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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Style and Scholarship

Bill Stuntz's recent post on the virtues of nominating Pam Karlan for Justice Souter's seat on the Supreme Court has gotten some well-deserved attention in the blogosphere.  Stuntz argues that Karlan, because she is a "spectacularly gifted" writer, would be a good counterweight to Justice Scalia, "whose outsized influence stems from his ability to write captivating, scathing, and often funny opinions."  I couldn't agree more with this, and indeed suggested much the same thing last Friday, although I focused on how Karlan could parry with Scalia during oral argument rather than through her writing. 

But here I wanted to talk about something else Stuntz says.  At the end of his post, Stuntz makes a point about legal scholarship.  He writes, "productivity and intelligence count far more heavily in academic hiring decisions than a knack for the perfect turn of phrase.  That is a mistake.  The legal and academic markets are filled to overflowing with smart opinions and law review articles.  The ones that stand out are fun to read--and those are few and far between."  I wonder what people think of this.  My view is that style is wildly undervalued in legal academia, whether it's in hiring decisions or law review placement decisions or tenure evaluations or anything else that makes a difference in the legal academy.  In my experience, although one sees from time to time a mention of a scholar's style in an appointments reference letter or a tenure evaluation letter, it invariably is thrown in as an afterthought, once the letter evaluates the scholar's (or potential scholar's) analytic skills, capacity for original thought, and productivity.  Likewise, I can't remember ever being at a workshop where someone has made a serious comment about the style of a piece as opposed to its content. 

Does this comport with other people's experiences?  If so, is it something to bemoan?  Shouldn't we care if someone can write beautifully or poetically?  Shouldn't we want scholars to write with wit or passion?  Shouldn't we provide incentives for such writing?  Shouldn't we reward it?

Posted by Jay Wexler on May 5, 2009 at 09:03 AM in Jay Wexler | Permalink


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I think style is undervalued in academic writing, because I don't think it is any meaningful sense separable from content. And the value of most academic writing, if it has any, is primarily (although not wholly) aesthetic.

Posted by: John Greenman | May 7, 2009 1:53:14 AM

Maybe we have different ideas of what constitutes style, but I'd be skeptical. Maybe style is rarely valued in tenure recommendation letters, I wouldn't know. But style is almost certainly overvalued in law review placements. Law review editors are at a comparative disadvantage sorting good substance from bad; but they have no disadvantage sorting good style from bad. Why else do we make sure every footnote conforms to Bluebook "style"? Sure, the style preferences in legal academia emphasize rigid conformity, but that is a question of what constitutes "good" style; not whether style matters enough. If style is used in contradistinction to substance, then I doubt many people think that we should place more emphasis on style.

Posted by: TJ | May 5, 2009 1:39:14 PM

I'm sympathetic, but agree more with Matt. To begin with, style per se isn't "wildly undervalued," it's just that the style preference is not so much writing "beautifully or poetically" or with "wit or passion," but rather writing clearly, exactly, carefully, exhaustively . . . stodgily, per the Bluebook, etc.

So, should stylistic preferences be changed? Legal writing could be improved in many ways, but that doesn't mean that better writing isn't already encouraged, or that we should do anything concerted about it. As to the first, appealing works do frequently get praised for their style (not so much the opposite), and as Matt says, good style has indirect rewards (e.g., getting work read, or bringing pleasure to the writer). The Green Bag provides some kind of recognition, I think; posts like yours and Stuntz's help, too.

As to whether style in your sense should "make a difference," perhaps you mean it should be a nebulous "plus" factor, but it almost certainly already is. Are you saying that existing faculties -- culled based on a different style in their work -- should start overtly evaluating whether a candidate writes poetically, passionately, Pynchonesquely, or otherwise, and make hiring or tenuring decisions actually turn on that question? Next up: "John Bates Clark Committee Surprisingly Tasked with Booker Prize; Outsources."

Posted by: Edward Swaine | May 5, 2009 12:35:04 PM

Well, of course I'd rather read a well-written article than a poorly written one, and maybe even a "fun" one (though I'm not sure what that means here) as opposed to a dry one. But given that there's no clear connection between style, wit, fun-ness, etc. and truth-aptness (and at least sometimes they are inversely connected), I'm not sure these traits should be especially praised or rewarded, given their non-necessary connection to what I'd expect to be scholarship's primary goal. I'd assume that these traits will bring their own rewards without any special effort, given that they will make reading the articles of those who posses them more enjoyable. I'd rather have people aim at informing and getting at the truth. If they can do that in a pleasant way, that's great, but "funness" also is just something extra. (Of course we ought not encourage an unnecessarily dry or pedantic style, either. As DMV points out above, that's all too common in legal scholarship, in large part because of the ridiculous foot-noting, and also has a dubious connection at best to verisimilitude.)

Posted by: Matt | May 5, 2009 10:05:26 AM

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

See Arthur Leff.

He may be the first legal scholar whose work I've read just for
the pleasure of reading his prose. On the other hand, reading
the average law review piece typically makes me want to stab
my eyes out.

I think, though, that if you're going to address stylistics, you're
going to have to grapple with the role of footnotes. And not just
in justices' opinions, Wexler. :) Also, length is an issue.
Virtually every piece I read in the law reviews could be drastically
shortened without sacrificing content or impact. In fact, I'd
say that unnecessary length tends to reduce impact. See poetry.

Posted by: dmv | May 5, 2009 9:34:27 AM

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