Saturday, October 12, 2013

Write Officially, But Don't Write Off an Audience

     As a student, I spend hours of each day submersed in texts.  Texts filled with jargon I have been trained to understand and complex ideas that I am expected to pick up on before my class next meets.  While the arguments and topics of these texts vary, one thing is fairly standard across the board, the primary manner in which the central thesis is delivered to the reader of the article is all too frequently a highly elevated technique that alienates readers and obscures arguments.  Or rather, the style used is what is considered the “official style”.  A tone and approach heavily favored by academics, the official style is useful but problematic depending on the audience.  When used sparingly and with clarity, the official style can elevate an argument and lend credibility to an author.  However, this success is only possible if multiple audiences of a text would be able to understand the language used.
            The fluid nature of Literature means that in many cases one novel can attract a wide variety of readers or scholars. Toni Morrison’s body of work holds a beautiful example of this. A black, female, American author, Morrison writes novels about the coming of age of African American women. Her work attracts scholars of Young Adult literature, African American Literature, and Feminist Literature to name just a few.  Jane S. Bakerman’s article “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison” explores the importance of the initial sexual experiences of various characters in Morrison’s works. The article was originally published in American Literature journal, the readers of which cover a wide variety of scholars.  Bakerman uses some aspects of the official style to give herself credibility, and accurately represent her argument.  However, by avoiding other aspects, she doesn't alienate the wide variety of audiences who might be attracted to the research.
            This example found on pages 550-551 of the original article showcases Bakerman’s unique use of the official style very well.
Throughout the article, Bakerman uses only pieces of the official style at a time.  Here, we see limited jargon, and complex, but to the point, sentences.  Too often, complex sentences use strings of “to be verbs” combined with propositions in order to fit a large number of ideas into a single sentence.  The most complex sentence here is located in the middle and starts “While, in a sense, …” This sentence is long at forty-two words, contains seven verb phrases, but only 1 prepositional phrase.  The sentences itself is difficult to read because of multiple emphasized words.  However, Bakerman contrasts the complex-ness of the sentence with simpler word choices, and keeping a singular idea in focus.  By not using all of the elements of official style simultaneously, Bakerman avoids the alienation of audiences.  Keep in mind that Bakerman uses minimal jargon as well; the most prominent instance is the phrase “preparatory initiation episode” which is explained contextually in the rest of the sentence.  While scholars of Adolescent Literature may be familiar with this idea, those who study other forms might not be.  Once again, Bakerman is using her linguistic skills to allow all audiences to understand the complex concepts presented.   
This example, pulled from much earlier in the article averaged a grading of 11.9, roughly that of an American High School senior. 
The two paragraphs next to each other show that Bakerman is using a wide variety of voices combined with in the article.  In this example, the ideas are moderately complex, but the wording and sentence structure are simple. 24.3 words averaged in 4 sentences puts the example at a higher level than plain text (generally near 7th grade) but below that of what the audience would be assumed to have (14th and higher).  Again, Bakerman makes the effort to not use the more confusing aspects of official style, but instead uses the passive voice and complex sentences with simpler vocabulary and to-the-point emphasis. The Official style is not an enemy of new or seasoned scholars, but rather a tool used by many to add an air of academia to their work.  That is exactly how I took Bakerman’s limited use of the Official style in her article.  She was discussing what could have been a simple idea, and allowed her academic voice to be strong but efficient in representing that idea leading overall to a well formed well represented argument. 

            Initially, when reading the article, I thought that because I study Adolescent Literature and Literature focusing on the “Other” I may have been too close to the core audience to see if Bakerman was alienating with use of the Official style.  However, after looking closely at the well-crafted ideas, I began to understand that Bakerman doesn't alienate the multiple audiences that could be drawn to her work.  Instead, she picks and chooses her sentence construction carefully in order to allow a wide variety of readers to understand an important aspect of Morrison’s body of work.  This is turn means that the cross-pollination of ideas can filter through all Literature Academic Sub-Categories and influence a greater number of scholars.  

R. R. Watson 

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