Appropriate Complexity

with 7 comments

A small but persistent number of readers of The Masculinity Conspiracy complain that the style of writing is too complex and “intellectual.” On various occasions I have been asked to cut out the jargon, make it easier to read, provide allegedly “real life examples” and so on, which would all bring the text more into line with the kind of self-help books many folks seem to have become conditioned to expect.

The impression seems to be that The Masculinity Conspiracy is an “academic” book trying to pass itself off a something altogether different. But this is genuinely not the case. If you think The Masculinity Conspiracy is academic, you clearly have not read much academic writing lately (which often I can’t figure out either). In particular, in The Masculinity Conspiracy I:

  • summarize with bullet points, just like this: and I hate freakin’ bullet points;
  • provide numerous signposts in the text reminding readers about the chapter structures and points made elsewhere;
  • strip out all unnecessary jargon and academic terminology unless it is genuinely useful;
  • cut paragraphs down to approximately one third of what is grammatically reasonable;
  • use the occasional emoticon and have the occasional chuckle.

Now in part this just goes to show that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Most readers don’t find the text too complicated: I have asked numerous people who are not “academic” (whatever that means) precisely this question. If I made it “simpler” I may pick up a few readers, but would probably also drop a few off.

But there is something else going on here. The demand for ever-simpler writing, bullet points, instant insights, micro-summaries and so forth render books incapable of addressing the complexity of the issues at hand. Masculinity is a complex issue: you might think some of the popular writers are writing about it with “clarity,” but they are simply stripping it of all subtlety and nuance. It’s certainly desirable to aim for clarity, but at some point compromise becomes fatal: it might result in a slot on Oprah’s couch, but it will not result in anything useful. Complex issues require appropriately complex handling.

More than this, the status quo critiqued in The Masculinity Conspiracy requires people not to think with appropriate complexity, subtlety and nuance in order to perpetuate its nonsense agenda. So when I hear complaints about the book being too complex, my immediate thought is not that I’ve failed in my task to clearly communicate, rather the reader is showing how far they are conditioned into the conspiracy (a classic example of conspiratorial logic, if ever there was one!).

Instead of meeting the reader behind such complaints fully on their ground, I ask them to meet me half way (as I have already moved from my natural domain into the middle ground). In doing so we collectively claw back some of the critical thinking ground lost in our dumbed-down world. And more than this, I pay those readers the respect they deserve in assuming they are capable of understanding complex issues: an important but increasingly rare gesture.


Written by Joseph Gelfer

August 12, 2010 at 8:23 am

7 Responses

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  1. “The demand for ever-simpler writing, bullet points, instant insights, micro-summaries and so forth render books incapable of addressing the complexity of the issues at hand.”

    Yes, yes, yes!

    And your comment reminded me of Edward Tufte’s essay “Powerpoint Does Rocket Science”. (


    August 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    • Ha. Further to readers who apparently do not want too many words, I have a friend who consults to one of the big banks, who apparently do not like presentations with too man numbers.


      August 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm

  2. Seems fine to me – if anything I was surprised how ‘accessible’ you’d made it…

    Interested to see where you’re going, mind…


    February 10, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    • I *do* have a conclusion in my head: just got to first do some further examples of the conspiracy at work.


      February 10, 2011 at 8:36 pm

      • Yeah – I know you do. Just musing.


        February 10, 2011 at 9:07 pm

  3. Thanks Trevor: much appreciated.


    September 27, 2010 at 5:49 am

  4. Great idea for someone like me who is not an academic (though I am referring to your book as an article for an annotated biblio for uni. I’m a guy who’s spent the best part of my life trying to figure myself out as a male. I decided to start a blog about Masculinity and Male, initiated for a web presence uni subject (online). And I for one dont really see why you have to present this information as academic or with any kind of assumption. I love the way you have presented what you have so far. You have captured in the first chapter, the truth about there being males while not males. The androgenous anomalies aka intersex are an increasing factor in our society.

    Anyway keep up the good work, hoping to see the rest of the chapters come to light and the web.


    September 26, 2010 at 10:49 pm

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