Intellectual Curiosity: True Confessions Edition

wordpressEven as I wrote my previous post about how disengagement from online discussions strikes me as evidence of a lack of intellectual curiosity, I was nervously aware that in my own ways I too am disengaged and incurious. For example, I almost never attend my department’s weekly colloquium. I used to go faithfully every Friday. My initial falling off coincided more or less with the arrival of my children and the attendant complications of having to get to the daycare before it closed — that, and not liking the poor kids to have longer days than I did, since of course you have to drop them off before work as well as pick them up after. And for a tired working parent, 3:45-5:00 Friday afternoons is a particularly difficult time to do one more work-related thing that’s not strictly required. It was still possible to go, of course, and sometimes I did, while other times my husband went to the corresponding event in the philosophy department.

But the truth is, I didn’t really miss it, and I have not gone back to anything like regular attendance. I don’t doubt — and don’t mean to impute anything about — the quality of presentations. Every talk I’ve been to (and, I’m sure, every one I’ve skipped) has been erudite, polished, and professionally delivered. Nonetheless, the experience of attending such academic talks is one I don’t usually enjoy very much or feel I benefit very much from, and so when I miss them, I don’t usually feel I’m missing out,  any more than I feel I’m missing out when I play hooky for a while from a conference I’m attending to go to a museum. The honest if shameful truth (and I really am kind of ashamed of it) is that I have real trouble staying interested at a lot of academic talks, just as I have trouble getting or staying interested in a lot of academic criticism. I used to feel a lot more angst about this than I now do: I was sure (especially when the first symptoms of this disengagement came over me in graduate school) that the problems all lay with me. It didn’t help that some of my peers in graduate school, and at least one of my professors, pretty clearly thought so too (it takes a while, I can tell you, to recover your confidence after a professor has declared you “intellectually calcified”). I struggled very hard to care about critical debates that seemed so urgent to others  (if, to me, so obscure and often incomprehensible); now I believe that, though I was and am, no doubt, dull in some ways, I might have been sharper if I’d been working on different material.

Anyway, theoretical obstructions have been one cause of (or excuse for) my disengagement. Now that I don’t have to worry about certain kinds of academic discourse, I don’t even try. I even gave away my volumes of Foucault and Derrida, my Judith Butler and my New Historicism reader. They may be interesting to other people, but to me they were neither interesting nor, as far as I could ever tell, useful for the kind of critic I have turned out to be.

It’s not just abstraction (or abstruseness) that is an impediment for me, though (and I don’t think actually that most of the talks I don’t attend are particularly theory-headed). I think it’s the combination of their specialization (really, hyper- or micro-specialization) and their format that turns me off. The pressure to specialize leads, among other things, to quite a lot of what I think of as “pickle” criticism (see the long footnote to this post; see also this thought-provoking post from D. G. Myers about “an end to readings”). It also reduces the portability of the ideas in most papers: rarely does such a narrowly focused reading give me something I can take away and use. I might still find it intrinsically interesting, informative, or just entertaining, but the odds of that are reduced by the standard presentation style, which is to read a very carefully constructed paper full of rhetorically deft bits all intricately related to each other. I’ve seen reasonable arguments made for this format, particularly for literary interpretations (which do, indeed, turn on precise turns of phrase both in the original text and in the analysis). I’ve seen it used very well, and that’s exactly the kind of paper I’ve typically given myself (though I do try to write it for speaking, as a lecture, rather than a document). It can be a very alienating experience, though, at least for me, to hear someone read a very dense text aloud on a very narrow topic. Though I am committed in principle to the value of open-ended inquiry, and I would never want my own interests to determine what projects are or aren’t pursued, that doesn’t mean I always want to sit for 90 minutes and listen to all the gory details. My notes and doodles often begin hopefully and responsibly enough, but too often they deteriorate. Recently I flipped through the little notebook I bring along to talks and saw, in big block letters across the page, “WHY???” I don’t know what exactly prompted that particular silent outburst, but clearly, at some point, I had let go of the rope.

