Listeners and Readers Have Different Needs

Quintilian Institutio Oratoria, 10.1

“Indeed, some things are useful for listeners and others are good for readers. A speaking narrator causes excitement with his energy and feeds our attention not only with vivid images but with the material itself. Everything comes alive and is moved and we feed on new ideas as if they are just born in charm and worry. We are hand not just on the fate of the plot but on the danger faced by those who narrate it. In addition, the voice itself, proper movement, and performance shaped as each segment will demand are the most powerful aspects of recitation and, as I may say, teacheverything equally.

When it comes to reading, the audience’s judgment can be more certain since a listener’s prejudice often turns either by their own taste or by the shouting of those who are responding to the performance. Disagreement makes us feel shame and our unacknowledged humility keeps us from trusting our own responses even though pretty terrible stuff is pleasing to the majority of people. A summoned audience, moreover, will even applaud for things they don’t like. The opposite occurs too: poor taste often can’t tell when something has been finely put.

Reading is private—it does not move through us with the force of live performance and you’re allowed to re-read often just in case you are uncertain or want to memorize it. We may return to the text and work it again the way we let our food be chewed and worked because we swallow it for easier digestion. In this way, our reading is not raw but it is ready for memory through repeated softening and preparation.”

Alia vero audientis, alia legentis magis adiuvant. Excitat qui dicit spiritu ipso, nec imagine tantum rerum sed rebus incendit. Vivunt omnia enim et moventur, excipimusque nova illa velut nascentia cum favore ac sollicitudine: nec fortuna modo iudicii sed etiam ipsorum qui orant periculo adficimur. Praeter haec vox, actio decora, accommodata ut quisque locus postulabit pronuntiandi vel potentissima in dicendo ratio, et, ut semel dicam, pariter omnia docent. In lectione certius iudicium, quod audienti frequenter aut suus cuique favor aut ille laudantium clamor extorquet. Pudet enim dissentire, et velut tacita quadam verecundia inhibemur plus nobis credere, cum interim et vitiosa pluribus placent, et a conrogatis laudantur etiam quae non placent. Sed e contrario quoque accidit ut optime dictis gratiam prava iudicia non referant.

Lectio libera est nec ut actionis impetu transcurrit, sed repetere saepius licet, sive dubites sive memoriae penitus adfigere velis. Repetamus autem et tractemus et, ut cibos mansos ac prope liquefactos demittimus quo facilius digerantur, ita lectio non cruda sed multa iteratione mollita et velut confecta memoriae imitationique tradatur.

MS Additional 11639, f. 116r, France, 1277-1286 — From Here

On Reading (and Writing) for Pleasure

Note: this is a guest post and possible first of many from the amazing Deborah Beck.

“Whenever I hear a man discoursing on virtue, or on some other form of wisdom, who is a true man and worthy of the words he says, I am hugely delighted, admiring at the same time both the speaker and how the things being said are fitting and harmonious with each other.”

ὅταν μὲν γὰρ ἀκούω ἀνδρὸς περὶ ἀρετῆς διαλεγομένου ἢ περί τινος σοφίας ὡς ἀληθῶς ὄντος ἀνδρὸς καὶ ἀξίου τῶν λόγων ὧν λέγει, χαίρω ὑπερφυῶς, θεώμενος ἅμα τόν τε λέγοντα καὶ τὰ λεγόμενα ὅτι πρέποντα ἀλλήλοις καὶ ἁρμόττοντά ἐστι.

 Plato Laches 188c

Several years ago, I taught an advanced undergraduate Greek class on Homer’s Odyssey.  Many of my students were vociferously indignant about the poor quality, as writing, of much of the scholarship that I asked them to read. I was unable to disagree with them, as I often feel much the same way. I suspect most professional Classicists do, whether or not they are willing to admit it. Reading Sophocles, or Livy, or Galen, or Ovid, is usually more fun than reading our colleagues’ views on these authors. The rare exceptions to the generally disappointing quality of academic writing as prose can be easily identified by the lively enthusiasm with which a book reviewer comments on the writing style of a new publication.

The summation of the BMCR review of Mimetic Contagion, by the late Robert Germany (Oxford 2016), is the exception that proves the rule: “This impeccably produced book is unpretentiously erudite; as the saying goes, much more than the sum of its (very many, ancient and modern) parts, impressively documented and arranged: literary-philological analysis and performance criticism, art-historical and anthropological inquiry, sociocultural and intellectual history. Germany regularly deploys critical theory pedagogically judiciously, painlessly introducing uninitiated readers to Benjamin, Foucault, Frazer, Gell, and Irigaray, to name some. Ultimately, Germany’s sophisticated and dense analysis, masterfully delivered in clear, serene prose is a pleasure to read.”

