I was recently asked to edit the English translation of a collection of essays by leading intellectual and cultural figures from throughout central and Eastern Europe. As I read the thirty-odd essays, I at first thought that the translations were flawed. But then I realized that this was not possible, since the essays had been translated by a variety of people, from a variety of languages, from Bulgarian to Serbian to Polish to Slovene. It was not the translators’ fault. And yet the majority of the essays, a good 90% of them, were all but incomprehensible. The problem was not from word to word. Sentences were (for the most part) grammatically acceptable, if not strictly correct. The issue was that, after having read each essay, I had no idea what the essay was about. What point had the author made, or tried to make? The essays drifted from one idea to the next, without clearly-stated theses, without clear conclusion, bereft of evident build-up of an argument. If asked to summarize, in one sentence, the point of each essay, I would be at a loss — and this made me think that the authors themselves would be, too. Were these authors “bad” writers? None of their peers seemed to think so. They are all renowned thinkers and writers, at least within their countries of origin. So if these are considered “good” writers, were the essays “badly” written? This was a more complicated question, for I soon realized that the answer was part of a socio-cultural phenomenon. From an Anglophone perspective, yes: these essays were badly written. But from a central European perspective, no: the essays were just fine.
Struck by this, I decided to investigate. Was there really such a difference between what is considered “good” essay writing in the Anglophone world, versus central and Eastern Europe? This article will examine my findings, while a second, related article, published next month, will go on to discuss teaching styles in the Anglophone world versus central and Eastern Europe.
Cicero on How to Write
There is a “right” way to write non-fiction essays in English. Americans are taught how to do so in elementary school, and the system used is one that was codified by Cicero, who used it both for writing and for public speaking and debate. Good essays begin with an introduction that clearly states your thesis: what is this essay about, and what is the point you intend to make in it? For example,
This essay is a comparison of preferred essay-writing styles in Anglophone versus European non-fiction. I will argue that there are two distinct styles at play and, while the Anglophone style is considered “good” and acceptable in both Anglophone and European contexts, the same is not true for the European style, which is considered ‘good’ and acceptable only in Europe.
There you have the thesis of this essay that you are now reading. There is no mistaking what I’m trying to say. Whether you agree or not, is a different question, but anyone can read that statement and know what the point of my essay is. Good writing begins with clarity. In the Anglophone system, almost all readers should clearly understand everything in a good essay the first time through. If something is confusing or unclear, it means that the author wrote poorly. This is not the case in European essays, as we will see.
Good, Ciceronian writing, after a clearly-stated introduction and thesis, moves on to make three points in support of the thesis. Three seems to be some magic number, as may be seen with jokes (where the punch-line always seems to come in the third attempt at something) or fairytales (in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” it is the third bowl of porridge that is “just right”). Two points feels too few, and four more than you need. This three-point argument is very basic, in fact it is taught in elementary school throughout the US, but it is a useful rule of thumb and point of departure.
In keeping with our old friend Cicero, here are the three points of comparison that I will discuss in this essay: the preferences for 1) Anglophone outlining of one’s arguments v European drifting through arguments more organically; 2) Anglophone clarity v European intellectuality; and, 3) Anglophone arguments through specific anecdotes that practically demonstrate ideas v European discussion of theories in the abstract.
Outline v Drifting
I asked a Slovene writer friend about this phenomenon I had noticed. He explained that it is not something I imagined, but is based on two different teaching traditions. He described the Franco-Germanic style of university lectures, which dates back many centuries, at least to the Enlightenment, as the origin of the European method still used today. Brilliant thinkers are not always great teachers, and this is a case in point. He mentioned philosopher Jacques Derrida, by way of example. Derrida would lecture to university students like this: he would be given a philosophical theme, for instance “jealousy,” and would be asked to talk about it for ninety minutes. He would have no notes, nothing written before-hand, essentially nothing prepared at all for the immediate task at hand. But he would simply be asked to stand up before the audience and begin speaking about the subject.
No one doubts his genius, but many would argue over whether he was good at conveying his ingenious thoughts to students and readers. He would launch into a lecture that was more akin to theatrical improv than a proper rhetorical argument. Without an outline or plan in mind, he would circle around his subject. Surely there would be nuggets of wisdom within that ninety-minute lecture, but it would be up to the students, frantically taking notes, to scoop up the most important points from the stream-of-consciousness words of the lecture.