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So why should my colleagues spend their time in the blogosphere if I can’t show up regularly for our colloquium or manage an entire conference day without some time out? What right do I have to chastise other academics for their lack of intellectual curiosity, given how far I now indulge my own failure to find things interesting? I think that’s a fair question because it reminds me that in both cases we are making cost-benefit analyses: we’re asking what we will get out of a given activity. Many of my colleagues (though certainly not all!) do go every Friday, and they seem able to engage with almost any paper they hear. I admire them — and I’m entirely sincere in saying so. I also envy them. My own career path would have been much more straightforward, and my general level of anxiety lower,  if I felt the same.  But I don’t!  Maybe I should, or should keep trying (trying harder). But why? I have been in this profession for 23 years — longer, if you count my undergraduate years. Though I can’t predict what any specific paper will be like, I have a good general idea of how this whole process works. I make informed guesses, not about which papers will be good ones of their kind, but about which ones I want to attend as well as which ones (for one reason or another) I ought to attend. I don’t scorn people for continuing to present formal papers; I don’t shrug off the value conferences have for other people despite my own indifferent experiences of them; I don’t call for an end to our colloquium because on the whole I don’t find it professionally valuable, however much I might enjoy individual papers. I guess all I’d like is for people not to take for granted that this way of doing things is the only (or even the best) way to share our work with each other.

I feel as if I should say, for the record (though the presenters themselves are not blog readers, as far as I know) that the last two colloquium papers I heard were super — engaging, original, and thought-provoking! One was my fellow-Victorianist Marjorie Stone on “Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ on YouTube:  Contemporary Popular Culture, Erotomania, and Psychology in the Dramatic Monologue”; the other was the brilliant and funny Len Diepeveen on “Smudges and Shiny Things.” (Speaking of Len’s paper, if any of you know of any paintings of shiny things with smudges on them, he’d like to hear from you.) There’s another talk coming up quite soon that I really wish I could go to but can’t because of a scheduling conflict. My not showing up is not a judgment of anyone in particular! Sometimes I’d rather hear from you about your work in some other way, though. In fact, I bet I’d rather read about it on your blog, if you had one.

Blogging and Intellectual Curiosity

birds to fishInger Mewburn, a.k.a. the Thesis Whisperer, has an interesting post up at PhD2Published about academics and social media in which she asks a question that I have often wondered about too:

While I can understand not writing a blog (sort of) I really can’t understand people who don’t read blogs, take part in Twitter or otherwise take part in the scholarly dialogue which is happening online.

She addresses the “how do you have time for social media?” question that I expect every academic blogger (or tweeter) has encountered. (Mewburn links to this post on that specific issue.  I agree that this question always seems to express “some kind of unspoken criticism.” Like the other question I often get about “how do you have time to read so much?” it also assumes a strict distinction between “real” work and other things I do that Pat Thompson notes is hard to make for her own newspaper reading.) The bottom line is that we all have time, or make time, for the things we believe to be valuable. So the harder question is why many academics still don’t consider spending time reading blogs (or being on Twitter) to be valuable:

I don’t have to point out the benefits to the converted. The question I have for you is, how many of your colleagues are doing the same? And more importantly – why don’t they? It’s a question that is beginning to fascinate me and one which I don’t have a ready answer for.

She has a theory about the source of the resistance: “have I become the cool kid?” I don’t really have an opinion on whether that theory is plausible! I find it hard to think of myself as “cool,” that’s for sure. But I share her general puzzlement, because I am so excited and fascinated by the voices and perspectives and information I encounter day after day thanks to the time I spend reading the blogs in my RSS feed or following up on links from – or eavesdropping on, or exchanging ideas with – the diverse people I follow on Twitter. Now that I know how much of intellectual value is out there, I can’t imagine shutting myself away from it. Sure, there are risks: the only thing worse, after all, than having nothing good to read is having far, far too much good material to read than you’ll ever have time for and having to make, again and again, the conscious effort to turn away from “that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” to the one “particular web” I’m supposed to be spinning myself.

