by Cherie Brown
My dear former colleague ‘M’, who, although he has to suffer the life-long indignity of being an Australian, is, nevertheless, a cherished friend. His conversation, practical support, reading and writing suggestions, and unexpected birthday gifts of wine and coffee mugs ( with slightly racy captions) have added much richness to my life.
M’s insights into the convoluted maze of the present day US political scene, for example, are keen, and though neither of us are US citizens, we once shared happy times at the end of many a working day in mutually satisfying ‘talk fests’, bemoaning, amongst other more mundane complaints, the failings and flaws of particular US Republican and Democrat personages alike, and gushing over the potential of those, who, according to the lofty standards of our own subjective assessment, were preferable, and worthy of support, in their perceived ability to create a more just and equitable world. We were also full of condemnation for those we considered greedy, or narcissistic and ignorant, and we were replete with creative suggestions about how our favourites could defeat them, and go on to build that ever-elusive Utopia for which we all long, albeit in a land neither of us know well, nor particularly want to visit, but on which, because of its all-pervasive global influence (and the effects of that on the lives of us all), we feel justified in passing judgement.
But, I digress from the purpose of this piece, which is to say, that not only is ‘M’ an inspiring and favourite interlocutor, but he has consistently demonstrated his understanding of the requirements of true friendship (and of course his strong sense of collegial commitment) in his generous gift of time, over many years, spent in editing the drafts of my various academic writing projects prior to their submission for publication.
Apart from the obvious duties of teaching and lesson preparation, a considerable amount of the time of university professors is spent in reading, research and writing, with the ultimate goal of publishing one’s work, and hopefully encouraging a more energetic discourse in one’s field, thereby adding something new to the ever-expanding realm of human knowledge.
The publishing requirements of respective, reputable academic journals are strict, and generally set in granite. If one wishes to be published (and one’s employment contract generally stipulates that one does), the rigid conventions of acceptable academic writing, and the formatting rules of each journal – often listed in documents that are several pages long, even when bullet-pointed – must be followed exactly, right down to the closing full stop of each Times New Roman, size 12 font, double-spaced, correctly punctuated and accurately referenced, paragraph.
There is no hope of getting a manuscript beyond a first cursory editorial glance, and on to a set of ‘blind’ peer reviewers (whose perspective on your research you might well consider to be blind), unless you follow these rules, and acquiesce to those reviewers’ inevitable demands to rejig your entire article, delivered in the form of ‘helpful’ feedback comments and requests that you to consider their humble suggestions for ‘minor revisions’. Like the obsequious character Uriah Heep in Dickens, the aspiring author “ever so ‘umbly’” succumbs to the dictates of the faceless publishing entity, often feeling compelled to start again, completely from scratch. Needs must.
Why so? The phrase ‘publish or perish’ reverberates through your brain as you regretfully score lines through some of your most illuminating and inspired sentences, deleting whole sections of what you consider to be essential content, before sending your submission off for yet another round of humiliation. This process is so ubiquitous, there is even a Facebook group dedicated to the excoriation of the academic publishing industry, aptly named “Reviewer Two Must Be Stopped”. (It has the support of over 92,000 members.) But let’s get back to ‘M’ and his kind attempts to preview and assist with the improvement of my otherwise exhilarating academic prose.
‘M’, like all devoted teachers of academic writing worth their saline, has an abundant supply of red ball-point pens. ‘M’s red pens, however, are no ordinary run-of-the-mill biros. They are of the latest design, with state-of-the-art propulsion technology, a built-in, self-erasure function (in case you change your mind about a hasty and unintentionally cruel comment), and are elegant in proportion. They fit the hand perfectly, with a wrap-around rubber casing to limit the possible effects of a repetitive strain injury should you exert too much enthusiasm in your efforts at mark-making. ‘M’s red pens make your bold flourishes, sharp exclamation points and determined crossings-out not only look impressive on the page (and, therefore, likely to compel the original author of the work you are decapitating to pay prompt attention to their errors), but they also imbue their happy owner with a delightful frisson, palpably physical, derived from the pleasurable contact of soft academic hands with a well-designed pen that is without equal in the world of writing implements. The whole sensation is just so… satisfying!
How do I know this? (After all, the pens belong to ‘M’, I hear you say.) I mean, how could I tell, just by looking at the mess they have created on a manuscript he had recently returned to me, the offspring of the tender gestation of months, now crying for attention, that has suddenly been thrust beneath the harsh light of my esteemed colleague’s examining eye?