By contrast, American professors and essayists are taught to create thorough outlines for their lectures and articles, mapping out what they plan to say, when, and how ahead of time, so that they make the strongest and clearest possible arguments. The chart of good Anglophone essays inevitably resembles a straight line, or a constellation in the night sky: each point made, or star, makes it easier to see the ultimate entirety of the argument at hand. Each point is clearly linked to the previous, and builds to a single, strong conclusion. If we were to chart European-style essays, the chart might resemble a random cluster of stars in the night sky: each star is a point that the author makes, but it takes a serpentine route to connect the points, and they do not necessarily build to a single, strong conclusion, but instead drift and sway and wind their way to the end. The strongest point might have been stated somewhere in the middle, where it is in danger of being lost to the reader.
Clarity v Intellectuality
One of the very few Slovenian essayists whose style is considered good by Anglophone standards is Miha Mazzini. Ironically, many Slovenes find him too blunt, too direct, almost offensively so — these are exactly the characteristics that make his writing a pleasure for foreigners to read. When I asked him about this discrepancy in style that I had noted, he made a few interesting observations. First, he noted that Slovenes, like most people, have always longed to belong to groups. The group responsible for the longest period of formative cultural influence in Slovenia was the Habsburg Empire. This means that, over the course of centuries, Slovene intellectuals sought to write in the way that the leading imperial authors wrote. Second, Mazzini cited a book by Frank Robert, The Economic Naturalist, which explains that many people feel that using exotic, esoteric words makes you look clever — for this reason, Slovene essayists like to employ an abstruse lexicon. This idea that sounding complicated makes you sound clever is not universally shared, however. Most American readers would say that anyone who uses exotic words, like “abstruse lexicon” are over-compensating for a lack of content, and looking up ten-euro words in a thesaurus makes you sound desperate, not clever.
Anglophone professors are taught that their lectures should be entirely clear to every student the first time through. If a student doesn’t understand something that means that the professor has taught poorly, and should take the time to explain their point in a different way. In too many European classrooms, the opposite is true. Students are made to feel that they must sit and listen to the professor and, if they didn’t understand something, then it must be because they are stupid — not because the professor might have been unclear. They are also discouraged from asking questions, because floating about the room is the implication that you should understand everything the first time through, otherwise you are stupid.
European essays, alas, seem to follow this pattern of European teaching. While Anglophone essays are all about clarity — every reader should understand clearly everything stated in the essay, otherwise the essayist has failed — one has a sense from too many European essays, particularly those on philosophy or other high-intellectual matters, that the author is trying to be complicated. Many European essays I’ve read, including most of them in the collection I mentioned at the start of this article, left me with the sense that the author was nervous that, if the writing were too clear, then the author would not sound smart enough. As if writing in a complicated way about complicated things made the author seem smart, that the author was trying hard to sound smarter than the reader. The result for me was that I wasn’t even sure the author knew what he wanted to say! Anglophone readers, writers, and students think that this is very silly. The smartest people, and the best writers, are the ones who can make a complicated idea seem simple, not the other way around. Life, particularly intellectual life, is complicated enough already. The sign of a truly great teacher or writer is the ability to make the multifarious seem straightforward. That is how you teach well, whether to students or readers.
Miha Mazzini points out that Slovene essayists tend to write for what they think their audience expects. “If the state is giving money [to fund a project],” he says, “then some bureaucrat will say yes or no, so we have to look clever and unfathomable. The bureaucrat will say, Wow, I don’t understand anything, so it must be science. Here is your money!” But likewise Slovene writers can adapt and they do. They simply feel that Slovene readers appreciate, and expect, the European model of essay. It takes a conscious effort on the part of the Slovene author to switch to the Anglophone style. When they do switch, their writing is as enjoyable, to Anglophone readers, as any — it’s just a question of writing to one’s audience.
Anecdotes v Theories
While we have described what constitutes “good” Anglophone writing, there is also a formula for what constitutes the best of Anglophone essay writing. Read enough articles in leading magazines and newspapers, especially The New Yorker and The New York Times, and the formula becomes clear. The best essays, by today’s popular intelligent periodical standards, are told anecdotally, with narrated stories about real people and events used as a conduit to explain theories or ideas.
People remember interesting anecdotes far more easily than abstract theories. So when trying to explain abstract theories, it is easier to ingest them, and remember them, if those theories are “attached” to interesting, memorable anecdotes. The very strongest feature articles begin with a memorable image, introduce a protagonist who is relevant to the topic at hand (a real person who becomes the center of the story), and then follow the protagonist, who serves as a vehicle for explaining the idea behind the article, as he or she undertakes some action that is relevant to the subject at hand.
