Writing in the space between trite and esoteric

A link to Ian Bogost’s recent ten point Twitter microrant (his term!) regarding the world of academic publishing popped up for discussion on CE-L today. Number three especially caught my eye.

One basic distinction for non-fiction pieces produced within the commercial publishing world is that of service writing and features writing. “Don’ts of Gratitude” in the current issue of Psychology Today is an example of the former, and “Buried Secrets” in the current issue of The New Yorker is an example of the latter.

There are a few other kinds of pieces, including the profile and the roundup. In short, consumers of commercial publications pick them up to be informed and to be entertained. On the trite side of things are the service writing-heavy publications which are constantly recycling content. Think exercise, weddings, babies, technologies of the self sorts of things. One response I have to Bogost’s provocation is that there is plenty of room for informative, smart, varied, non-Panoptical service writing, too. For example, having been raised by an RN who enjoyed talking about her day at work when she picked me up from school, I am constantly amazed at the general level of medical non-knowledge amongst Americans. A couple of weeks I watched the growing postings of and comments on the Atlantic piece “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?” by my junior faculty-heavy Facebook network and found myself once again asking, “People didn’t know this alread?” (Alright, that piece is not the best example of non-Panoptical service writing, but it is informative, smart, and a variation on the usual.)

Another response I have is that not all academic publication is so much esoteric as it is industry specific. In this way academic journals share much in common with trade publications. Regardless of how much they may have in common in terms of their day-to-day, loggers and miners don’t really need to find one another’s trade publications accessible, do they? Is there a good reason anthropologists and social psychologists do?

What I like very much about Bogost’s tweet is the notion that there is a sweet spot somewhere between Helen Gurley Brown and Deleuze and Guattari. I like it because I’ve had it before myself and because that is exactly the kind of material I enjoy writing. I think that a lot people out there want to be informed and entertained in a slightly smarter and more nuanced way, but I have a hard time putting my finger on how much smart and nuance needs to be applied. My latest column for a Western North Carolina-based monthly is a piece about Cherokee-derived toponyms which I originally thought was kind of meh but which my editor was positively enthused about. I am still calibrating, but my initial thoughts are, Vanity Fair aside, that the piece is “smart for a glossy.” Early this past winter I did a piece discussing the possibility that snowsports might have a positive effect on Seasonal Affective Disorder which I am particularly proud of. I think of it as being somewhere between the levels of Psychology Today and PLoS.

Any examples of other types of pieces for backfilling Bogost’s open space? Or perhaps a favorite specific example of your own?

Matthew Timothy Bradley

7 thoughts on “Writing in the space between trite and esoteric

  1. did anyone ever do an investigation if seasonal affective disorder was an evolutionary response to long winters in the north? (I used to live in Minnesota)…The “depression” would allow you to stay in bed for long hours in the winter when it was 30 below and days were short, in the good old days before central heating and electricity…

    and yes, sports and sunlight would help treat this disorder…

  2. Off the top of my head I do believe that it has been suggested (don’t know if necessarily ‘studied’) that the development of bipolar disorder might be an evolutionary outcome of life at higher latitudes with their highly variable day lengths throughout the year. You might imagine that some of the traits of mania would be adaptive in the middle of those 30 below days when no one else was keen on getting up and going.

    I’m in over my head on that particular topic, though. And contrary to my argument that loggers and miners don’t need to talk shop with one another, I am sure that research on conditions such as SAD and bipolar is going to advance at a much more rapid pace if individuals indoctrinated in a variety of disciplines are able to communicate with one another. (Obligatory plug of the Neuroanthropology site.)

  3. What do you mean by “talk shop”? I’ve never been a miner, but I’ve been in the woods when trees were being cut down and there was lots of talk about where the tree was likely to fall, what to do if a saw got stuck, that sort of thing. I think, too, of what Gisli Palsson describes as “enskiling,” the process by which craft skills are acquired by new workers. Palsson’s article Enskilment at sea is a great read. When there isn’t much talking going on, you can be pretty sure that you are dealing with people who know their jobs and have been working together for some time.

  4. What do you mean by “talk shop”?

    I made snow this past winter and now possess a knowledge of techniques and terms shared by what I would guess would be no more than a number in the low four figures of our Earth’s population. There was very little use to try and talk snowmaking with other employees at our own resort. We and the groomers did have something to share with one another, we and the patrollers less, and we and the lifties next to nothing.

    Thanks for the heads-up on the Pálsson article, looks fun!

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