Guys and Dolls: The Academic Journal

I’m doing some research this morning for a potential new project, which I’m superstitious enough not to tell you about yet. But in doing so, I came across a very early article by the sociologist Erving Goffman, called “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure.” It’s a very thorough piece of descriptive research about the ways that con men have to handle the people they’ve swindled, to soften the blow to the victim (or “the mark”) of the fact that they’ve lost money and respect. This isn’t done from any humanitarian impulse, but rather to keep the mark from going to the cops or the courts.

I’ll have more to say in the next few days about how this article so presciently describes the institutional response of higher ed to its adjunct community (the marks who were promised a knighthood only to find themselves outside the castle) as well as the larger political scene in which millions of Americans are now discovering themselves to have been the victim of a massive con, and have to find some ways to come to terms with that. What I want to talk about today is another writer familiar with con men: Damon Runyan, the author of Guys and Dolls and dozens of other stories set in the minor-league gambling underworld, people who’ll bet each other ten dollars on the color of the next car through the intersection.

The most remarkable feature of Runyan’s work is neither the colorful characters nor the screwball adventures they find themselves in. His world is most centrally built by the very form of his writing, a perpetually present-tense form filled with unnecessarily high diction, a language of the man desperately needing to be seen as more than he is. Here, for instance, is the opening to his story “A Piece of Pie,” of betting on an eating contest.

On Boylston Street, in the city of Boston, Mass., there is a joint where you can get as nice a broiled lobster as anybody ever slaps a lip over, and who is in there one evening partaking of this tidbit but a character by the name of Horse Thief and me. This Horse Thief is called Horsey for short, and he is not called by this name because he ever steals a horse but because it is the consensus of public opinion from coast to coast that he may steal one if the opportunity presents.

By contrast, and from the same era, here is Goffman’s description of the ubiquity of con schemes:

The con is said to be a good racket in the United States only because most Americans are willing, nay eager, to make easy money, and will engage in action that is less than legal in order to do so.

You can see the similarities. The insider letting us civilians in on the game, but doing so through politeness and formality that would never be found in the native scene. And the fussy diction—... willing, nay eager… … action that is less than legal… —marks the work as a form of highbrow wildlife documentary, Sir David Attenborough describing the behavior of penguins in language that is perhaps other than the penguins themselves might deploy.

(Once you read a little of this kind of stuff, it’s impossible to not write that way yourself for a while. It’s deliciously fun.)

So much of academic writing, across all disciplines, is a form of Runyanesque self-soothing, convincing the writer that she or he really does belong. It’s governed by a series of conventions—the use of the third person, the passive voice, the present tense—intended to remove the work from place and time and authorship, to take on the mark of lasting, objective, incontrovertible truth.

It’s easy to make fun of writing in the high humanities, through things like The Postmodernism Generator and the various Sokal hoaxes. And the writing in those fields is, indeed, impossibly arch and ponderous. But even the bench sciences have their own Runyan syntax. This is from the abstract of an article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry:

An approach for the synthesis of a variety of new β-aryl-β-amino acids has been developed via a palladium-catalyzed auxiliary-directed regioselective Csp3-H arylation of the unactivated β-methylene bond of β-alanine. The use of 8-aminoquinoline amide as an auxiliary efficiently directs the desired regioselective β-Csp3-H functionalization. The developed protocol enables the easy and straightforward access to several high-value β-aryl-β-amino acids useful for peptide engineering, starting from inexpensive and readily available β-alanine precursors in moderate to excellent yields.

Leave aside the nouns, none of which us laypeople should be expected to understand, and look only at the verb phrases. An approach…has been developed. The use… efficiently directs. The developed protocol enables. It’s as though nobody actually did the work. This is the language of police reports. The language of official blue-ribbon commissions designed to cover up crimes under the guise of investigation. The language of Damon Runyan, desperate for respect without wanting to seem desperate at all:

This tall young character cannot be more than twenty-one years of age, and he is maybe six feet two inches tall and must weigh around one hundred and ninety pounds. He has shoulders like the back of a truck, and he has blond hair, and pink cheeks, and is without doubt as good-looking as any male character has a right to be without causing comment.

For all of its gravity—because of its gravity—academic writing, like the work of Damon Runyan, can be poignantly funny, a mature version of fourth-grade Shakespeare, little kids dressed up and playing their oversized roles.