Is Academic Writing Useful?

To begin with, one has to acknowledge the provocative nature of the question. The question forces us to wonder whether a case could be built on the premise of academic writing being useless or even dispensable. If by ‘academic writing’ one presumes the sort of language which involves words such as ‘aforementioned’ or the sort of paper which begins by the writer declaring their objective, then yes, perhaps such a case could be built.

Of such writing, Geoff Dyer in his ‘Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence’ (dyer, 2021, p. 83) says that it ‘kills everything it touches.’ He goes on to propose that if one were to walk around a university campus ‘there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.’ Dyer suggests that the academics turn even beautiful things like poetry to dust through their boring conference papers “and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dust yard of graves.”

Many writers who try and breathe life in their prose, who try to write in the manner in which they speak, detest academic writing for this very reason. The straitjacket of academic writing that doesn’t allow for unexpected turns and impromptu ideas on paper is exactly what writers such as Geoff Dyer and before him, the literary critic, Clive James stood against.

Although James later admitted (2021), in a ceremony held at The University of Sydney to award him Doctor of Letters (honoris causa), that the relationship between a literary critic and an academic writer “is really a struggle for the same blanket by two people in bed together, so a truce is the only workable outcome.”

A similar turnaround in opinions could be seen in the case of the great 20th century American novelist Saul Bellow. Early on in his life, he noted the drabness of the academic writers through his article ‘The University as Villain’, which he wrote back in 1957. But later on in his life, after a string of literary successes, Bellow came around to the view that “it’s in the university and only in the university that Americans can have a higher life”. (2021).

Another huge literary star that was nurtured by the American academic world, and who enriched it in return, was Vladimir Nabokov. After landing in America, Nabokov managed to make his ends meet by joining the staff of Wellesley College in 1941 as a resident lecturer in comparative literature. It was in the course of teaching European literature that Nabokov put together a few of his lectures that were later published in the form of a book, known to us as ‘Notes on Literature’. Strictly speaking, this would be categorized as academic writing. However, these lectures on Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, are still cherished by literary enthusiasts from all walks of life.

In conclusion, we could say that while there is a case to be made against academic writing that seems dull and boring, at the same time academic writing also turns out to be the medium in which some of the greatest literary icons expressed their opinions that are still found to be relevant. Academic writing may seem boring from a distance but it is the foundation on which modern literature stands today. In that context, it is indeed most useful.

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