Bakhtin and The Puppy Bowl: A Call for More Intellect

This morning, my friend L sent me this excerpt from David Shields’ new book How Literature Saved My Life, andI read it with a lot of eagerness.  First, I was intrigued by the idea as presented by one of my favorite writers – I wanted to see what he had to say about why we write and what it means for us to seek an audience.  But secondly, and perhaps most importantly today, I was craving the intellectual challenge that I know a Shields piece can require.  4582109354

I miss academia sometimes. Not the meetings and certainly not the grading, but the rigor of a community that requires high level intellectual thinking, at least in moments.  Of course, this respect for intellectualism often ignores the other elements of a human life – emotion, fatigue, preference – but there is something to be said for really engaging with another person’s thoughts and struggling to fold them in with your own. 

I miss that rigor a great deal.

Perhaps part of the reason is that so much of what I engage with is what I find on social media – 10-second blurbs that I can skim past – or blog posts which (as we have all been guided) don’t read more than 500 words because “we” have decided that no one will read a piece longer than that.

While part of me completely understands the need to capture readers quickly online, and while some of me loves the fast-paced ability to be in touch with almost everyone I know instantaneously, a really large part of me that lives above my shoulders wants more.  I want to be in rigorous conversations about the “why” behind things. 

I need to go deeper with my thoughts, to push beyond what I can fit in 140 characters.  I need to read books that challenge my mind and my ideas.  I need that mental rigor to keep me healthy and sane.

Yet, I fear this need because our mainstream culture does not often involve this intensity of thought, and sometimes, we abhor it. We criticize our president because he’s an intellectual; we choose books that break down practices that could be captured in a simple sentence into 15 even easier steps; we skip past articles that are longer than a page. I wonder if I will find a readership if I write more complexly.

Even as I write that though, I realize that I am doing what so many do – underestimating people. I am assuming that my readers won’t want to try, and that’s unfair.  It’s also perpetuating the cycle of willful ignorance that is so rampant in our culture. It’s giving in to the “lowest common denominator” of content because I believe that’s the only way to get readers.  Shame on me.

So, today, I will acknowledge that Shield’s reference to Nicholson Baker makes me want to dive into this work with both hands over my hand. I will acknowledge that I am so tired of reading pop psychology about self-improvement and marketing. I will own that I have – not intentionally but still in a very real way – contributed to this way of being in the world every time I think more about “readers” and “visitors” than about the quality of what I think and write about what I think. 

No more dumbing myself down, and no more catering to the ignorance that we say is the reality of popular American culture. I need better than that, and I expect we all do. I adore Mikhail Bakhtin . . . and I also love the Puppy Bowl. There’s room in my world for both.

Do you ever find yourself simplifying what you write to get readers? Do you find yourself feeling intellectually lazy, as I do? 

  • Kelly Chripczuk

    I’ve been thinking about this as I prepare to participate in a two day consultation on the nature of scripture for our denomination. (yikes!) It’s been almost 10 years since I finished seminary, four since I stopped teaching, three since I decided not to pursue a PhD, and 1.5 since I stopped working outside the home. And although I write, it’s in a different voice than the one I carried all those years back, a voice rooted in the dusty, dirty ground of motherhood and embodied spirituality. All that to say that I often forget that “intellectual” side of myself, the thrill I get from some good ol intellectual rigor and the like. But it’s still part of me and instead of being anxious that I’ve somehow “lost it” I’m starting to look forward to participating in some real and important conversations.

  • Aaron

    Thank you for the reminder that it’s ok to be a intellectual writer, even in this sound bite, tweet-able culture. For some of us the why’s behind are how we write hard (like a motherfucker if you will)… at least part of the time.

    I think the pressure to find our voice, our niche, our tribe causes us to forget that writers are multifaceted creatures. Other wise, we are a one trick pony… and probably going to bet that horse to death marketing ourselves as an “expert” of our voice. Truth is, we may not know what our niche is until we are dead, until we have written our words and they have found their various places on the library shelves.

    The evolution of the e-book should not mean the extinction of the mammoth sized essays that we sometimes need to explore the roots, branches, and trunks of the ideas hatching in our heads.

    Besides, some of us are just too nerdy to write any other way. 😉

  • Courtney

    Oh, this is almost a manifesto and I love every word of it! I am so frustrated by the dumbing down happening in our culture – I don’t understand and I don’t feel like a part of it. At the same time, I feel like it’s wrecking havoc on my concentration, on my enjoyment of the arts, on all sorts of things. Twitter and youtube and all of it certainly have their time and their place but so does art and literature! I will certainly keep reading what you write!

  • LarryTheDeuce

    I suppose that temptation is there. John Wesley read his sermons to a servant girl. If she couldn’t understand them, then he “dumbed” them down. I think it all depends on you you are writing to. If you are writing to a particular audience, then no. But if you are reaching broadly, then yes.

  • Katie Axelson

    Yes! I’m auditing a class this semester and after a year or so of mostly reading blogs, I’m less than thrilled about being using a machete to get through words again. I feel like my brain has turned to mush.