Reading through this piece by John Leo in City Journal, I’m drawn to its conclusion:
But writing isnâ€™t a personal or private enterprise. Itâ€™s an attempt to change consciousness and change the world.
And this final line (after quoting Richard Weaver):
Writing is power. If you write well, you can have an impact.
There are fewer clichÃ©s stronger in writing studies than the one that “writing has power,” “writing changes the world,” “it is our obligation to make the world better through writing.” Why are we drawn to such phrases? Is anyone claiming that “writing should be powerless?” That it “should make the world a worse place”? When one takes a strong stance for something that really has no opposition (i.e. “family values”), what kind of gesture is one making?
When writing is framed in such a way, it serves (at least) a few purposes: hyperbole, high brow sentiment, self-satisfaction. The last point is found in service learning/critical pedagogy, where writing is posed as that which will solve the world’s or communities’ problems. The second is closer to Leo’s piece (a former speech), which works to distinguish “low quality” writing (like – according to his example, a student who uses “I”) from that which aspires to loftier expectations.
The high brow continues to be the measuring stick by which many dismiss, for instance, blogs. What is high brow about a 12 year old’s Livejournal, a nerd’s fascination with a complex show like Lost, a music buff’s thoughts on a current or past song, a daily collection of Tokyo oddities, and so on? The high brow, as well, ignores that most writing does not aspire to such wonderful goals: lists, tables, notes,maps, charts, etc. are the foundations of writing and the bulk of writing practices.
And that brings me to a point Leo makes:
Further, our minds are clogged with the clichÃ©s, idioms, and rhythms of other people, and we have to work to avoid them.
The high brow is as clichÃ© as any form of expression (“hot as an oven,” “big as a house”). It draws on an imaginary moral ground that is non-contextualized and which is mostly based on the “feeling” that x is right, y is wrong. That “feeling,” like many clichÃ©s (“work hard and you will succeed,” for instance), is guilty of the very crime Leo quotes Paul Johnson for support: “stale expressions and combinations of words, threadbare metaphors, clichÃ©s and literary conceits.”
It’s sad to see a college address reduce the complexity of writing to such simplistic positioning. If Leo, or any other proponent of this thinking, was really out to use writing “to change the world,” he would be better off addressing the complexity of writing, not the clichÃ© (or straw man) attacks on post-structuralists (see the longer version on his website) or the non-contextualized (and always inaccurate ) replay of teachers who are “against grammar” (again, see longer version). Leo’s work is the very clichÃ© he is supposedly speaking against.