It’s a question that puzzles writers of all stripes: why is so much academic writing so terrible? It’s an issue that’s been a lifelong head-scratcher for the linguist Steven Pinker, who set out to answer the question once and for all. His verdict? It has to do with the meaning of “literary style.”
English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.
Not long after that, I was given Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. The book, which I had always thought of as belonging to my mother’s generation, was published in 1963, the year before I was born; it has sold more than three million copies. I had never read it. I have since done an informal poll among women I know who teach in universities, and most of them not only have not read the book, but also looked startled when I asked them about it, as if I had mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Norton is republishing the book about “the problem that has no name” in a 50th-anniversary edition this month, with a new introduction by Gail Collins and an afterword by Anna Quindlen. The edition also includes Friedan’s epilogue, written at the 10-year mark, in 1973, by which time she had, among other things, helped found the National Organization for Women. In that epilogue, Friedan recalls how, in the 1960s, before she wrote the book, women’s-magazine editors had tried to force her to rewrite her articles to cater to their advertisers’ pro-housewife line, or else they killed the pieces.
Some things have changed less than we would like.
Along with these Web attacks, Nasreen had now started e-mailing organizations that I was professionally associated with. My literary agency in London received an e-mail accusing me of the familiar crimes. The Personals department of the London Review of Books, bizarrely, was sent an enraged e-mail heaping curses on me (Nasreen obligingly copied me on this). More recently, in the comments section under a review I published in The Guardian, she wrote: ‘Mr. Lasdun, your own personal life is a bad porn film and I’m sorry I didn’t sleep with you and so you had me raped and gave my work to Aipac babies for $. … ‘