Because, in typical generous ‘M’ fashion, along with the wine and coffee mugs, he kindly donated one of his wonderful red pens to me. Not only the pen, but also – to ensure its continued employment, I suppose – a packet of refill cartridges, so that I too could forever share in its delights when inflicting similar damage on the earnest but muddled writing of my own students. (No masochism there!)
‘M’s brandishing of his scarlet blade on the body of my writing efforts may not have drawn actual blood, but it has been piercing, and always straight to the point. His directness has been much appreciated, since it is that objective and honest assessment of my written work that has helped me to improve it. This has had no small impact on my ability to have my manuscripts accepted for publication, so I am genuinely grateful. Without his support, and his useful suggestions, my rambling sentences would no doubt have left many a journal editor scratching their head. Which brings me to my point. ‘M’ (bless him) with the wizardly wave of his magical red-tipped wand, has successfully managed to turn my interminable sentences, replete with multiple embedded clauses, promiscuous parentheses and recurrent commas, into short, snappy and succinct statements that actually make sense.
His conjuring did not go without challenge, of course. One has to know how the trick works, in order to fully buy into it. We had several amiable debates about the best length of a sentence, the correct placement of commas (Oxford or not) – a skill I have yet to master. However, in the end, once justified, I usually saw the wisdom of his suggestions, and chopped and changed accordingly, passing the text back and forth between us until we both concurred over its final arrangement.
We reached, if I am honest, the kind of agreement that had more to do with publishing requirements than with any need for me to assert my right to freedom of style. When writing for an academic audience, a stubborn insistence on one’s personal preferences in writing could be seen to be a little petulant. The liberty to express an idea the way one chooses is of less importance than the ability, and expectation on the part of a publisher, to state one’s case clearly, convincingly, and concisely – there are word limits to which one must adhere. It is more important to use that allocation as efficiently as possible, than to give rein to one’s tendency to indulge in the use of pretentious vocabulary that a writer may feel a personal attachment to, especially if this is simply intended to impress the initiated in one’s field.
I may have muttered under my breath, at times, at the limitations placed on my scripts, and the appropriateness of the correction suggestions offered to me by ‘M’. Nonetheless, one has to accept reality and produce something that is worthy, according to the external standards expected, for the sake of reaching one’s desired and (hopefully) discerning and enlightened readership.
However, being something akin to an osteophilic canine, even well after the successful publication of a heavily revised piece, and never being one who is willing to give up the opportunity to affectionately tease a friend (in particular an Australian friend), I continued, even years later, to goad ‘M’ by raising the matter of his editing, and his generous use of that red pen, with a degree of tenacity that probably renders me (in ‘M’s view at least) obsessive.
None of this really has anything to do with hurt feelings, I hasten to add, though ‘M’ might demur. Not at all! It is more related to my twisted desire to amuse myself at ‘M’s expense. (I must explain that this is reciprocal. There is no hesitation on his part to do the same to me… if he can…) I have absolutely no desire to demean him. The teasing is purely for the sake of fun, and is, in fact, a reflection of our respect for each other, and the experience of an upbringing in a certain brand of dark Antipodean humour that we implicitly understand and share. Our friendly bantering, and mutual trans-Tasman slanging matches have, at times, left our colleagues of other nationalities completely baffled, since they come from a different tradition of humour, and sometimes take the hurling of insults at face value. At times, I think they have believed we must really dislike each other. It was often a puzzle for them to hear us verbally abusing each other (in a light-hearted manner, of course), then see us taking lunch or coffee together afterwards, laughing our socks off, and acting as if no ill words were spoken at all. In fact, it was the trading of semi-offensive, but assuredly affectionate insults that helped to keep me sane while living that strange life as an expat in the foreign, multi-cultural setting of my former Japanese university workplace. So… when there’s been an opportunity to take a dig at ‘M’, of course I have taken advantage of it.
I think, on reflection, it was about three years after ‘M’s last act of editorial decimation of my work that I finally saw the chance I had been waiting for. I had, by this time, retired, left my position at the university in Japan, and returned to my home country. ‘M’, being considerably younger than I, remained behind. We kept in touch spasmodically via social media and e-mail, and the occasional ZOOM encounter, but the necessity for academic writing and publishing (on my part) had ceased to be a priority for me. ‘M’, on the other hand, still has years of this ahead of him…lucky man.
