Bad academic writing:

I’m reading for an essay on Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony and came across this, from Timothy Aubry’s “Middlebrow Aesthetics and the Therapeutic: The Politics of Interiority in Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife:” “Although occasionally called upon to perform certain emeritus functions, the omniscient narrator has retired decisively from the scene of contemporary United States fiction.” Translated from academic-ese to English, this roughly means, “Contemporary writers seldom use omniscient narrators.” If absolutely necessary, you could say, “Contemporary American writers seldom use omniscient narrators.”

EDIT: And, for an entertaining counterpoint, Paul Dawson says in “The Return of Omniscience in Contemporary Fiction:”

I want to begin this essay by pointing out what I think has become a salient feature, or at least significant trend, in contemporary British and American literary fiction: namely, a prominent reappearance of the ostensibly outmoded omniscient narrator. In the last two decades, and particularly since the turn of the millennium, a number of important and popular novelists have produced books which exhibit all the formal elements we typically associate with literary omniscience: an all-knowing, heterodiegetic narrator who addresses the reader directly, offers intrusive commentary on the events being narrated, provides access to the consciousness of a range of characters, and generally asserts a palpable presence within the fictional world.

So what’s happening to omniscient narrators? Are they “seldom use[d]” or making “a prominent reappearance?” Or both?

4 responses

    • “The least of its sins is prolixity.”

      True, but I try to focus on one sin at a time!

      I suspect that railing against bad academic writing is as futile as railing against the sun for rising, but I’m going to do it occasionally anyway, in the spirit of “Is Bad Writing Necessary?“, which might be my favorite Lingua Franca article.


  1. I don’t think the problem with the Aubry quotation is entirely “academic-ese.” It’s more that the writer has an idea for a nice, audience-appropriate metaphor–the omniscient narrator as a retired professor–but doesn’t deploy it in a way that’s mildly charming or chuckle-inducing rather than dead on the page. It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but I’d still hope that someone who studies novels and modern writing would at least be able to craft a metaphor to maximize wit.


  2. Pingback: I’m not the only one to notice bad academic writing: B.R. Myers in The Atlantic « The Story's Story

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