Careers—and careerism—in academia and criticism

Careers in criticism examines what D.G. Myers thinks can be done about the possible problem of lousy literary criticism. It’s worth reading, but I suspect that the other problem, which goes undiscussed in this post, is the difficulty of deciding what is good criticism: many people complain that lots of academic and other criticism is bad (I probably count myself in their ranks much of the time), but they tend to disagree with what would be good in its stead. Deciding is particularly hard in a field where wildly divergent ideas of what constitutes quality exists. Therefore you get… gridlock, high school politics, and so forth.

How to solve this? Myers says:

[Elberry] thinks that I am suggesting that “critics should write about less well-known books,” but I suggest this only as a method, a practical expedient, for undertaking their real responsibility: namely, to contribute to literary knowledge. The demand upon critics (in the university and out) must be, not to “write something new and different,” but to add something new and different to the store of human understanding.

I bet that most people who are writing just to “write something new and different” would argue they are adding to the store of human knowledge. I definitely agree with Myers’ formulation on a high level but am not sure how to implement this on a lower level. The best ideas I can come up resolve issues in academic publishing: right now, it can take years to publish an essay in a peer-reviewed journal, which then locks it behind pay walls on the Internet. The length raises the obvious and uncomfortable question: if it takes three years to publish a paper, is the paper really that important? That this process takes forever is hardly new; Lucky Jim mocked it in the 1950s.

My solution: have peer-reviewed journals “publish” online, and have publication be a link to the author’s paper on the author’s website. The journal’s editor could also copy that paper to their own site after anonymous peer review. That way, the information is freely available, especially to people in countries where most universities can’t afford journal subscriptions under the present model; the theoretical “size” of a journal could be limitless, although the practicalities of reading would probably still limit that size; there would still be a recognized body of work that makes up, say “Modern Fiction Studies;” and the journal could still issue a print edition every n months or years for those who prefer it. This would cause the journal to lose the revenue stream that currently comes from publishers, but that stream seems to be so small that universities could replace it in return for the prestige of housing the journal. Alternately, the exceedingly low cost of web publishing—one could buy server hosting with 200GB+ per month transfer limits and so forth for $100/month—could obviate the (relatively) high cost structures that journals already have while reducing barriers to entry.

Current top-notch journals have no incentive to adopt this model, as it would challenge their hegemony, but if lesser journals began adopting it and scholars preferred it, the quality in my wiki-like journal would rise, and competition might force top-notch journals to adopt the same strategies if they’re going to retain their position. Since publishing in English lit seems mostly a prestige and influence game, this strategy has few drawbacks I can perceive. If anyone knows of a reputable journal (which is to say: one backed by a university with at least a few years of regular publication) that’s already doing this, I’d love to hear about it.

The other change is one I read about in Freakonomics, the blog: require peer reviewers to say publish/no publish on each paper, and give comments, rather than giving comments with the implication that, if they’re not taken, one will automatically be rejected. Rather than having a three- to four-draft round-robin time-waster of questionable benefit, a peer reviewer would have to say “yes/no,” on the first iteration in its current condition, and the reviewer’s comments would be an option rather than requirement. This structural change seems less important than the one above.

Anyway, given that I’m in grad school for English lit, expect more on this topic in the future, since I’m now tasting the peer review that many others have called bitter and find that they’re mostly right.


EDIT: Myers has a follow-up post, with a response to some of my comments, here.

Life: Critics and artists edition

Stolen from Terry Teachout:

“A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence. A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.”

Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides)

Outliers and Blink — Malcolm Gladwell

The Gladwell coda and its problems can be seen in this passage from the introduction to Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking: “The task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” I add the emphasis because Gladwell is not actually making a very strong claim: he’s essentially arguing for maybe. In that respect he certainly succeeds, though if you’re not reading closely you might miss the caveat.

In finding rules for determining how, of all the situations in the world, which respond to a “blink” decision and which will fail with that approach, Gladwell can’t do much more than find some examples, leaving a vast space unmapped. I don’t necessarily mean this as negative criticism: it is, rather, a description of the Gladwell technique that can very easily morph into a weakness if one is not aware of it going into his books. I treat his output as a single unit because there is far more unifying them in terms of style and content than not: they all collect anecdotes and research studies and combine them to form ideas that seem intuitive once you hear them and yet skew towards the quirky. His recent articles for the New Yorker use the same technique. He then divides these subjects into loosely linked chapters.

