The “College” Syndrome

I’ve spent six years in the system, studying English Literature and English Writing. I’ve been a part of the “wine and cheese” crew of upnosed critics, though they were never palatable to my tastes. In the last year of my college I got figuratively backhanded across the face by a professor due to my (up until then) cunning ability to write bullshit.

Going to college for English is a complicated course of study. My friends, family (parents particularly) thought it was pointless: I can’t get a good job out of college, and the chance of me being a successful professional fiction writer is pretty low. The average joe thinks it’s a waste, so the natural reaction for some writers/english people is to defend by word choice.

Yes, this entry has a point. I stepped out of college as a critic. I had studied what worked, and what hadn’t, through history. I had learned big, complicated words with just the right connotation to purvey my thoughts. I was a fierce critic, but one afraid of being wrong. I was a critic as a defense mechanism. Because the action was reinforced and condoned as a mark of “intelligence.”

It is, to a point. I’m glad that professor called me into her office and failed my paper on grounds of “not knowing anything.” She handled it respectfully, privately, and allowed me to keep my dignity. It was the single most important lesson I learned while at college: don’t hide behind preaching, and say what you know. If you don’t know enough to form the proper thought, learn more.

My fiancee, as well, sees through it. I believe she was the one to turn me on to simplifying my writing for the sake of flow. For the sake of telling a story. She’d read the first paragraph of a complex paper and say, “stupid,” and stop reading. Not saying she thought every complicated paper was stupid, only the writer as she saw it. The art of bullshit.

I made the mistake of reading The New Yorker recently. Particularly, the Pulitzer prize potentials, and who the editors voted for. They even included introductory paragraphs from those in the running they ultimately rejected. I read a few perfectly written paragraphs that were so bloated with self-absorbed bullshit I actually laughed. These were being heralded as our great modern novels, and they were nothing more than essays I wrote in college.

Don’t get me wrong–some of those novels sounded incredible. Perhaps even brilliant. Yet some intro paragraphs were what the Wine and Cheese club would write so they could “run circles” around the other classmates the next time we critiqued a piece. College trained me to see bullshit–an application I use daily. I know when someone’s lying, I know when someone’s faking, I know when someone’s unintelligent in the field they’re talking/writing about. I saw nuggets of insight there, yet hidden behind “immense” vocabulary: a few of these novelists had the College Syndrome.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from my usual “these stories are too simple” commentary. I believe both sides require study to understand where not to go, and how not to write. I even have a good friend with his own blog that writes with such complexity–and he knows some of his stuff–that it’s nearly impossible to swim through. He dumps layers of statement in the same sentence, overlaps fact with opinion, and ultimately paints such a jarring picture that the reader either says, “whoa that’s over my head!” or walks away.

Unfortunately for him and many other College English people, the writing doesn’t have to be. His intent is (was?) to be important, respectable, respected in his field of study. It’s the image all college kids want. It’s the image the professors meld and nurture. And for the most part, it’s needed and good.

Write as simple as possible. As simple as you can about complex topics. If it’s still too complicated, consider why. If the topic is simply massive, or your expertise is honed, keep on trucking. If you want to wash your reader away in awe at your splendor and ability, please reconsider. College Syndrome belongs in college. As Spiderman said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” To the english people out there, use your power wisely.

~x

EDIT: (of course then I come across http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jul/12/what-make-finnegans-wake/ and I feel my entire entry is made immaterial)

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