How often do we encounter such praise of academic writing? Not often at all. My students’ annoyance about this was a wake-up call. Why, I wondered, do we put up with so much academic writing that is so lackluster as English prose? And what can be done about it?

Sententiae Antiquae is one answer. It has tens of thousands of enthusiastic readers in large part because it helps us to explore learned matters, and complex and challenging topics, by writing about them with engaging clarity and vigor. A post on Sententiae Antiquae always sounds like a real person speaking. This is a key reason that SA has been so successful in fostering substantive conversations about difficult issues in both Classical literature and current affairs. The writing styles of SA’s contributors put out a welcome mat for anyone interested in the subject under discussion. In fact, SA models for readers that writing style is important, because writing style makes an idea both more enjoyable and more persuasive to its audiences.

An ongoing complaint about the academy in recent decades, and about the Humanities in particular, is that our scholarship has become so specialized that no one outside of a small group of experts can understand it. Specialization in and of itself, in my view, is not the main problem. This way of framing the issue creates a false dichotomy between erudition and accessibility. It allows scholars to wiggle out of the problem by making the issue one of too little knowledge on the part of someone else, instead of taking responsibility for asking necessary questions about what “erudition” should look like. At a time when many Classicists are eager for ways to bring more people into our field, a meaningful yardstick for measuring erudition is the ability to create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.

This does not mean that scholarly writing needs to be “dumbed down” in order to be appealing to a wider audience. Nor am I suggesting that everyone now writing scholarly monographs for Oxford and Cambridge should instead write general interest books. My beef is not with scholarly writing and argument per se, but with the default understanding of what constitutes good scholarly writing. In my view, the clotted and wearisome “Academic-ese” writing style that we too often equate with erudition can also be seen as laziness. It’s hard to present a scholarly argument in a clear and straightforward way that can be understood by anyone familiar with the ancient evidence. It’s much easier to write the kind of “insider baseball” footnotes that remind knowledgeable readers of scholarship they have already read, while leaving everyone else frustrated and confused. It’s easier to dismiss calls for scholarship that any devoted reader of Homer can enjoy than it is to try to write such scholarship. But this is something that scholars should be thinking about, because “more accessible scholarly writing” is one answer to the question, “how can we make our field more welcoming to more different kinds of people?”

Learning to write in a more user-friendly way is an ongoing project. Whenever I am working on a new publication, I now ask myself whether those former students of mine would be aggrieved if they were asked to read my piece. If the answer is yes, I’ve done it wrong and I should try again. If you’re not sure if you’re one of Those Writers, who are writing in Academic-ese rather than English, ask yourself some questions. How many multisyllabic Latinate abstractions have you used? Can you read one of your paragraphs aloud without stumbling or running out of breath? How many subordinate clauses does your typical sentence have? Ask a non-teacher to read your latest paper, and invite them to be brutally honest with you about the style. Then listen carefully to their answer. My students have made me a better writer, in ways that all of us would do well to think about.

Image result for medieval manuscript reading
Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century. Cow reading (@BLMedieval, Egerton 3277)

The Different Needs of Listeners and Readers

Quintilian Institutio Oratoria, 10.1

“Indeed, some things are useful for listeners and others are good for readers. A speaking narrator causes excitement with his energy and feeds our attention not only with vivid images but with the material itself. Everything comes alive and is moved and we feed on new ideas as if they are just born in charm and worry. We are hand not just on the fate of the plot but on the danger faced by those who narrate it. In addition, the voice itself, proper movement, and performance shaped as each segment will demand are the most powerful aspects of recitation and, as I may say, teacheverything equally.

When it comes to reading, the audience’s judgment can be more certain since a listener’s prejudice often turns either by their own taste or by the shouting of those who are responding to the performance. Disagreement makes us feel shame and our unacknowledged humility keeps us from trusting our own responses even though pretty terrible stuff is pleasing to the majority of people. A summoned audience, moreover, will even applaud for things they don’t like. The opposite occurs too: poor taste often can’t tell when something has been finely put.

Reading is private—it does not move through us with the force of live performance and you’re allowed to re-read often just in case you are uncertain or want to memorize it. We may return to the text and work it again the way we let our food be chewed and worked because we swallow it for easier digestion. In this way, our reading is not raw but it is ready for memory through repeated softening and preparation.”