Maybe it’s just a pragmatic fear of being overwhelmed in that way that holds some academics back. That’s not the general impression I get from the derisive way some of my colleagues still talk about Twitter or blogs, though: for them, the lack of engagement does seem to bespeak contempt, disbelief that there could be any merit in spending one’s time with such frivolity. (How they don’t realize the implicit insult to me when they say such things baffles me! Do they think I’m an idiot, then, to bother with all this?) Then there are those who overestimate the technical effort involved, or who don’t know about basic tools like Google Reader that simplify the process of sorting through multiple sources. There’s also simple inertia: people have a certain way of doing things, a certain workflow, a certain relationship to their reading and their computers.

Whatever the inhibitions or prejudices involved, I think they all hint at an unfortunate lack of intellectual curiosity. Like Mewburn, “I can understand not writing a blog” (in fact, I’m on record saying I really don’t think every academic should blog), but I can’t understand not exploring the world of blogs (academic or otherwise) if only to find out if one’s skepticism is justified, or not signing up for Twitter for a while to find out how a well-curated community  there might complement or even enhance one’s other professional (or personal, or intellectual) exchanges.

Some support for my conviction that there’s plenty (indeed, too much) worth reading online comes from something else I read online today (thanks to a link I followed from Twitter), an essay by Robert Cottrell, editor of The Browser. Here’s how he describes his job:

I read all day. Were it not for the demands of sleep and family life, I would read all night. My aim is to find all the writing worth reading on the internet, and to recommend the five or six best pieces each day on my website, the Browser.

 Here’s Cottrell’s general conclusion:

The amount of good writing freely available online far exceeds what even the most dedicated consumer might have hoped to encounter a generation ago within the limits of printed media.

Cottrell estimates that only 1% of what he finds is really great stuff, material of real value to the serious general reader. Since I read only a tiny fraction of what he does, I’m not in a position to argue. I would say that of the material I read, the proportion of good stuff is (happily) much more than 1%, but that’s probably because a lot of the links I get are already filtered, either by my own curation efforts or by sources including The Browser. About that 1%, he is eloquent: “the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights.” And where are the “scores” of worthwhile pieces coming from?

Some of it comes from professional journalists, writing for the websites of established publications or on their own blogs. But much of it – the great new addition to our writing and reading culture – comes from professionals in other fields who find the time, the motivation and the opportunity to write for anyone who cares to read. I am sorry that the internet gifted this practice with such an ugly name, “blogging”, but it is too late to change that now.

As a gross generalisation, academics make excellent bloggers, within and beyond their specialist fields. So, too, do aid workers, lawyers, musicians, doctors, economists, poets, financiers, engineers, publishers and computer scientists. They blog for pleasure; they blog for visibility within their field; they blog to raise their value and build their markets as authors and public speakers; they blog because their peers do.

Given the skepticism with which blogging is still met within the academy (and, for that matter, outside it as well), it was gratifying to see its value acknowledged like this. Yes, “blogging” is an ugly name, and the form itself is no more a guarantee of high quality than any other. But blogs have enormously enriched our intellectual and cultural conversations as well as our academic ones.  I think Mewburn is right that it’s time to stop being defensive. She suggests asking “What do you have to give? How can you make a difference?” I would add, “What do you want to know about? What conversation would you like to have? What are you curious about?” Maybe that will help my skeptical colleagues feel excited, rather than dubious, about what they’re missing.

Do your academic colleagues read blogs? Are they on Twitter? Do you think that skepticism towards new media or social media has subsided now that blogging has been around for a while? I don’t notice much of a shift here since I started blogging in 2007. Maybe there’s a smidgen more respect for what I’ve been doing, if only because I’m still doing it.

“Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing?”: On Audiences and Serendipity

Bonnard The Letter

Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? (Middlemarch, Ch. XLI)

One of the things I always emphasize to my students is the importance of considering your audience when you are writing. Knowing your intended audience settles a lot of questions about tone as well as style and content: formal or informal, colloquial or specialized, anecdotal or analytical. I usually recommend that they not think of me as their primary audience but aim their writing at another member of the class — a really top-notch, well-informed one who knows the readings and has followed our discussions closely.  You know you don’t have to summarize the plot for this reader. What you can do that such a reader will appreciate is draw attention to a pattern or idea or formal issue that deserves more sustained attention. And so on.

One of the unsettling things about writing a blog is that you can’t be certain who your audience is or will be. Given the competition for readers’ attention, you can’t be sure you even have an audience, much of the time, and most of us will never have a big one. And one of the questions every blogger surely confronts at some point is: how much should I care about this?

I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question is “do I care?” Of course we care. If we really didn’t care about anyone ever reading what we write, we’d use old-fashioned notebooks — the kind you write in with pens! Writing in public is a symptom of a desire for readers, not because we’re egomaniacs or narcissists (though all writers, no matter their platform, surely need to have a bit of the egomaniac in them, enough to make them believe they have something worth writing down) but because we want to be part of the larger conversation about whatever it is that we are passionate about.

But the fact remains that readers are scarce, and attention (the currency of the internet) is hard to get. If you feel, as you are bound to sometimes, that the big conversation is going on somewhere else, without you, you can start thinking that you should do something, change something, write something, to get attention. You should write deliberately for an audience, and not the audience you actually do have of people who care about you and the writing you’re actually doing, but some imagined audience that would care if only you did something different. And yet, as Kerry  Clare eloquently explains in her recent post “Blogging Like No One Is Reading,” this is a bad idea:

To do the opposite of blogging like no one is reading is terrible advice for a variety of reasons. First, because most of the time, no one is going to be reading, and so there has to be something more than feedback from the outside world to push a novice blogger on. Second, because you’re never going to be able to predict what readers will respond to and what they won’t. It’s the strangest serendipity, and attempts to orchestrate this will absolutely drive you crazy. It will also result in the naked tap-dancing that just looks ridiculous, and never more so than when it doesn’t work and still, no one is reading. And there you are in your feather boa and your silly top hat, when dancing wasn’t even what you planned to be doing in the first place.

You need to write as who you really are, so that you will want to do the writing, and so that you will be pleased about the conversations you do get into, whether with your readers or just with yourself in a follow-up post. As Kerry says, there’s a strange serendipity to it all, and not only would you go crazy trying to orchestrate it, but you can go kind of nuts trying to figure it out when it does happen. Why my most-read post of all time is “How to Read a Victorian Novel” is puzzling to me; that it is my most-read post of all time is, if I think too hard about it, kind of annoying, considering it’s not by any means the best writing I’ve ever done here…but I had a great time writing it, so if it had stayed in peaceful obscurity, I would have had no regrets, and since I believe every word of it, I can only find its popularity cheering.

anthologyI mostly don’t fret too much about the audience for this blog: it’s my space, and I just do my thing, at my own pace. But when I write for Open Letters Monthly, I often struggle more with how to write or who to write for — or just what to write, since there are no limits and no imperatives, thanks to the deliberate breadth of the journal itself and the latitude my colleagues allow their co-editors. Though there have certainly been pieces I have been invited or urged or even pressured to write, I can’t imagine the topic I could propose that they would actively discourage! In puzzling out what project to take on next for Open Letters, I sometimes get caught up in questions about who would want to read what I have to say on a particular book or subject. What audience would I be writing for? Is there an audience I should be deliberately aiming for? Because of my own training and pedagogy, these have always seemed reasonable questions. But to my surprise, the most vehement advice I got from my most ruthless and motivating mentor was: never, ever, think about your audience! That’s the one thing you must put entirely out of your mind!