I now had the luxury of time to read whatever piqued my interest, and began to chip away at the rows of unread books on my bookshelf that I had purchased over the years with, at the time I bought them, the full intention of reading, but hadn’t yet quite gotten around to. The Japanese have a word for this – ‘Tsundoku’, the art of buying and piling up books one never reads. It’s a very useful word. (We should add it to the English lexicon.) My goal was to finally read everything I had purchased or collected, but had been forced to put aside because of the more pressing demands of academic life.
One particular large and notoriously difficult volume had been calling to me forever. Now, at last, I would have time to make a go of it. When you know the book to which I refer, that last phrase will make sense to you. It was, in fact, ‘Swann’s Way’, the first volume of Proust’s mighty oeuvre, ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ , ‘In Search of Lost Time’. It seemed a fitting choice considering the stage of life I had reached.
Like many before me, I was initially overwhelmed by Proust’s elaborate prose. Where was he going with all this? (How I dealt with that question is another story altogether.) What struck me immediately were his long, lingering, sentences, his multiple associations and digressions, the almost innumerable quantity of embedded clauses, the ubiquitous relative pronouns, the liberal sprinkling of commas and the determined application of conjunctions to string all those words together, like the stranded pearls in one’s grandmother’s necklace, in what some claim to be the finest work of literature of the 20th century.
While my own writing is by no means as elevated and masterful as Proust’s (believe me, I am well aware of my limitations – ‘M’s editing has made sure of that), I felt a sense of relief, as though I had finally come across one of those few precious friends in life, who understands. Even though Proust’s novel, and my own academic writing were of completely different genres, his indulgence in the delight of words, and what one online commentator (on ‘Goodreads’) describes as his ‘sprawling lyricism’ (Penkevich, 2012), was truly inspirational. Here at last was writing as it should be, unrestrained, unfettered by artificial and questionable conventions, beautiful, descriptive capturings of the details of Proust’s fleeting impressions, the very essence of his thoughts and emotions, perfectly, nay wondrously, expressed.
My own thoughts drifted back in time, to the days of ‘M’s red pen and the startling crimson scratchings with which he wantonly decorated my feeble attempts at exalted academic prose. As I continued to read Proust, and then to expand my reading into works about Proust, I felt a rising sense of vindication. So what, if my sentences ramble? So what, if they are hard to follow because, in a burst of creative energy, I have seen fit to intersperse them with a generous abundance of relative clauses and multitudinous, unnecessary, and frequently misplaced commas? Too much of what we accept as ‘good’ writing these days is far too spare for my taste. The influence of a thin kind of journalese, and the worship of minimalist expression, does not sit well with me at all. At times, when reading popular literature, it feels just a bit too ‘samey’ and consequently rather bland. Proust’s elaborate style made me slow down, savour the language and ponder the scenes and characters he portrays in ways I had not done since last dipping into much older, pre-20th century English literature. Though complex, and demanding of my attention, and my ability to concentrate long enough to maintain the thread of his sentences, it was refreshing.
The austere approach to writing espoused by disciples of Hemingway may be of benefit in directing our attention to the kernel of an idea, but where, really, is the wealth and beauty in that, the delight in words for their own sake, or the opportunity for the reader to encounter new unknown words, or a turn of phrase that heretofore (when did you last read THAT word?) one had not previously encountered? Such writing seems, to me, to remove the chance to build a reader’s repertoire of vocabulary, and denies the reader the joy of learning more of the creative potentialities of our own language. I may not be a fan of Emmanuel Macron’s politics, but his efforts to revitalise the French language by using and re-popularising old-fashioned French words and idioms is admirable. On the other hand, the ‘Newspeak’ that typifies much written English today has begun to have the effects that Orwell predicted. In our search for the most efficient way to describe the germ of an idea, we have given up much of the wealth of expression that enables us to think.
With glee, I dashed off a message to ‘M’. With no reference to the context in which I had been formulating my thoughts, or why I was suddenly raising such a topic out of the blue, and because this was now several years after the fact, he must have scratched his head in bewilderment.
“Hi there, this is random, but think back to your very kind reading of, and suggestions for my academic writing. In my defence (I AM joking), I reference Proust, who according to Czapski deliberately wrote immensely long sentences… just because he wanted to.
“They could go on for a page and a half… with no paragraphs… A sentence by Proust was… tangled and full of parenthetical asides, with parentheses inside parentheses, with the most disparate associations spreading out in every direction and metaphors dragging along towards new parentheses and new associations.” (Czapski (1987) in Karpeles (2018), p. 31.)
While debate still rages as to whether Proust was the best writer of the 20th Century, his novel is certainly the longest… 1,267,069 words… Just thought you might like to know that. In the meantime, I continue to espouse the virtues of the ‘run on’, and am wedded to the use of multiple commas as a literary adhesive device.”