Gladwell gives examples of where what we claim to want or think want doesn’t match what we actually do, or what we actually seek out. As he says in Blink, “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.” He’s right, and he’s probably a bit too quick to accept explanations that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, rather than examining them with the skepticism appropriate to any effort to prove cause and effect. To me, however, the storytelling claim borders on obvious, but I like the succinct formulation he gives as well as the examples, which seem to back up his idea, though one could just as easily, say, cite the Bible, or any number of mythological and religious explanations for the cosmos that developed before science got started in earnest a few centuries back. In Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth, Glen Robert Gill writes that

Frye’s encounter … with the work of Oswald Spengler, a philosopher who observed mythic patterns in history, was ‘the first of several epiphanic experiences which turned vague personal ambitions into one great vision…

One might say something similar of Gladwell, who observes patterns that are not quite mythic but take on an almost mythic scope of destiny in parts of his book, which balances on the idea that we’re shaped or even determined by culture and experience and yet still have to work incredibly hard to achieve mastery. He is never overcome by that tension, but it’s a persistent background hum: if it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, then what can we say of Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and Flom, all of whom had opportunity to work incredibly hard? And what do we say of people who expand the scope of their opportunity to make it greater than it was? To that Gladwell has few answers, and it seems one of the overlooked sections in his drive to create narrative coherence—which might be another word for “mythic pattern”—out of what appears to be chaos.

Gladwell also has a clever shtick: if you discount his specific examples, the general principle might still hold, and if you discount his general principle, the specific examples might still be of interest. For example, a section in Outliers: The Story of Success about why Asian countries tend have students who score better on the math portions of international exams explains that seemingly innate ability as a cultural gift because Asian countries have traditionally built and maintained rice paddies, where you have to work at them virtually every day to get rice, while Western countries tended to farm, where you worked like a dog during planting and harvesting season but otherwise lounged. The point you’re supposed to take is that Asians aren’t innately good at math, which I buy, but that they tend to work harder at it in many cases, which I also buy. The problem is that I’m not so convinced that rice paddy work is necessarily the catalyst for this: what if some other cultural or political marker is the actual truth? Gladwell doesn’t sufficiently rule out alternate causes.

Even if one accepts the rice paddies explanation, Gladwell doesn’t go on to the other obvious inferences. Shouldn’t students in Asian countries excel not just at math, but at virtually every topic in school? They do, or they seem to. But then one should ask why, historically, most Asian countries with the exception of Japan haven’t industrialized at the rate of Western countries; if they’ve been exposed to Western technologies for centuries and are so industrious, why has the world taken the larger shape it has? Those questions lead one in the direction of Jared Diamond’s famous Gun, Germs, and Steel (answer: colonialism; oppression; luck) and Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (answer: evolutionary cultural (and perhaps biological) success), but Gladwell doesn’t go there: he stays in the “Asians are good at math” rice paddies idea rather than exploring the limits and consequences of what he says.

In other words, the situation is more complex than it’s presented. Gladwell’s specific examples might not hold to explain the general principle. But that principle might still stand. And it’s got a great tagline in this case: “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” That might be true, or mostly true, or true enough that believing it is much more likely to make your family rich than not believing it.

In Outliers, Gladwell puts a different spin on the bigger pictures, writing that:

The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are in variably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways that others cannot.

Let’s unpack that idea for a moment. If you stretch Gladwell’s comment in one direction, he’s completely right: people who are successful by conventional materialistic or intellectual measures benefit from being born into the industrialized world. If I’d been born into the dwindling stock of indigenous peoples, I’d be highly unlikely to be writing this at the moment. Furthermore, if I’d been born five hundred years ago, I’d almost certainly not be writing this because I’d probably be a peasant hoeing tubers or something to that effect. At the same time that Gladwell writes about how cultural advantages allows people to succeed, however, he doesn’t emphasize the people who don’t succeed despite all the cultural advantages in the world: the people who are born rich and privileged and end up drug addicts or moochers or whatever. Why do some people show great resilience in terrible circumstances while others fail to thrive in opulence? If I had definitive answers to that question, I’d have solved many of the worlds questions, but I think this paragraph nonetheless demonstrates that “hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies” are not the whole story. Gladwell doesn’t say they are: but he implies it strongly enough that it’d be easy to come away with that impression. It matters where we grow up, as he argues, but what could matter more is how far we go with what we’re dealt.

