Reading the Readers Writing

Academic writing is fraught with bizarre customs. One of the strangest is the sense of an “impact factor” or citations. I began several years ago to write to academics whose work I enjoyed or admired just to say what I’d read and that I’d liked it – they were all surprised. Even those who bordered on academic stardom seemed surprised. We are, after all, trained to critique from the feedback long ago on our very first undergraduate essays: “Your writing is execrable! (A-).” I suspect we are all more accustomed to finding fault than highlighting what works. Being surprised at positive feedback also comes from a custom of measuring writing’s impact by counting the citations it receives or how it gets used, not how we have conversations about it. Those citations are the challenge too, and they find us reading the readers writing. Unlike book reviews or critiques, you really are supposed to read them.

The problem for reading, however, is not only that academics are better at quarreling and quibbling than we are at expanding, extending, enriching, or developing. Most of us share a tendency to define our own work by how we revise or correct someone’s labor of love. Everyone needs to hold tight to the reality that provoking disagreement is actually productive, so finding a reader’s disagreement can be a decent measure of scholarly success. A colleague slyly pointed out at a conference that, in the British context, even “this article is an example of terrible scholarship” counts as a citation for measuring impact. Likewise, Jonathan Goodwin has a quietly polemical account of citation trends (tribes?) in modernist studies through topic modelling and work on quantitative methods more generally. All of that said, my “however” is really about the opposite of citations in the scholarly conversation – I hesitate over the unmeasurable silences. The aporias and the gaps are the more difficult legacy to read in citations and scholarly responses.

I won’t let this become a litany of “people who didn’t cite me.” I have only one example, and it’s neither the most recent nor the worst. A decade ago, I edited a critical edition of a major author’s first book, out of print since the publisher’s stock burned in the London Blitz. I was even lucky enough to have positive reviews from no less than the TLS. So, the silence took another form. A translation appeared six years later. It replicated my erroneous insertion of an incorrect paragraph break (bad editor!) along with a good handful of my footnotes (clearly I was doing something right…). Of course, there was no reference or “pingback” to my edition, editorial apparatus, or annotations. I can live with that – it was a commercial edition, and to be honest, the same rules simply don’t apply. Well, they actually do, but so what?

The rub was later that year attending a conference at which the publisher spoke. He gave an eloquent presentation. I really can’t praise its quality highly enough. I thought it was witty, modest, erudite, and utterly charming. It was so completely magnificent in every way that an old friend sitting next to me who was already familiar with the problematic use of my edition leaned over and whispered “I think I know someone who said that…” It was, of course, my introduction to the book, now in the form of a conference talk.

It does not, of course, end there. Clearly I was on to something so scholastically seductive that it had yet another afterlife in Bucharest for a journal article with more or less the same habits. The point, you see, dear reader, is not a litany of complaints but rather bragging rights. And of course, the more important point is that the odd silences in academia are far more telling and far more stinging than are the open disputes. I’ve previously written about the “insult review” and came to the conclusion that “a bad review fosters interest more than platitudes,” but reading the readers who read is more telling. Like in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, “’Narouz once said to me that he loved the desert because there “the wind blew out one’s foot-steps like candle-flames”. So it seems to me does reality.’” Those blown out footsteps (and quotations folded within quotations) are the burning citations and aporias of scholarship, without which we lose reality – or we might also lose an impact factor rating, whichever is more important.

So, in line with my other postings in this blog, I must ask, what does this mean for academics interested in professional topics? After all, “the things I wish colleagues had told me 15 years ago when blogging was still new” is how I identified and described this blog. The first answer is “don’t respond to it with lamentations.” To do so risks remembering Conan the Barbarian from the 1980s, and it is also not likely to make any difference. I deliberately used an old and not particularly egregious example for the blog so that I could avoid the impression of lamenting – at the end of the day, there would be no real point, and far worse happens often enough. Someone used my edition for a translation and didn’t mention me. Boo hoo… Well, I didn’t write the novel, and really, isn’t this something to celebrate as a rare impact? Someone used my editorial work for the same “habit” in an article in Old Europe – have I been materially harmed for the vampiric Transylvanian paraphrasing of something that I wasn’t even paid to write? Obviously there’s no harm. There’s even an incidental benefit, and I still cast a shadow. So how does one use that?

The answer, I think, lies in how we fold those errant works back in through citations in our own future writing. When that anecdote that took a month of archival research to uncover appears somewhere else, shepherd it back to the fold. When those in positions of authority (just as much as those on the margins of the discipline) reuse and recontextualize painstakingly assembled textual evidence yet cast its origins to the trash folder of history, cite their conversation with your past work and engage the quarrel. Treat it as you would any other circuitous passive aggressive conflict. It’s just like the conversations about “some people’s children” behind you in the queue… And this means, dear reader, an enormous trust in other scholars to actually read. In an age of Google Books and Google Scholar, the latter of which alerted me automatically to the very troubles I’ve mentioned in this post, it could not be easier to have this trust. Yet, I have absolutely no such trust. And still, I choose to believe in it.

As I’ve said in a previous posting though, I try to model this in my own work by citing as a way of granting recognition, even where it is minimally relevant. No one in the Humanities wants to run the risk of APA style citations that reduce themselves to “anything that shared my keyword search terms.” Having 75 citations for a 3-page critical note really isn’t a help in Sociology, and it’s downright menacing in Literary Studies. But at the same time, the narrative of sharing and recuperating is valuable. As I wrote in my blog last year for being a blind reviewer and giving authors opportunities to be gracious in revisions by citing others,

if it really is only shoring up the fragments of a failed policy on “impact assessment,” the simple “It would be kind to cite Q, R, & S as part of this conversation.” makes the same point. It also gives the author a chance to be seen by the editor in an act of kindness.

That’s reasonable advice for an author doing revisions based on a reader. It’s just as right for an author writing new work and strategically planning the bibliography. The “act of kindness” is now a double agent, a way of refolding those unattributed uses into a new narrative. You can never ensure any particular reader’s approach to any topic you might discuss, but where the development creates blind spots or has historical gaps, some motivated ideologically and others muffled to create the mystique of innovation, a new record can shape how the next reader understands it.

So cite creatively. Cite for representation. Cite beyond the politics of representation too. Cite often. And cite with a sense of solidarity for those colleagues whose work you want to be more visible and who you hope will stand with you.