‘M’s response (bless him), came back with typical brevity. A single, red, heart emoticon.
I forgave his lack of a proper written response with the assumption that he just happened to be unusually busy that day. Perhaps he would be more expansive later? I followed up a short while after that with a few comments about other matters of mutual interest, then closed with the following…
“In the meantime, I will continue reading Proust’s extra long sentences and relishing the commas.”
… to which ‘M’ replied with equal crispness, with, this time, a laughing face emoticon, complete with falling tears. Then, perhaps in a slightly regretful display of compassion, he added some actual script…
I considered the use of 16 ‘o’s’ slightly excessive, but since I had just advocated for greater recognition of the value of long and expressive sentences, I could hardly complain. His comment WAS long (or at least the acronym was) and it certainly WAS expressive.
Alain de Botton, in “How Proust Can Change Your Life” comments that one value of Proust’s work is that his “opus might be a way to pass a slow-moving train journey across the Siberian steppes.” de Botton (1997, p. 13)
Thankfully, he debunks this limited and rather disrespectful estimation of Proust’s work by providing several useful suggestions as to how Proust’s interminable reflections may be of practical benefit to today’s reader (hence his book, I suppose). That said, I finally felt I had come to terms with my own writing style. A happy cloak of final acceptance settled on my weary writer’s shoulders. I felt… free. No longer was there a need to peel away so-called extraneous or irrelevant material, as one has to do when writing in one’s academic field.
Now, I could be as verbose as I like, and waffle on in literary self-indulgence at my own pleasure. As a recent retiree, you may consider this to be a sign of the ever-encroaching deterioration of my cognitive abilities, wrought by the effects of a less demanding lifestyle and the ravages of advancing age. But there is more to it than that. Proust (may he rest in peace), has given me, and anyone, permission to say what we want, how we want, for as long as we want. Not that this will be conducive to actual publication, but, in my case, I write for myself, so that doesn’t really matter. If, when I do send something off, someone wants to publish it, great! If not, I have enjoyed the process, and in the doing, usually gotten something off my metaphorical chest!
The mess of red markings from the pen of a diligent editor may, for most modern writers, be an experience of the past. These days, pressing a few buttons on a computer keyboard does the job just as effectively. However, the need for eloquent and beautiful writing has not diminished. There is something to be said in support of a restoration of the apparently disappearing art of elaborate expression. In our return to an enjoyment of the pleasures of slow food, and slow living in general, we would do well to reconsider the benefits of slow reading and the even slower process of creating the kind of writing that promotes this. And Proust definitely makes us slow down. Pithy, punchy and precise does not always do the job, especially not for those of us who relish words for their own sake, who partake of the peculiar delights of language purely for the nourishment of our soul.
‘M’s red crossings-out may have embellished the pages of my academic drafts to good effect, but I am now liberated from the need to adapt my writing to academic conventions, or if writing in a different genre, to the shifting trends of literary fashion. In my own attempts to make up for ‘lost time’ I can now happily devote myself to recapturing a sort of Victorian-era appreciation for literary decoration. There is, after all, a pleasure to be taken in, and an art to the act of embellishment (one only has to explore the works of William Morris to appreciate that), and there is a particular delight, when writing, in the act of creating a slower, more deliberate rhythm, and a gentler pace of flow, when drawing on a wider pool of words.
Whether or not my writing achieves the lofty status of publication is now, for me, less important, though I’m happy to share it, if it entertains, or starts a useful discussion. There is, instead, a more personal value in writing that, for me, lies less in the product and its potential for public approbation, than in the process of crafting a written text itself. The treasure to be discovered is to be found in the act of thoughtfully putting words to the page, in a manner that is pleasing to oneself, in sentences as long and complex as one wishes them to be, with as many commas as one wishes, whether or not those words end up being read, or… red.
Czapski, J. (1987). Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Translated by Karpeles, E. (2018). New York: New York Review Books, Classics.
De Botton, A. (1997). How Proust Can Change Your Life. London: Picador
Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870. (2000). David Copperfield. New York: Modern Library
Orwell, G. (2021). Nineteen Eighty-Four. Penguin Classics
Penkevich, S. (2012). Goodreads Review on ‘Swann’s Way’. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/352766380
 As a New Zealander, I bear absolutely no antipathy towards Australians. The two nations are closely related, friendly, cultural rivals. See my previous story “Hit From Behind” for a fuller explanation.