On the rediscovery of complex writing

This weekend I began reading some “scholarly” essays in casual pursuit of following the curriculum of a college-level anthropology class on gender and sex. Finishing the first reading, an essay from a 1970s issue of Feminist Studies, I felt my brain struggling to keep up with a style and complexity of writing that I’m no longer familiar with. As compared to almost any other form of casual reading—non-fiction, fiction, newspapers, blogs, you name it—academic writing is difficult.

It was an interesting rediscovery of the effect such writing has on your brain. An almost tangible stretching of the mind. The needing to read certain passages three, then four times to grasp the intent behind the words. Rather than an easy skate through creative writing, where you let the characters and imagery of the scenes carry you to another place, reading difficult scholarly writing feels more akin to an intelligent commune with the writing, and you find yourself physically nodding, satisfied when you’ve traced the author’s logic through multiple pages of thesis and finally arrived at the understanding they intended to convey.

It struck me how easy it is to evade this type of complex writing entirely in the current culture. I would wager that popular fiction, magazine writing, and internet blogs—likely three of the most accessible mediums for reading in the year 2016—are written at a high school level. Some of the most widely respected authors of modern history—Earnest Hemingway, Jane Austen, among others—wrote at a level comprehensible by elementary school students. After one’s formal education ends—after undergraduate, for many—it’s unlikely that they would accidentally encounter writing that requires a reading level above a college education.

It felt refreshing to read something complex, and I was reminded of a sentiment expressed by David Foster Wallace during his conversations with David Lipsky. He expressed his specific intent, with Infinite Jest (but also clearly present in nearly all of his writing), to provide a reading experience that was hard work for the reader. He sought, at least in part, to show those of a generation raised on television and movies—what he’d have called “candy”—that writing can be complex, almost difficult to read, yet deliver a unique type of satisfaction from having comprehended it.