Alia vero audientis, alia legentis magis adiuvant. Excitat qui dicit spiritu ipso, nec imagine tantum rerum sed rebus incendit. Vivunt omnia enim et moventur, excipimusque nova illa velut nascentia cum favore ac sollicitudine: nec fortuna modo iudicii sed etiam ipsorum qui orant periculo adficimur. Praeter haec vox, actio decora, accommodata ut quisque locus postulabit pronuntiandi vel potentissima in dicendo ratio, et, ut semel dicam, pariter omnia docent. In lectione certius iudicium, quod audienti frequenter aut suus cuique favor aut ille laudantium clamor extorquet. Pudet enim dissentire, et velut tacita quadam verecundia inhibemur plus nobis credere, cum interim et vitiosa pluribus placent, et a conrogatis laudantur etiam quae non placent. Sed e contrario quoque accidit ut optime dictis gratiam prava iudicia non referant.

Lectio libera est nec ut actionis impetu transcurrit, sed repetere saepius licet, sive dubites sive memoriae penitus adfigere velis. Repetamus autem et tractemus et, ut cibos mansos ac prope liquefactos demittimus quo facilius digerantur, ita lectio non cruda sed multa iteratione mollita et velut confecta memoriae imitationique tradatur.

MS Additional 11639, f. 116r, France, 1277-1286 — From Here

What Audience Are You Writing For? Cicero on the Middle-Ground

In light of a recent article on Slate criticizing the register of Academic writing, here is a reminder that nihil sub sole novum [est? immo, umquam erit]

[Marcus Varro is the speaker in this excerpt]

Cicero, Academica 1.4

“Because I recognized that philosophy had been most expertly explored in the Greek language, I believed that anyone from Rome who was inclined toward the subject would prefer to read it in Greek, if they were educated in Greek doctrines. If they shuddered at Greek arts and learning, they would not be interested in those very matters which could not be understood without Greek. So, I did not want to write what the unlearned could not understand or what the learned would not care to.”

Nam cum philosophiam viderem diligentissime Graecis litteris explicatam, existimavi si qui de nostris eius studio tenerentur, si essent Graecis doctrinis eruditi, Graeca potius quam nostra lecturos; sin a Graecorum artibus et disciplinis abhorrerent, ne haec quidem curaturos quae sine eruditione Graeca intellegi non possunt; itaque ea nolui scribere quae nec indocti intellegere possent nec docti legere curarent.

Image result for Ancient Roman philosopher

Poets and Audiences, Some Pithy Sayings

The following anecdotes are taken from the Gnomologium Vaticanum

106

“When Antagoras the poet had a performance at Thebes and obtained no honor, he said “Thebans, Odysseus screwed up when he covered his companions’ ears as he was sailing by the Sirens. It would have been right for him to hire you as sailors.”

᾿Ανταγόρας ὁ ποιητὴς ἀκρόασιν παρέχων ἐν Θήβαις καὶ μηδεμιᾶς τυγχάνων τιμῆς εἶπεν· „ὦ ἄνδρες Θηβαῖοι· ἥμαρτεν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἐμφράξας τῶν ἑταίρων τὰς ἀκοάς, ὅτε τὰς Σειρῆνας παρέπλει· ἔδει γὰρ αὐτὸν ὑμᾶς ναύτας μισθώσασθαι.”

 

109

“When Antagoras the Rhodian epic poet was reading his composition the Thebais in Thebes and no one was applauding him, he took the book and said, “You are rightly called Boiotians, for you all have cows’ ears!”

᾿Ανταγόρας ὁ ῾Ρόδιος ἐποποιὸς ἐν Θήβαις ἀναγινώσκων τὸ τῆς Θηβαΐδος σύγγραμμα, ὡς οὐδεὶς ἐπεσημαίνετο, εἱλήσας τὸ βιβλίον εἶπεν· „δικαίως καλεῖσθε Βοιωτοί· βοῶν γὰρ ὦτα ἔχετε.”

 

454

“When Persinos the poet was asked who the best poet is he says “each poet is to himself, but Homer to everyone else.”

Περσῖνος ὁ ποιητὴς ἐρωτηθεὶς τίς ἄριστός ἐστι ποιητὴς „παρ’ ἑαυτῷ μὲν ἕκαστος”, <εἶπε>, „παρὰ δὲ τοῖς ἄλλοις ῞Ομηρος”.

 

468

“Protagoras, when he was slandered by some poet because he didn’t take his poems, said “Wretch—it’s better for me to be slandered by you than to listen to your poems.”

Πρωταγόρας ἐποποιοῦ τινος αὐτὸν βλασφημοῦντος ἐπὶ τῷ μὴ ἀποδέχεσθαι τὰ ποιήματα αὐτοῦ „ὦ τάν”, ἔφη· „κρεῖττόν μοι ἐστι κακῶς ἀκούειν ὑπό σου ἢ τῶν σῶν ποιημάτων ἀκούειν”.

 

Image result for Ancient Greek vase poet performance