Posted by: Sarah | September 17, 2005

Eng. Lit. Speak

On the Lancaster University website there’s news of a conference on reading and writing the 21st-century novel. As some of the talks were about historical fiction, I thought it might be particularly interesting — until I read some of the abstracts. Here’s an example:

Mariadele Boccardi, (University of the West of England), ‘Beyond the Garden: Liminality and Politics in the 21st Century Historical Novel’.

Amy Elias has suggested that in historical novels the “sense of history emerges from and is constructed by the text itself”. In a group of historical novels published in the early 1990s (The Chymical Wedding, Possession, and Ever After), the sense of history is articulated as an explicit epistemological encounter between past and present occurring within the gated boundaries of an Edenic garden. This space is constructed as a haven from the ethical demands of the enterprise of representation and becomes the liminal site of contingent apprehension of history. My paper examines how two twenty-first century historical novels interrogate and ultimately re-articulate the implications of liminality by explicitly engaging with the locus of the garden. Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (2000) presents the quest for a physical rather than narrative Garden of Eden and in the move from formal to substantive concerns explores the ethics of its representation in fiction. Ronan Bennett’s Havoc in its Third Year (2004), on the other hand, centres on the impossibility of the garden itself, as John Brigge articulates his desire for a life outside the commitments of politics in the image of a garden in bloom in which his wife and child sit. The paper offers productive directions of enquiry on the historical novel beyond the concerns with narrative, knowledge and representation which dominated it at the end of the twentieth century and towards both the ethical and political implications of narrating the past.

What is it about Eng. Lit. academics that they have to talk in this impenetrable gobbledegook?
My guess it’s either (a) they don’t have anything interesting to say, so they dress it up in long words and tortuous phrasing, or (b) it makes them feel important to exclude the non-academic by using “specialist” jargon. Or both. Anyway, there’s plenty more in this vein here. I don’t, by the way, suppose this kind of thing is limited to Lit Profs, but it’s a long time since I was a student (and in those days academic gobbledegook was mainly the preserve of sociologists).


  1. I agree. I believe that the only reason why specifically academic language should be used is for precision. I am not sure that Eng Lit has as high a claim to this criteria as the sciences. So I think the reasons for academic speak is:
    1. To make one sound like one is an academic
    2. One considers being an academic to be exclusive and superior
    3. One has no desire to make one’s views widely known
    4. One has no desire nor any intention to enter into discourse with non-academic humanity.

    The corollary to academic jargon is the occasional idea put forward – under cover of academic jargon – that one has to be well-educated to give it any credence because plain old fashioned common sense would dismiss the concept out of hand.

    Does one – do I – catch a whiff of the emperor’s new clothes?

  2. I tend to think of these guys as specialists, and they use the jargon between themselves and forget that others may not fully understand it. I’m an archaeologist, and a specialist, and to use the long way round – eg, ‘curved and flanged Roman roof tile’ – is silly when I can say ‘imbrex & tegula’ instead to my colleagues.

    The main trick is knowing your audience, and adjusting accordingly, but it’s easy to forget that not everyone is as specialised, and indeed interested in the subject, as you are.

    Every group has their own jargon, academic or not. And every group has a small minority who think they are better than others. I keep that in mind when dealing with the high falautin’ theoretical academics in archaeology and other professions. If they’re very objectionable, I keep my distance, but with most there is common ground to be found.

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