For this forum, we were asked to reflect on "how we write (well)."1 To make sure there was no evading or finessing the first person plural, we were encouraged to chose a passage of our own writing as the occasion to think about two key questions embedded in our brief: 1) what is changing about good academic writing (how do we write well now?) and 2) how are new platforms or audiences changing the nature of scholarly writing (for whom do we write well?).

The challenge of taking my own writing as an example made me think back to what I learned in graduate school, the time when good writers either deepen (by precision, perspective, historical nuance) or weaken (by jargon, specialization, bad scare quotes) their critical prose. One of the first scholarly rules I remembera rule that I thought would help me distinguish my best professional writing from  the "merely essayistic" (scare quotes!)had to do with lists. Scholars, I learned, define lists precisely: if a set includes seven items, name all seven; if three, then three; if infinite, then define the set as an infinite series, using a clear logic of extension or recombination. Do not settle for "and so on" or "etc" or even the dressy "inter alia." List-making and set-definition are crucial to academic writing and probably always have been. Finite lists manage the core scandal of our discipline, which takes place routinely when a few pungent or shiny examplesusually laid down in rhythmic triadscreate the aura of a closed case and the momentum of rhetorical authority. A charismatic list allows us to generalize from word or figure to text or genre, from text or genre to social or historical claim.

This set of reflections on writing turned me back to a single sentence that I pulled out of the weave of Eve Sedgwick's prose in 1992. That's when I was trying to learn to write well, in part from her. I kept coming across little word-bombs of revelation in her pages, like the time I found her discussing "daring and prehensile applications" of our ideas:  prehensile? like a monkeytail? can our ideas grip like that? When I turned chapter drafts in to my dissertation committee, I knew that she would later ask me, with her trademark quizzical head-tilt, "Why did you write THAT?" I tried to prepare for that moment. I stopped to notice a sentence in Sedgwick's essay "Nationalisms and Sexualities in the Age of Wilde," where she seemed to pile the words together in a very particular way. Here she is musing over the oddity of sitting in a Buffalo airport reading a USA Today weather map that allows her to seein florid gradients of orange, yellow, and greeneverything one might want to know about the conditions in Phoenix and Miami but leaves Torontoless than a hundred miles awayadrift in a gray-scale data-void called Canada:

The very blandness of the "American" compacting of borders - the, as it were, bad pun between the name of a continent and the name of a nation - how much must it not owe to the accidents of a history of geographic, economic, imperialist entitlement, a path into "nation-ness" no more "normal," no more as opposed to the same set or even the same kinds of definitional others, than that of the nation-ness of Canada, the different nation-ness of Mexico, of the Philippines, of the Navajo Nation (within the U.S.), of the Six Nations (across the U.S.-Canadian border), the nationalism of the non-nation Quebec, the non-nationalism of the non-nation Hawaii, the histories of African-American nationalisms, and so forth and so forth and so forth.2

I read over this sentence three times; even years later, I found myself trying to recreate its paratactic spell in my own writing. The funny part about this quest is that it is actually quite a bad sentenceneither especially graceful nor logically exact, though Sedgwick's critical prose is so often both of those things. Here the open-ended clausal breaks make the syntax hard to follow. The negatively framed rhetorical question bumps along like a jalopy to the point where we lose track of it. And it does the one thing I was teaching myself not to do:  it leaves a list or set or series in the uncertain territories of the "and so forth and so forth."

Of course literary academics live in the land where, on Tuesday, we teach students the rules for writing well and, on Thursday, we show them that great writing comes from broken rules. So it is maybe of only passing note that Sedgwick's sentence is bad yet indelible. She is performing a trick of scholarly prose in ways that are at once ingenious and ingenuousshowing her hand, telling us that this list is all the evidence you need, but not nearly all the evidence to be had. Sentences built of lists have a special power and therefore demand to be written well. Their litanies have to shimmer and resonate so that they can set up an independent existence, drawing attention away from the subject to the predicate, from actions to objects. Stylistic momentum is what matters here: we can cinch or clinch an argument by setting out one definitive array of artifacts or by unspooling a recombinant sequence of possibilities. The Sedgwick sample is a special kind of cataloguenot an inventory of like things, but a code-run of permutations with a discriminating purpose (nation/not/nationalism/not).

