In the LA Review of Books, Daniel Marc Janes explains why so much academic writing — especially literary criticism — is so tediously dust-dry and boring:
IN THE COURSE of this essay, I want to examine Geoff Dyer and his relationship with the academic establishment. The aforementioned relationship, I will go on to argue, has heretofore been an uneasy one, but the occurrence of a significant, apparently paradoxical event has provided the ideal research opportunity with which to conduct said examination. As I will reveal, this event — the organization of an academic conference in his honor — lays bare the manifest tensions in his work between a hostility to what he considers deadening academic analysis and a profound desire to get closer to his subject. The organization of my essay is as follows.
I cannot blame you if you have stopped reading by now; Geoff Dyer certainly would have. To Dyer, this kind of prose — with its pathological signposting and life-sucking verbosity — exemplifies all that is wrong with the academic world. In a 2011 New York Times column, he eviscerates a work of criticism for precisely these reasons: the art historian Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, whose long-windedness trickles down from its title.
But it is in 1998’s Out of Sheer Rage that Dyer truly gets his knives out. The book describes his failed attempts to write a scholarly study of D. H. Lawrence. As he drudges through a Longman Critical Reader on the author, he finds himself increasingly angered by its contents: trendy theoretical titles like “Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality” and “Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence.” He wonders:
How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? […] writing like that kills everything it touches. That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.
In Dyer’s mind, the academic conference may be the worst offender of all. He goes on to describe his horror on meeting an academic who specialises in Rainer Maria Rilke:
You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted to say, you kill Rilke! You turn him to dust and then you go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust. Then, as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves.