You Want to Write for a Popular Audience? Really?

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

June 09, 2015

At a recent job interview, I explained to the committee that I was trying to write a book for a popular audience. One of them smirked, but at least had the grace to try to hide it behind her hand. The self-described maverick of the team — you know, the one who couldn’t be bothered to wear a suit to the interview — simply laughed out loud. The head of the committee stared at me in genuine amazement. "Why bother?" he asked. After all, there was no hope of reaching the general public. Or as he put it, "the masses will always just be the masses."

It was a somewhat alarming sentiment coming from an extremely well-tenured professor at a particularly generous state institution, and I think I suggested as much in response. Needless to say, that year the search committee received many strong applications from candidates who better met the department’s teaching requirements.

One of the attractions of writing for a broader audience is of course the opportunity to tackle a more synoptic range of issues than is usually allowed in the increasingly specialized fields of academe. There is also the chance of being read by more people than just the embittered referee whom you did not cite sufficiently and the overworked graduate student completing her literature review.

Yet as I struggle on with my apparently misguided endeavors, I sometimes think that maybe the search committee had a point. It is difficult pitching academic material in a way that is suitable for a popular audience. I don’t pretend to be an unparalleled communicator of ideas, nor do I kid myself about my ability to produce pithy and engaging prose. After many years of writing for peer review, I have developed a nasty habit of overusing the passive voice — not to mention the usual reliance upon jargon, excessive footnotes, and the death by a thousand qualifications that undermines any attempt to state a clear, precise thesis. It is definitely a learning process. But no matter how dull the final product, I was at least confident that I could express my ideas clearly. That’s what we’re trained for, right?

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Yet I have been amazed at how much I have been asked to "dumb down" my material. The first agent I worked with almost put me off the project altogether. I wanted to produce something in the spirit of Bertrand Russell or William James, household names who weren’t afraid to tackle sophisticated ideas. She was thinking more How Heidegger Can Make You Thin (Realize your Authentic Being in just 8 weeks!), or Why Socrates Would Have Been a Climate-Change Skeptic. We parted company acrimoniously.

My current agent is much better. When he tells me that I need to rewrite a section or express an argument more clearly, I know at least that he’s both interested in what I have to say and understands what I am trying to do. Nevertheless, I have still been surprised at the revisions he suggests. Will the general reader really not understand that point? Or will the masses always just be the masses?

On bad days I like to blame falling education standards, or the tendency toward lowest-common-denominator marketing, or just the collapse of civilization in general. But there is another important factor to bear in mind. One way or another, we as academics have ceded the public communication of ideas to journalists and celebrities and other nonexperts in the field.

It is hardly surprising that the market demands ever-simpler caricatures of important topics when the standards have been set by professional sportsmen with armies of researchers tucked away in the small print of their acknowledgments, or amiable television actors whose only qualification is having been in a sitcom set during the historical period in question. It is difficult to sell a fresh perspective on an age-old topic when all it takes to count as a "professional historian" is an undergraduate degree and an uncle who works in the BBC. It is almost impossible to package a sophisticated piece of reasoning for the general public when the widely held impression of "philosophy" is based upon the opinionated fallacies of a Richard Dawkins or the insipid drivel of an Alain de Botton.

Part of the problem of course is that writing for a popular audience does not count toward tenure — except perhaps under the nebulous concept of "outreach." Outside of the North American bubble, you will find that mainstream publishing will not earn you many points on the latest government-mandated research assessment. It is therefore perfectly understandable that professional academics the world over have gradually abandoned the task. But it has also led to a culture that positively despises the effort.

At one of my previous institutions was an individual who had managed to crack the elusive mainstream market: shiny new paperbacks from Penguin neatly lined up in the doorway of Barnes & Noble, regular column inches in the Sunday magazines, the whole nine yards. Whenever out of earshot, he was scorned and vilified. In all fairness, he did have an extraordinarily high opinion of himself and a willingness to share this with whomsoever he could buttonhole at a party. But this was never the source of the criticism. "He sold out" was the most frequent complaint. "He hasn’t published any real work in years" would be the response. It was widely concluded that he was "only writing this crap" because he was no longer capable of pursuing genuine academic research.

But we can’t have it both ways. If serious academics do not attempt to reach a wider audience, someone else will, and there is no guarantee that they are going to uphold the intellectual standards that we desire. Without a change in the existing academic culture, we will continue to see public debate on important issues derailed by factual errors and invalid reasoning. If we really are committed to the old-fashioned ideals of education and the pursuit of knowledge — and in today’s corporate environment, that is no longer a given — it seems that we should be rewarding the attempt to reach a broader audience.

But until then, I’m with the masses.

Paul Dicken is a philosopher of science at the University of New South Wales.