For example, I am writing an article about how national identity can be achieved through specialty foods, dishes unique to a region. In order to tell the story in the New Yorker style, I first introduced a protagonist, Dr Janez Bogataj, the Slovenian food ethnologist. He is my protagonist. The action relevant to the subject at hand is his effort to get EU recognition and protected status for the special Slovenian sausage, Kranjska Klobasa. The story of Bogataj and his lobbying on behalf of Kranjska Klobasa provides a lens through which I can discuss the larger subject of the article: how a nation like Slovenia can become more recognizable internationally through a local food specialty. As Dijon is known for mustard, Bavaria for beer and Valencia for paella, Slovenia can become known by foreigners for Kranjska Klobasa. Protagonist + action = theoretical argument. Whatever theory is present in the article is fed to the reader through anecdotes, and is always as clear as possible.
We mentioned that brilliant people are not always good writers. Philosopher and mathematician Ludwig Wittgenstein was famously incapable of explaining his theories coherently to anyone, even philosopher friends like Bertrand Russell. Hegel is a fine example — no one doubts that he was a genius, but anyone who has tried to read his books will soon realize that the man was a terrible writer. You need a map, a compass, and a tent to hike your way through his dense thickets of prose, and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll end up, seven-hundred pages later, with any idea what the heck he was talking about.
Hegel fan Slavoj Žižek is another, less extreme example. His books are incredibly dense and difficult to understand. They are also hugely long, and the writing resembles the drifting swirls of Derrida’s lectures. But Žižek lecturing live is an entirely different story. His lectures, and especially his short YouTube videos, are far clearer, more fun, and memorable. Žižek is the only Slovenian intellectual to achieve world fame and particular popularity in the English-speaking world because, however difficult his writing is, his spoken persona is just what the Anglophone world likes. He is his own protagonist, a wonderfully odd character with infectious enthusiasm, and he speaks in anecdotes, in specifics, particularly good about bringing in pop culture examples to illustrate complex abstract concepts in a way that is as easy as possible for his audience to understand. In this way, Žižek represents a bridge between the two styles: his writing is European, his personal presentations are Anglophone.
Cicero teaches us that the three points of argument are followed by a conclusion, in which the major points are summarized, the introduction and thesis are re-iterated, and an ultimate conclusion is made based on the material covered in the essay. This section is often lacking in European essays, authors conveying a sense that the reader is on his own to “get” the point of the essay. Even if the point is clear, it should be reiterated in the conclusion, to ensure that those who finish reading feel more enlightened and smarter than they did when they began. That is the main intangible difference between the Anglophone and European essays that I read. The reader has a sense, in the European essays, that the point of the essay is for the author to demonstrate how smart he or she is, often at the expense of the reader, who feels confused and dumb by the end, if there’s anything that they didn’t understand. The best Anglophone essays demonstrate the intelligence of the author through the clarity of the writing — the author is considered good and smart if the reader feels smarter after having read the essay than he or she did before.
While the Anglophone writing style is considered good, interesting, engaging, and admirable in both Anglophone and European contexts, indeed for readers worldwide, the same is not so for the European style, which does not function well for Anglophone readers. Those used to Anglophone style essays find European essays in general boring, slow, difficult to follow, poorly-structured, and not much fun to read. There are numerous exceptions to this generalization, but it is, alas, true in the vast majority of cases. Of the thirty-odd essays in the collection I edited recently, only a few of them would be considered “good” or even readable by intelligent Anglophone readers. Most of them would never find a publisher in the US or UK, unless they were entirely rewritten to suit the Anglophone style. I’ve read scores of European-style essays, from throughout central and Eastern Europe, and have found this to be a consistent problem. It is only the European writers who write in an Anglo-style who find popular success in the US and UK.
We mentioned that most Slovene writers are entirely capable of writing in the Anglophone style — they simply are not encouraged to do so within the context of Slovenia. But since the Anglophone style is considered “good” around the world, and the European style has a more limited audience who appreciate it, it is a wise tactic to choose the Anglophone style, when in doubt. For young writers, or veteran authors wishing to find a larger audience, beyond the confines of central and Eastern Europe, it is the Anglophone style that they should cultivate, practice, and strive for.
A friend of mine who is an accomplished writer, editor, and teacher was told by European colleagues that her writing was not good enough to write academic papers, since her articles were “more interesting than scientific.” Of this, she said, “My colleagues think that science should not be well-written, we only have to point out facts.” It is a sad fact that, throughout much of central and eastern Europe, scientific writing is associated with boring writing. Good writing is always interesting, and must be all the more so when it is scientific or academic. European essays would find a lot more happy readers if they looked to please the reader more than the author, to be all-inclusive instead of exclusive, to be interesting always, and to strive for clarity.
Dr Noah Charney is a best-selling author, award-winning columnist, and professor of art history. A version of this essay appears in his new book, Slovenology: Living and Traveling in the World’s Best Country. Image by Ivan Mitrevski.