A little of yourself
The temperatures are still high, the Orange Menace will soon be leaving the UK, and I’ve spent the last couple of days shuttling between Yorkshire, where I’m giving talks and leading interviews over the course of the wonderful Ryedale Festival, and London, where I was speaking on Record Review yesterday morning. When I got back to Yorkshire last night, I was flicking through the Ryedale programme (for which I’ve provided some notes), and thinking about those three different modes of ‘speaking’ – radio, pre-concert talk, programme notes – and how they differ. And more than that: how much of my own opinions, personal preferences, and characterisations go into each.
One of the rather curious things about academic writing is that you are largely encouraged to excise yourself from the text. After all, in the world of musicology, of Musikwissenschaft (musical science, or knowledge and learning), the idea is to be objective. This is an admirable goal, because it encourages – or should encourage! – us to assess documents and other source material as carefully and critically as possible, and draw conclusions accordingly. If you’re already figured out what you think about something before you bother to consult the evidence, the chances are that wishful thinking and confirmation bias will make your version of events seem to you to be the ‘right’ one. Keeping an open mind is crucial.
When writing scholarly texts, then, the trick is usually to find a way to maintain an even tone which presents the evidence in a way that is interesting but also quite formal (no chatty asides, no first-person reminiscences unless there’s a really good reason for them, and so on). It occurs to me that, although the level of technical detail is going to be rather less in a programme note than an academic book chapter, programme notes are also usually relatively anonymous in terms of their tone – it’s the information we care about when we read programmes, not the ‘personality’ of the note writer. (Ironic, when you think about it, since academics might well care about who’s written a particularly scholarly tome, but don’t want to ‘see’ too much of him/her when reading the work.)
The pendulum swings entirely the other way when it comes to spoken engagement with an audience. Pre-concert talks put you directly in front of the crowd, and in addition to providing you with the opportunity to make the composers more human, to erase some of that Great Artist On Pedestal feeling and remind people that they were train-spotters, pigeon fanciers, played practical jokes, collected dolls or similar, it also gives you the chance to make yourself a human as well. People don’t come to hear fact dissemination machines. They come to hear other people.
And on the radio, too – and particularly on a show like Record Review – the point is to talk a bit about what you think and why. In fact, I think it’s an important part of being a reviewer to acknowledge that your opinion is personal. Whether it’s a CD or a concert, you will undoubtedly have thoughts that others who have heard the same thing won’t agree with – and probably also some thoughts that they will. So that distancing language which academics are encouraged to use is of minimal use to a critic. It’s not about stepping back from the scenario you’re presenting. It’s about owning up to being in the middle of it and acknowledging your presence and preferences in the judgements you pass.
This differentiation of tone and approach takes time to develop, and depending on how you’ve been trained, it can take a while to work out how much of yourself you want (or need) to put into your writing. It often takes undergraduates some time to get into the swing of the neutral, formal academic tone… but depending on their career paths, of course, they might not need to use that very much in later life. All of that said, some of my favourite scholarly writers have distinctive ways of writing: of course they do, they’re still individuals writing, even if they are trying to follow a particular style of presentation. Trying to persuade students (of any age) to read things for their written approach as much as for their content can be a helpful means of learning what it is to control and make the most of your own turn of phrase.
Still, there’s one place where I’d say the academic neutral tone puts people in extremely good stead. Hands up if you hate writing CVs and personal statements? For those of us who loathe having to big ourselves up on paper, whether it’s for a job application or an appraisal, the ‘distancing’ device can be a life saver. If you can imagine you’re writing about someone else for a while, it’s a whole lot easier to be critical – and, worse still, positive and proud – of our own work and personality.