Gladwell can also contradict himself. On page 42 of Outliers, he says “You can’t be poor [and have time for the 10,000 hours it takes to master complex skills], because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough.” On page 117, he tells the story of Joe Flom, a poor boy who grows up to be a name partner at one of the world’s most prestigious and wealthy firms. He says of Flom’s background that “After school, he pushed a hand truck in the garment district. He did two years of night school at City College in upper Manhattan—working during the days to make ends meet—signed up for the army, served his time, and applied to Harvard Law School.” So which is it: if you’re poor, you don’t have time to practice and you’re likely to remain poor, or it’s possible to work your way up? Neither and both, of course, because the world isn’t as definitive as either version would have you believe.

These problems do not make Gladwell worthless, and if you’re aware of them you can still learn to think better while not succumbing to potentially fatuous stories. I’ve cited his story about the conception and execution of the Herman Miller Aeron chair several times. But I suspect most of Gladwell’s millions of readers aren’t reading with the critical eye they need; they’re being taken in, repeating whatever he says, and thinking they’ve got gold. Not everyone is so taken—Megan McArdle notes some problems with Gladwell stories too, as she writes here—but I suspect many are.

I would put Gladwell in the same category as Geoffrey Miller and his books The Mating Mind and Spent, or as Freakonomics: read them, but with care, and without being ready to accept everything they claim. Of course, that basically describes what educator-types call “critical reading” anyway, but some books demand it more than others because of the extravagance of their claims against the paucity of their evidence.

One other thing I wonder about is the story of Gladwell’s success: his books have been bestsellers for years, which indicates that 1) bestsellers have random properties or are simply random, which I suspect to be the reason behind Harry Potter’s success, or 2) he taps into some non-obvious social need or desire. In his case, if the answer is number two, maybe people like his books because he’s good at connecting abstract data to stories; popular television shows are, well, popular, while math journals tend to find a niche audience. People like stories, and when you combine ideas with stories, the ideas are often more memorable. I don’t think Gladwell’s books will endure, however, and he might be an example of the tendency I posited in Literary fiction and the current marketplace: nonfiction has a shorter shelf life than fiction because it’s easier for the state of the art to advance.

In the end, however, I’m a hypocrite too: the paragraph above indulges in the same Gladwell-like speculation that I’m criticizing. But I also take more care to make the uncertainties in the stories I tell clear, rather than covering them up. When you read Gladwell—and it appears that you or someone you know will—don’t necessarily believe it all and look for the potential holes in the arguments. Still, you’ll find many rich anecdotes and strange new ways of looking at the world. With those rewards, the risk of Gladwell is relatively low, especially because reading him is so easy. For all his problems, Gladwell is very good at extending the range, if not the precision, of your intellectual vision.

Literary fiction and the current marketplace

Literary agent Betsy Learner posted on the business of selling novels. I’d shorten this quote if I could, but what Lerner writes is too compelling for paraphrase or a one-sentence excerpt:

A lot of painful conversations lately about literary fiction and its demise.

Was it ever any different?

When I was an assistant at Simon and Schuster 25 years ago, there was exactly one literary fiction editor. And his position was rumored to be precarious as a result of focusing exclusively on the literary stuff. (In fact, he was let go a year later.) Of course, this was especially true at a house like S&S where monster political and celebrity books ruled. I can still recall an anxious conversation between a senior editor and a publicist because they couldn’t remember if Jackie Collins preferred white roses or red.

I understood at that tender age that to focus entirely on fiction was to jeopardize my hope of becoming an editor.

This implies that nonfiction is the more secure field, which jives with what I’ve seen on many literary agents’ websites and blogs; there seem to be almost none who work solely with fiction but many who work exclusively or almost exclusively with nonfiction.

Which makes me wonder: why? Part of the reason might simply be that more nonfiction books move through stores in a given year than fiction, but I wonder also if part of the reason is that nonfiction simply has a shorter shelf life. I can’t imagine many pop nonfiction titles from, say, the 1930s to the 1960s are still read much because whatever fields those authors covered have changed sufficiently that their work is no longer useful save in a historical sense. Obviously, there are exceptions—both presidential candidates in the recent election cited Niebuhr Reinhold as an influence—but the general trend seems to hold.

