“I told you to keep that Sword dame away from me, precious.” Dr Tim Spade, research fellow in neurofractal entropy at the University of Dudley, leaned back in his chair and furtively blew the smoke from his last Philip Morris out of the window.
His harassed secretary, Zelda Admin, ignored the rebuke. “It’s not Ms Sword, Dr Spade - there’s someone else waiting.” She waved a file under his nose - an enticing fragrance filled his left nostril.
“Mmm, Snopake,” he grinned. “In with him, darling…”
Joel Biro, a small, overdressed dandy with an indeterminate middle-European accent, slithered up to the desk. “Dr Spade, I wonder if I can interest you in an enterprise which might be of some benefit not only to you and I, but to the academic world in general? I understand that you have had a visit from a person who wished to engage your services in pursuit of, shall we say, the vade mecum for all academics, the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the…”
Spade cut him off. “Enough of the hyperbole already, boychik. You’re talking about the secret of stylish academic writing, recently discovered in the Antipodes, and brought back to these parts by a team of international smugglers!”
Biro flourished some gloves, produced from his pocket for the purpose. “Of that I know nothing. Do you understand what this secret is?”
Spade shook his head.
“Back in the 20th century,” Biro continued, “in a time before writing as we know it evolved, there was a secret codex, possessed only by a mysterious group of academic writers known as ‘The Fountainpen Heads’. The art and craft of this sacred order was contained on a jewel-encrusted icon, periodically worshipped in their arcane rites. As the present age of text and type took hold, they decided to disguise this precious object by covering its golden face, and the secrets emblazoned on it, with paint. It became - The Black Board!”
Biro mopped his brow with a convenient mop. “She who possesses the secrets of the codex,” he leaned across Spade’s desk conspiratorially, “could amass untold riches: citations aplenty, and the prospect of academic immortality…”
Spade cut him off. “Not interested, Jackson; take your unlikelihoods back to Weimar, and tell the Fat Man ‘no sale’.”
He knew most of this already. Helen Sword had breezed into the office first thing, while he was still clearing yesterday’s emails armed only with a small bourbon.
“I’m desperate, Dr Spade,” she breathed in an enticing Auckland accent. “Can you help me get it back?” She handed him a slim volume. “This will give you some idea of what is involved.”
Spade leafed through the pages and broke into a cold sweat. This was dynamite. The dame certainly had the goods on this organisation, and boy, were they cooking with gas! Page after page detailed the way these gangs of academics operated, drawing in innocent young scholars and then passing on “our thing” to the newcomers. How many medics does it take to prepare a nine-page research paper? How many historians to write a history of medieval Russia? Who knew that a code of the gang forbade medical researchers the use of “engaging titles” for their publications, or that obfuscatory jargon was dominated by the Higher Education Research mob?
Spade knew this was hot stuff - this cutie even had the numbers, going through all the main discipline areas; the families who ruled them, operational details, the codes of omertà and exclusivity, keeping them separate and distinct. The new order would have academics rethinking their “voice”, their titles, the effects of sentence format, and the “hooks and sinkers” structuring the material they produced. If these guys started to use novelistic techniques such as “show, don’t tell”, and restructured their formats to increase freshness and novelty - this was grim reading indeed.
“This gal has the old moustaches in her sights,” Spade mused. “If this gets out, academics will start reading work from other areas, and cooperating on research and teaching projects. It’s cross-fertilisation - who knows what monsters are going to come out of that? Rubes might start to think for themselves, and then where would we be?”
He knew that he had to work fast. Dashiell Hammett pastiches just didn’t cut it in the age of Google Scholar and e-surfing. Maybe there was another way…
“Zelda,” he barked. “Sword tells me that the old style guides aren’t enough. We need to get syndicated. Get me the number for Dan Brown, sweetness…”
Stylish Academic Writing
By Helen Sword
Harvard University Press, 240pp, £16.95
Published 26 April 2012