That is the special effect I wanted to capture in my own writing. When I prepared for this panel, I found a sentence in my own work, published twenty years after I read Sedgwick's, and I recognized the line of influence:

In the chapters that follow, we will find the narrative logic of arrested development in works by semi-English imperialists (Kipling), English anti-imperialists (Woolf), English semi-imperialists (Wells), non-English anti-imperialists (Jean Rhys), non-English semi-imperialists (Olive Schreiner), non-English part-time anti-imperialists (Conrad), as well as in Irish and Anglo-Irish writers of disparate backgrounds, views, and temperaments (Wilde, Joyce, Bowen).3

This brief litany describes the range of my literary dataset and their angle of remove from an English ideological core. My invocation of Sedgwick tries to imply the power of the set or series by making a recombinant and rhythmic appeal to bi-modal logic.

In then end, my sentence, like Sedgwick's, turns on the crucial alignment between what a sentence can include and what a nation can include. She throws into relief the arbitrariness of the Canadian border by enacting the porousness and garrulousness of languageeven of syntax, which can, like the weather, pour across the borders that we have set. An unruly litany of this kind shows us how object listswhether grounded in grammar or ontologycan make or break a boundary; as in Wallace Steven's "Anecdote of the Jar," artifacts properly set in prose can take dominion in a wilderness of data. They make and shape the logical and ecological containers which they define from the inside out as content. Arrayed or disarrayed, they can also point to the irregularity of a border. When the borders or containers in question are national cultures or national traditions, then catalogues perform their sentimental inclusions and their violent exclusions with force, even as they appeal to the reader's sense of informal assortment. National litanies, including the famously demotic ones we find in Ginsberg, Melville, and Whitman, exclude in this way even when they are loose and magnanimous. Writing with lists can turn assortments into collections, collections into sets, or sets into series; scholarly control of that process often defines how we write well.

These kinds of questionsthe syntax of national culturewere very much alive in 1992 when Sedgwick published her "Nationalisms and Sexualities" essay, but the power of the litany in scholarly writing now turns, I think, on quite different questions. I am thinking in particular of the effect of posthumanism and the new materialisms, which continue to install actual objects in the glamorized object slot of the scholarly sentence. This move from the old hermeneutics to a new forensics bears on how we write (well) now. So do many of the new archival and empirical forms of literary study; they call forth sentences where we stash our data in long predicates replete with commas. Scholars have always been collectors; they have always tried to write well by using the curatorial impulse to assemble and display the things we study in memorable sentences. But surely the impulse has grown these twenty years and has perhaps accelerated under the recent auspices of the "descriptive turn."4 Ian Bogost has described a new way of using examples, an "ontography" associated with writers like Graham Harman and Bruno Latour. They practice what Bogost calls "aesthetic set theory" by deploying the list as "a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma" (38).5 For Harman, lists can challenge the "unified empire" of traditional philosophy; for Bogost, they pose "worldly detail" against "anthropocentric narrative coherence."6

Bogost offers a crystalline case of what happens to scholarly writing when the square action of the sturdy English sentence (subject-verb-object or SVO) becomes the ontographic display (SVOOOOn or, perhaps more aptly, SV "triple O"). But the syntactical, or, to be more precise, the paratactical phenomenon is not restricted to the new materialisms or thing theory. As humanities disciplines decenter their old canons, the democratization of our primary materials puts pressure on all of our writing to carry its artifacts and archives on its back, to install the dataset in the sentence. More and more, our sentences have to show our scholarly value through the originality of our objects of study themselves rather than through an original take on a shared text or familiar writer. As the old canons recede, academic style changes, and the catalog-sentence or object-litany becomes even more the expressive channel of good writing. When research projects rely on the charisma of the archive and its objects, rather than the charisma of the exegetical paradigm, lists matter. A stylish list can enhance an old-school interpretive argument, but it can make or break a descriptive one.