But how could this be? why is this wrong? I have always wondered. I’m coming to realize that the reason it’s wrong in that case is the same as the reason it’s wrong in blogging: if you’re hoping to second-guess the erratic interests of an amorphous online readership, you’ll end up endlessly second-guessing yourself, and you won’t write well (or, at least, you won’t write your best) or write things you believe in absolutely. Forget the timely hook, the link-bait trend, the ambulance-chasing review. If you have the luxury I have of not having to write anything in particular, then write what you know, write what you care about, write what you’d love to talk about if you got the chance, and write as well as you possibly can. That way if you do get the chance to join in a bigger conversation, it will be one you’re excited to be in. And in the meantime, you’re being your best, and also your unique, writing self — who else would you want to be, and who else, really, would anyone want to read?

I’m feeling buoyed about this perspective on writing because I’ve been caught up in a bit of that strange serendipity Kerry talks about as a result of the essay about Richard III mentioned in this recent post. It’s an essay that had no extrinsic reason at all to get written. My only justification for writing it was that the topic has been dear to my heart since childhood and then turned out to be intertwined with many intellectual strands from my later life as a scholar. It had its roots in a blog post prompted by one of my very earliest encounters with Open Letters. I began working up notes for an essay on this material in the summer of 2011 and got all excited about it (and wrote about it here and here) and then, as I later explained to Steve, “lost faith in the project: it seemed too esoteric to be of general interest.” Obviously, he talked me back into it, and it was great fun (if also a fair amount of work!) getting it into shape and finally published in May 2012. After all that time I had made something I was proud of from an unlikely but, to me, fascinating combination of elements.  That was that, and that was enough! Nobody commented on it, it didn’t get any external links, I doubt it reached a very wide audience — but there it was.

AlltheworldThen last fall they started digging up the skeleton that turns out almost certainly to be Richard III’s. Suddenly there’s a surge of interest in his story, and when people go looking for something to read about it, one of the pieces they find is mine. It hasn’t gone viral or anything, but it has found a new audience, including the author of this Globe and Mail story, and also a producer for CBC who contacted me to confer about ways I might contribute to a potential documentary about the discovery of his remains. I don’t know yet what, if anything, will come of the proposal, but no matter what, that’s twice in a week I’ve had a chance to talk with curious people about one of my pet subjects, and, through them, to share my enthusiasm and my ideas with others. Once again, I’m immensely cheered by the whole process, even as I’m amused at its unpredictability. Fond as I am of the Richard III essay, I don’t consider it the best writing I’ve done for Open Letters. It is among the more personal pieces I’ve done. If I’d really thought about who might read it, maybe I would not have included the hopelessly nerdy picture of my younger self beside Richard’s statue in Leicester! I’m glad I didn’t worry about that, though. Another piece of advice I often give my students is that your writing represents you. It might as well represent the whole you, warts (or 80’s glasses) and all.

One final thought about audiences. Academic prestige (not to mention professional advancement)  is strongly tied to writing for academic audiences. Sure, there’s rhetoric about outreach and “knowledge dissemination” and so on, but my experience is that most academics don’t take writing and publishing outside conventional academic channels very seriously: it doesn’t really count. Just recently a colleague praised my Open Letters essay on Anne Brontë for its interest and originality, then spoiled the nice moment by adding “You should really publish it sometime.” I was genuinely pleased that a specialist found the essay valuable, but I did already “really” publish it. I just placed it — and wrote it — so that it would be accessible to non-specialists as well. I have persisted with this kind of writing and publishing, despite the likely professional disadvantages, because I believe  in it: I believe that one thing (not the only thing) we should do with our expertise is share it widely and show people why we’re excited about it. The CBC producer was explicit that her interest in contacting me came from her reading of the essay, which she described as “fun academic writing” — not, that is, the kind of academic writing she usually runs into, but nonetheless writing she recognized as expert. As I told her, that was music to my ears! The specific attention to Richard III that drew her to this piece was certainly serendipitous, but the existence of the piece in the first place, and its presence out in the open where she could find it, was not, and it’s not just cheering but gratifying to have the value of writing for a different audience affirmed in this way.

2012: My Year in Writing

cassatI began my annual look back at 2012 with my small contribution to the Open Letters year-end feature. I’ll follow up soon with my regular survey of highs and lows from my reading and blogging year. But this year I thought I’d also take a moment to review the writing I’ve done this year for venues besides Novel Readings.