But the novels of Bellow, Roth, and so forth are still fresh as the day they were published; I have ancient copies of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King that are delightful. My used copy of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is an original hardback. New copies of those works still sell. That’s a boon for readers but probably not so good for new writers, who have to compete with the masters. The result: a literary marketplace where it’s harder to break in as the length and number of established predecessors grows, leading to an equilibrium that favors nonfiction over fiction. “Monster political and celebrity books” flare brightly like supernovae while the literary stars are dimmer but give persistent light for those who would see them, while writers become more dependent on university and other forms of patronage to make it in a marketplace that, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t much value their work in a financial sense.

The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House

I rather liked the eclectic material in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times and its sequel; many of the short essays didn’t impart, but they fascinated because of the range of their concerns and how appropriately well written they were, whether about people who always ask authors where they get their ideas, or what kind of typewriter/computer/paper/pen they use, or the importance of avoiding cliché. The subjects stay with me even when I haven’t read the novels of the authors writing, and the collections stay with me because they’re often enough correct in their descriptions of problems if not always their conclusions that they made me evaluate writing anew. Yes, some specimens had apparently either been written for the money or because the author had nothing else to say, but at eight hundred or so words each they were easy enough to skip. Word limits also have the benefit of forcing the author to be concise, logorrhea being an occupational hazard for many.

Given that, I went into The Writer’s Notebook with sympathy in mind. Its contents have the benefits and drawbacks of length: Matthea Harvey’s “Mercurial Worlds of the Mind” is clever, but a sharp editor might have cut the section on what 2-D versus 3-D means. Her opening metaphor is clever but overly broad: “Trying to write about imaginary worlds is like breaking a thermometer in a classroom, then trying to collect the little balls of mercury that go shooting off under the desks, down the hallways.” Maybe: but I don’t get the impression that’s how Tolkien felt as he invented Middle-earth, as the myths of Lord of the Rings feel built and layered, rather than chased down. In my own world-building efforts, I don’t at all feel like I’m chasing mercury.

Despite the first sentence, Harvey’s essay works. Someone must have told many of these writers that you have to start with a bang even if its decibel level doesn’t correspond to accuracy. For example, Tom Grimes’ “There will be no Stories in Heaven” is about how fiction uses time, but his lead says, “To me, we read and write stories for a simple reason: we all die.” Good thing his first two words qualify all of what follows! Despite the off note at the beginning, his essay works, and so does Harvey’s; she shows that what one must do to build fantastic worlds is not so different from what one must do to build a “realistic” one. You need rules, size, and so forth; each of those subjects could be an essay unto themselves. When you’ve finished Harvey, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworld’s is the next logical step.

Elsewhere, Margot Livesey’s “Shakespeare for Writers” might be shallow for those who’ve read John Updike on the Bard, but it still examines Shakespeare from the structure standpoint much criticism leaves out by asking, for example, why so much of Shakespeare makes implausible leaps of character and plot yet gets away with it. As she writes:

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the drug-induced affections of the lovers seem, in depth and passion, very similar to their real feelings. Motivation is often left out and provided, or not, by the actors and, of course, by the readers and viewers.

Why? The audience doesn’t have to ask the question, but the writer must, and maybe the real lesson, for the writer that language excuses all else; Livesey quotes some of the many, many examples of where Shakespeare nails speeches through elaborate, figurative language. The idea of language excusing all else brings me back to Henry James, since I didn’t love Portrait of a Lady because its plot was empty even if its language was vacuous. Shakespeare’s plots usually charge like cavalry. But they don’t overturn feelings, and they don’t override each characters’ interiority. Livesey’s essay explains how, and if I could summarize it, I would.

The Writer’s Notebook continues a conversation about aesthetic form, meaning, and creation that’s lasted for centuries if not longer; they are a small effort to map an infinite space and discuss the fundamental choices writers must make: where to revise; whether one should organize a story around a “clock” or time period; how to use language; historical influence; and more. Some might not be finding new space so much as configuring what we already have. Anna Keesey’s “Making a Scene” uses the terms “outfolding” and “infolding” to describe how a writer can primarily move forward by dialog and action or by interior thoughts, respectively, with Hemingway and Virginia Woolf as examples. The line isn’t perfectly clear, and the point about how things happen either within or outside a character has been made in various ways before, but I’d never seen it articulated so well.