Of course, plenty of scholars in literary and cultural fields have suspicions about the claims of animate and mystified objects, and about the empirical turn in the humanities. The stubborn problem of evidentiary wobble between detail and narrative, particular and general, doesn't go away when we shift from the veiled metaphors of the hermeneutic paradigm to the candid metonymies of the forensic paradigm. Even when arrayed in the most apparently random or aleatory fashion, a list, catalogue, or assemblage has at some level to refer back to the total ensemble of (a) culture, recreating the space and the frame, the political and ecological horizons of object-oriented writing. As the Stevens poem would suggest, no jars without Tennessees. For another thing, the accentuation of objects in a paratactic litany arranged, per Bogost, against narrative coherence itself raises the specter of detemporalization, of whether the posthuman is somehow not just the posthistoricist but the posthistorical. Do sentences that promote objects and decenter subjects produce good writing at the expense of verbs?  Do spatial and artifactual arrays strip scholarly writing of its capacity to encode historical action, narrative causality, or time itself?  Are lists taking over the English sentence in the academic and para-academic world of prose, just as listicles seem to be displacing articles in the era of Buzzfeed?

I don't think so. And, having to some degree deferred the charge to talk about my own writing by wrapping my example in a set of remarks about the uses of the scholarly inventory today, I will turn back to my own dependence on the trope of the litany, without which I find I do not know how to close an argument. And I will conclude with a self-citation because I want to oppose the logic of "piles of data"a kind of inductive, anti-narrative, assemblage-driven model for writing good listswith a few sentences in which the litany is neither additive nor spatial, but temporal and privative:

By objectifying the antihistorical, indeed history-killing, impulses of the Old Man in Purgatory, Yeats opens up his last public script to the existential plenitude of pure time time not used up by history, time not sacrificed to timelessness, time neither hardened nor frozen by the tectonic shifts of western empire and eastern church, neither exhausted nor emptied by the fact of deathnor by the abolition of the poet's ego, nor even by art's rage for order. At the end of Purgatory, the state of things does not merely decline, nor do events simply repeat; no apocalyptic or dialectical transformations are triggered. Moments tick on after the last words are uttered, after the curtain falls, and those grand, gyroscopic Yeatsian motifs of recurrence and repetition, those long-legged themes of ancestral and national declension, are themselves and at last relativized by the unending sweep of time.7

In this essay, I am describing an aged poet who at last detaches from all his consoling myths in order to confront the problem of a time that cannot be framed or compassed, however capaciously. To face it requires Yeats to give up all forms of belonging, all container-contained relations, from the eschatological myths of Irish origin to the apocalyptic fantasies of species extinction. The radical seriality of pure time resists all manner of punctuation and delimitation: it just goes on and on. By contrast, sentences, like essays and books, are periodic: they must come to an end. And archivesthe catalog of objects and artifacts that we studyare likewise finite. Our syntax and our datasets meet on the ground of what we can do with the time that we have to read and write. The "great unread" the objects we will never know and the paratactic litanies we use to mourn them can only gesture at the infinite series that is history stretching before and after us. That is a daunting thought, so perhaps it is of some comfort to think about writing well in terms of the historical sense that the humanistic disciplines want most to cultivate in our students and ourselves. That sense demands of us not so much that we always write well, but that we keep writing.

Jed Esty is Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Unseasonable Youth (Oxford, 2012), and "Realism Wars" (2016).


  1. Thanks to Sarah Wasserman for conceiving and organizing our session at the 2018 ASAP conference and this follow-up forum.[]
  2. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Nationalisms and Sexualities in the Age of Wilde." Nationalisms and Sexualities. ed. Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger (New York: Routledge, 1992), 241.[]
  3. Esty, Jed. Unseasonable Youth. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012), 15.[]
  4. For one version of the descriptive turn, see Heather Love, "Close but not Deep:  Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn."  New Literary History 41.2 (2010).[]
  5. Thanks to Fran McDonald for pointing me to Bogost's account. Thanks also to Dan Blanton for helping me think about the relation of list to set, set to series, combination to permutation.[]
  6. Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 42.[]
  7. Esty, Jed. "'All that Consequence': Yeats and Eliot at the End of the End of History." Yeats and Afterwords. ed. Marjorie Howes and Joseph Valente. (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014), 331.[]