Most of it was for Open Letters Monthly, of course, and I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to write about whatever interests me, as well as for the challenges to write about things I might not otherwise tackle. Also, as I always tell new or prospective contributors, the editing process at OLM is one to cherish: we bring different interests and sensibilities and styles to bear on every piece, but always in the interests of making it the strongest version of itself that we can collectively manage, and I know that my pieces always end up better than they began.

My first OLM piece in 2012 was “The Quiet One: Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” I think this is a wonderful novel – more artful, in many ways, than Jane Eyre, if without its visceral appeal. I teach it regularly and the more time I spend on it, the more I admire the unity and integrity of Anne Brontë’s accomplishment. It was a treat to write this up: it’s basically a much-elaborated version of the notes I use for lecture and class discussion.

The scariest piece I wrote in 2012 was “Abandonment, Richness, Surprise: The Criticism of Virginia Woolf,” which was my contribution to our special 5th anniversary issue. I was not initially enthusiastic about doing an entire issue on criticism, and I wasn’t at all sure I had what it took to say anything at all about Woolf as an essayist. On the first count, I was completely converted as the pieces came in. Sam Sacks on Frank Kermode, Greg Waldmann on Edmund Wilson, Steve Donoghue on Elizabeth Hardwick, John Cotter on Gore Vidal … the project brought out the best in our writers as they spoke from the heart about the people who showed them what criticism could be. As for my own piece, the faint edge of desperation I brought to the task unexpectedly gave me courage to get more outside my own head than I’m usually able to do and to write with a freedom I rarely feel. This is the 2012 publication I’m most proud of, precisely because it’s a bit riskier in voice and approach than any of the others.

The most fun piece to write, on the other hand, was definitely “All the World to Nothing: Richard III, Gender, and Genre.” As I confess in the essay, I’ve been a “Ricardian” for many years but I hadn’t found a place for that somewhat esoteric interest in my working or writing life before. Yet as I thought about the elements I wanted to include in the essay, I realized that a lot of the work I’ve done as an academic has grown out of my early passion for historical fiction, while a lot of my conceptual thinking about gender and historiography finds apt illustration in the tale of the last Yorkist king and his mostly female advocates. I have a feeling that not a lot of readers followed me down the slightly wandering path I took, but I hope those who did shared in my last gleeful “ha!” They will also understand the great excitement I have felt as this news story unfolds.

I wrote two essays on George Eliot this year, stages in a still somewhat indefinite longer project about her thought and her novels and what they might mean for us today. In the first of them, “Macaroni and Cheese: the Failure of George Eliot’s Romola”, I bypassed the essay I initially thought of writing, in which I made a case (as I did a couple of years ago for Felix Holt, the Radical) that the novel is better than is usually thought, and chose instead to think about the ways in which the novel is every bit as bad as it seems. I know that fear of failure holds me back: I find George Eliot’s failures inspiring because they teach me about reach and ambition and intellectual courage. That said, Romola actually is a fascinating and occasionally thrilling novel, so if you’ve already made your way through the others, don’t be put off by all this talk of failure!

Also for Open Letters, I reviewed The Life of George Eliot, by Nancy Henry (in our ‘annex,’ Open Letters Weekly) and Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s newest novel  Two-Part Inventions. Henry’s biography is smart, thorough, and yet somehow not as exhilarating as a life of George Eliot deserves to be, perhaps because it is that odd hybrid, a ‘critical biography.’ Still, it’s miles and miles better than Brenda Maddox’s abysmal George Eliot in Love. Schwartz is the author of two novels I admire enormously–Disturbances in the Field and Leaving Brooklyn–but I wasn’t inspired by Two-Part Inventions mostly because it seemed to me that Schwartz wasn’t either.

