Sock and Tumor, you and I do something similar; we find and illuminate connections among what might otherwise be disparate—memoir, history, science, art, and so on—as we view the world through our objects.


KA: The cultural, rather than historical, angle of the Object Lessons books does seem to tug the work toward a more personal point of view, and maybe this personal point of view encourages collaging. Certainly, in many of the Object Lessons I’ve read—definitely in Tumor and Sock—there are memoiristic elements woven into the larger exploration. These elements don’t usually dominate the text but are threaded through with a light touch. Still, they often manage to create a sense of depth.

The memoiristic elements in Tumor, for instance, create an atmosphere, more than anything else. Tumor has a gentle sadness running through it—nothing maudlin, but a kind of resignation about the tragic history of your family’s entanglements with cancer that makes reading about the more technical aspects of tumors that much more compelling because the facts and figures resonate with your story. All the scholarship is there, but you’ve created a personal context for it that makes it matter—emotionally—to the reader. This is what we’re really talking about when we talk about bridging academic writing and popular writing. It boils down to a matter of voice, since the more personal the take is, the more the writer’s voice plays a role.


The Book That Made Me: Belong

By Sarah Hildebrand

AL: Indeed, even when I write in the scholarly mode myself, I’m me—more and more so as I move further along in my career. Many academics seem leery of embodying a distinctive voice in the way we’re urging. Even high school students are often discouraged from using the first person in serious writing assignments, and couching arguments or assertions in “I think” or “I believe” can clutter sentences. Embodying a particular perspective isn’t merely about pronouns or jargon, of course. While memoir might be considered an unacademic writing mode because its subject is the writer’s life, a writer can embody an individualized voice without becoming the subject. Academia might do well to welcome more overtly a connection between scholarship and actual lived lives, challenging assumptions about both the academic and the popular.


KA: Having written a memoir (The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet), I disagree with your claim that memoir takes the writer’s life as its subject. That’s a common assumption, of course, but that’s what autobiographies do, while in contemporary memoirs—a relatively new genre, in the big picture—the subject is not the life itself, but a struggle or puzzle of some kind within that life.


AL: Agreed, that’s an important distinction between autobiography and memoir and one that invites the possibility to view academic writing and the memoir as different forms of puzzling, each grappling with a type of dilemma or problem but not necessarily completely different subject matter.


KA: There’s a wonderful book by Thomas Larson called The Memoir and the Memoirist, which argues that contemporary memoir is an essentially American and a truly democratic form. Autobiographies have traditionally been written by public figures—celebrities, politicians, et cetera. But anybody—any nobody—can write a memoir. It’s the struggle or the puzzle that needs to be interesting, not the public personality at the center of it, or the social significance of the life lived. In a way, modern memoir is tracking exactly the same path we’ve been describing with microhistories. It’s dealing with the proverbial little guy, the routinely overlooked, the skeletons in the closet, the bugbears under the rug. In other words, the kind of material and experience that’s traditionally been left out of those discussions we call literature and history. Here too, in memoir, the idea of perspective is all-important. The unusual or unexpected perspective seems to be gaining traction in all sorts of contexts.


AL: Right, and it’s fair to say that some of the best scholarship in the humanities invites a reader to understand a particular mind at work in ways relevant to the larger culture. The Object Lessons series, of course, is premised on that invitation. Expertise, in actuality, is quirky, in that it’s particularly deep knowledge or skill, uncommon knowledge about common things like politics or plants. And quirkiness—originality—takes us right back to the matter of voice.


KA: And once you allow a robust voice into the work, you’ve already started the bridging process we’ve been talking about. Because with a strong voice, candor and intimacy both tend to show up on the page. I usually associate these things with a quality of playfulness, but even if the voice isn’t playful at all, even if it is very grave, it can move in unexpected, mischievous ways. Basically, a strong voice is simply more able and willing to experiment—to make unexpected, even thrilling leaps of association, or bridges, as we’ve been calling them.


Turning Kids into Capital

By Christopher Schaberg

AL: That’s what Object Lessons suggests for academic writing—more leeway. In an interview with New Orleans Review, Schaberg asserts that he wants the Object Lessons books “to be useful to people on various career paths.” While some are authored by freelancers, like you, he also points to the benefit of writing this sort of voiced book for the early-stage academics trying to parlay their dissertation research into something useful, as well as for “senior scholars who want to write a quirky short book about something they know a lot about.”

I’ve written elsewhere about Patricia Leavy’s suggestion that usefulness be the most important criteria for judging arts-based research. What if usefulness were among the overt goals for academic work? What if intertwining theory and practice, or theory and application—or the academic and the popular—were taken more seriously across disciplines? We could make more use of expertise. Think about all the experts—scholars who’ve spent years cultivating incredibly deep knowledge about relatively narrow subjects—and what a waste it is that their insights are not shared more widely?


KA: I agree. It does seem like a waste. But academia has always been plagued by games of cutthroat competition within its ivory walls. Specialization is not only a way of narrowing and deepening a field of research, it’s also a way of protecting one’s own intellectual territory. It takes some bravery, and some generosity, for career academics to write in the way we’re suggesting. Not being a career academic myself, I’m quite happy not to have to deal with that particular conundrum—if you make bridges, you whack away at the fence surrounding your own specialized territory.


AL: Indeed, we might use the planks from the fences to build the bridges.


KA: Solnit, whom you mentioned earlier, considers herself an independent scholar. Not an academic, but someone who reads, researches, and writes with a scholar’s mindset. It takes true independence to work in this way. The Object Lessons series provides a safe haven for academics to write in a more personal way while bridging the gap between the academy and the populace. But what we really need are academics who are willing to take that risk with or without such a safe haven, as well as more freelance writers who are willing to work as independent scholars, with all the discipline and intellectual rigor that involves.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

Featured image: Manhattan Bridge Sunrise (2014). Photograph by melfoody / Flickr