A few days ago while presenting my proposal at the Departmental level for my Graduate project, one of the panelists, a professor, accused my writing of being too complicated and complex. He advised that a charcoal burner should be able to read and understand. In my reply, I told him, and I must admit, it was on a light touch, that I don’t write for charcoal burners. He, obviously and quite expectedly, took an offense but it got me thinking. Should our writing be understood by charcoal burners’? Does that imply a whittling down of content and, or, meaning? Does it, in this attempt, become pedestrian and un-intellectual?
I think simplicity is overrated in all facets of life. Often times we hear the KISS principle; Keep It Simple Stupid!; that communication should be simple, direct and with few words. While I agree with this analogy, I believe it only applies to conversational parlance. Writing is, as it should be, different. More especially literary writing. Literature is an art, and as is any art, there are conventions to it. I argued that there is a literary language, even in speech, that any serious literary scholar must adapt to.
In my Art of Writing class in Undergraduate I was taught that all writing has a target audience. No writer, or author, would write for everyone. He/she must have an intended recipient in mind. No one writes for ‘charcoal burners’, supposing such a group even exists! The legal field has a specific language code. So does the medical field. Literature too has a code. I should not, as a literary connoisseur, be blamed if charcoal burners do not understand my writing. They should not!
Famous Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo was once accused of writing hard to understand poems that posed a nightmare to students. I have to admit that I too had problems with Okigbo. His response, at the time was apt and suave. His poetry was meant for intellectuals, he said. I could not agree more. Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Laozi, Derrida are famous philosophers whose prose seem hard to understand but their views are so profound as to influence modern thought. They never wrote for charcoal burners.
Since time immemorial, writings have emerged that to ordinary minds, and eyes, seem difficult to understand. Literature has taught me that a work of art is judged by its aesthetic appeal to the reader. A writer chooses whichever principles to adopt in order to appeal to the intended readers. I am yet to find a student who enjoys reading Plato’s Republic or Odyssey’s Homer. They were, and still are, difficult texts to understand. Serious literary students would tell you in as much as they don’t like the texts, they enjoy it for its literary aesthetic appeal. Had Plato been alive today, I bet my professor would frown upon his writing insisting on a charcoal-burner-centered approach to writing! Who are these people anyway?
In as much as I would want everyone to love what I produce, I am not everyone’s cup of tea. I am the first to admit that it is the desire of any Graduate student for the defense panel during orals to fall in love with their product. However, scholarship also demands independence of thought and divergence of opinion. My dissertation sought to explore how literary texts in Africa have disrupted and challenged the traditional definitions of gender and sexuality through Queer theory. This implies the rejection of stable identity categories and totalizing singular definitions. It involves, as it must, the rejection of known methodological inquiries and more specifically the language. Why, pray tell, should I write for charcoal burners while my study is, figuratively, against charcoal burners?
Students of Queer theory would know Judith Butler, one of the world’s leading feminist philosophers. She is the pioneer of Queer studies, and as my supervisor always tells me, “If a Butler is not in your reading list, you are on the wrong track.” However, critics have dismissed her as an intellectual charlatan. Martha Nussbaum, one of her fiercest critics described her work thus: “it is difficult to come to grips with Butler because it is difficult to figure out what she is saying.” She has been described as “an empress of impenetrable phrase” even winning a prize. She responded in an op-ed piece in the New York Times celebrating her writing as the only way “to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at familiar world”. Simply put, she does not write for charcoal burners, why should I?
I have had my fair share of complicated writings. Once, for a class project, I was required to do a Marxist-feminist reading of Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy and I had to read the text three times in order to understand the Greek mythology. Post colonial students have interacted with Homi Bhabba’s Orientalism. Who understands it? It is a known fact that no student of Literature would be considered schooled unless he has analyzed these canonical texts. It is an occupational hazard any way, which I relish in.
Closer home, prolific contemporary writer Tony Mochama writes, in what others have termed pedestrian language which trivializes the art. I do not think his style is pedestrian, nor trivializing the noble Literature academy. The simple fact is that his writing is not meant for everyone; least of all charcoal burners. I do in fact enjoy his writing. Sometimes, I do not understand him, but I enjoy his books and articles. I know, and I have heard it said before, my professor would, and does, disapprove of his style. Evidently a Mochama is not meant for the professor. But why should it?
To be fair to the professor, he wanted my writing to be as clear and simple as possible for anyone reading the thesis to understand, including a primary school kid. A charcoal burner, he explained, is anyone outside my profession. I understood him but I did not agree with him. I argued that my writing should be free from jargon as much as possible but not everyone must understand. I do not write for everyone after all.
Should my writing be understood by a charcoal burner? Or should the charcoal burner rise to my level? I think he should. If he cannot, my writing is not meant for him. After all, I do not write for charcoal burners.