Collectively, many essays from The Writer’s Notebook are also keeping an eye on one’s back, toward how history affects or should affect writers and how genre and literature aren’t as separate as they appear. None are so gauche as to come out and say either point, but it’s there, lurking beneath them, because for a writer, who cares if one is writing capital-L Literature? You’re always in pursuit of whatever works, and if works, maybe it is, or will become, Literature, which is fundamentally about stories, how we tell stories, and how we listen to them.

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House

I rather liked the eclectic material in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times and its sequel; many of the short essays didn’t impart, but they fascinated because of the range of their concerns and how appropriately well written they were, whether about people who always ask authors where they get their ideas, or what kind of typewriter/computer/paper/pen they use, or the importance of avoiding cliché. The subjects stay with me even when I haven’t read the novels of the authors writing, and the collections stay with me because they’re often enough correct in their descriptions of problems if not always their conclusions that they made me evaluate writing anew. Yes, some specimens had apparently either been written for the money or because the author had nothing else to say, but at eight hundred or so words each they were easy enough to skip. Word limits also have the benefit of forcing the author to be concise, logorrhea being an occupational hazard for many.

Given that, I went into The Writer’s Notebook with sympathy in mind. Its contents have the benefits and drawbacks of length: Matthea Harvey’s “Mercurial Worlds of the Mind” is clever, but a sharp editor might have cut the section on what 2-D versus 3-D means. Her opening metaphor is clever but overly broad: “Trying to write about imaginary worlds is like breaking a thermometer in a classroom, then trying to collect the little balls of mercury that go shooting off under the desks, down the hallways.” Maybe: but I don’t get the impression that’s how Tolkien felt as he invented Middle-earth, as the myths of Lord of the Rings feel built and layered, rather than chased down. In my own world-building efforts, I don’t at all feel like I’m chasing mercury.

Despite the first sentence, Harvey’s essay works. Someone must have told many of these writers that you have to start with a bang even if its decibel level doesn’t correspond to accuracy. For example, Tom Grimes’ “There will be no Stories in Heaven” is about how fiction uses time, but his lead says, “To me, we read and write stories for a simple reason: we all die.” Good thing his first two words qualify all of what follows! Despite the off note at the beginning, his essay works, and so does Harvey’s; she shows that what one must do to build fantastic worlds is not so different from what one must do to build a “realistic” one. You need rules, size, and so forth; each of those subjects could be an essay unto themselves. When you’ve finished Harvey, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworld’s is the next logical step.

Elsewhere, Margot Livesey’s “Shakespeare for Writers” might be shallow for those who’ve read John Updike on the Bard, but it still examines Shakespeare from the structure standpoint much criticism leaves out by asking, for example, why so much of Shakespeare makes implausible leaps of character and plot yet gets away with it. As she writes:

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the drug-induced affections of the lovers seem, in depth and passion, very similar to their real feelings. Motivation is often left out and provided, or not, by the actors and, of course, by the readers and viewers.

Why? The audience doesn’t have to ask the question, but the writer must, and maybe the real lesson, for the writer that language excuses all else; Livesey quotes some of the many, many examples of where Shakespeare nails speeches through elaborate, figurative language. The idea of language excusing all else brings me back to Henry James, since I didn’t love Portrait of a Lady because its plot was empty even if its language was vacuous. Shakespeare’s plots usually charge like cavalry. But they don’t overturn feelings, and they don’t override each characters’ interiority. Livesey’s essay explains how, and if I could summarize it, I would.

The Writer’s Notebook continues a conversation about aesthetic form, meaning, and creation that’s lasted for centuries if not longer; they are a small effort to map an infinite space and discuss the fundamental choices writers must make: where to revise; whether one should organize a story around a “clock” or time period; how to use language; historical influence; and more. Some might not be finding new space so much as configuring what we already have. Anna Keesey’s “Making a Scene” uses the terms “outfolding” and “infolding” to describe how a writer can primarily move forward by dialog and action or by interior thoughts, respectively, with Hemingway and Virginia Woolf as examples. The line isn’t perfectly clear, and the point about how things happen either within or outside a character has been made in various ways before, but I’d never seen it articulated so well.

Collectively, many essays from The Writer’s Notebook are also keeping an eye on one’s back, toward how history affects or should affect writers and how genre and literature aren’t as separate as they appear. None are so gauche as to come out and say either point, but it’s there, lurking beneath them, because for a writer, who cares if one is writing capital-L Literature? You’re always in pursuit of whatever works, and if works, maybe it is, or will become, Literature, which is fundamentally about stories, how we tell stories, and how we listen to them.

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