Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing

Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing



The Pequod Review:

Quack This Way is a short 123-page back-and-forth interview between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner, the lexicographer and editor of Garner’s Modern English Usage. Their conversation is engaging and intelligent throughout; here as an example is Wallace’s response to the question of why many academics write so poorly:

A lot of academic writing — and my guess is a lot of legal, medical, scientific writing — is done by … [pause] All right. How to do this?

The simple way to put it, I think, is: Writing, like any kind of communicating, is complicated. When you’re writing a document for your professional peers, you’re sending out a whole lot of different messages. Some of them are the stuff you’re arguing; some of them are stuff about you.

My guess is that disciplines that are populated by smart, well-educated people who are good readers but are nevertheless characterized by crummy, turgid, verbose, abstruse, abstract, solecism-ridden prose are usually part of a discipline where the dynamic between writing as a vector of meaning — as a way to get information or opinion from me to you — versus writing as maybe a form of dress or speech or style or etiquette that signals that “I am a member of this group” gets thrown off.

There’s the kind of boneheaded explanation, which is that a lot of people with PhDs are stupid; and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be.

I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities — where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency and being able to speak the language of the discipline — pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. And that’s how in disciplines like academia — or, I’ve read some really good legal prose, but when it’s really, really horrible (IRS Code stuff) — I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously. It’s a guess.

There are at least a dozen other similarly insightful passages. Recommended.