The second of my George Eliot essays this year, “‘Look No More Backward’: George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Atheism,” appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and then, rather to my surprise, in Salon). As the essay was in progress, I had second thoughts about the ‘New Atheist’ hook I’d proposed for it when I pitched it, but that is how I’d pitched it and (understandably) that’s what they wanted me to stick with, so I did. It’s not that I don’t believe what I said, but as I’d feared, that set-up was a distraction for some readers, who seem (at least from the posted comments) not to have persisted as far as my reading of Silas Marner. I have argued before that we could do worse than look to George Eliot for ideas about how to be both godless and good and this was a good experiment in making that argument in more detail and taking it to a wider public, while still doing the kind of close reading that I hope might be seen as my trademark when (if) people think of me as a critic. I have yet to muster enough courage to write a sustained essay on Middlemarch, but when I do, it may well build on this foundation.

Finally, I published one essay in a conventional academic journal this year, though somewhat ironically (given that my non-academic publishing was almost all in my supposed areas of specialization) it’s about blogging: “Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice” appeared in the Journal of Victorian Culture. This paper grew out of the conference presentation I gave at the British Association of Victorian Studies conference last summer. It was supposed to be made open access but there seems to be a hitch with the publishers: anyone denied access who wants a copy can just let me know.

So: that’s six essays and two book reviews in 2012, which is not bad for someone who has been told her ‘publication record is spotty‘! And that’s not taking into account any of my writing here on the blog, much less any of the writing I do as a matter of course for work, from lecture notes to handouts to evaluations to memos to letters. Of course, none of the writing in those last five categories really feels like writing, though it’s easy to underestimate how much creativity and ingenuity it calls for. There were some definite highlights in my blogging year, and I’ll be looking back at those in my next post. I love the complete freedom of blogging–freedom from deadlines and other external requirements, and freedom to say what’s on my mind without second-guessing myself too much. However, one of my goals for 2013 is to keep up a good pace of essays and reviews outside Novel Readings, because I still find writing for other people intimidating (and yes, I know, other people read my blog, but it feels very much like my space, so it’s just different, however irrationally). In addition to writing for Open Letters, I might have another go at pitching a piece somewhere else, just to keep pushing my boundaries. But what, and where? (Ideas welcome….) I find I’m still quite clueless about this process, and I hardly know if I’m more nervous about a pitch being turned down or accepted, but that’s just the kind of anxiety I need to get past. Maybe 2013 will be the year I figure out how to just write, without so much agonizing. On the other hand, isn’t agonizing part of what defines writing?

Blogging is Detrimental to Literature? Make Him Stop Saying That!

Just when you thought maybe, just maybe, the worst was over when it came to casually dismissive generalizations about blogging–you know, of the kind that used to get us all riled up way back in 2008, and that still irked us in 2010–we get this, from the editor of the TLS:

The rise of blogging has proved particularly worrying, [Stothard] says. “Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers [sic] opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”

Yes, that’s right: he’s worried that if readers stop tagging along after the “traditional, confident” critics who occupy the literary high ground, they will end up (lemmings that they are) following bloggers over the cliff into the slough of mediocrity, and then they will be worse off! He’s right: there are some important issues here. They just aren’t quite the ones he’s talking about…

Is there really no way we can put an end to this kind of pompous and insulting pronouncement? Can’t we flood the comments with links to book blogs that inspire and excite us as readers and do more than the TLS ever does to bring us to books we would otherwise not discover? Can’t we explain that the world of  “traditional, confident” criticism often seems hopelessly circular and self-referential–that it can only be good for literature to have a variety of voices and perspectives and tastes in play? Can’t we remind him that people have always bought books that others thought were “no good,” and that the process of sorting and judging is always a fraught one? Can’t we get across the basic point that blogging is a form that can hold as great a variety of content as a newspaper (imagine dismissing the TLS because of the existence of the Sun or the Mirror) and that the problem continues to be one of filtering–a problem the TLS could help with by actually reading a wide range of bloggers and encouraging (maybe even engaging with!) those that offer the most informed and provocative and original commentary? Can’t we … Oh, never mind. It’s hopeless.

But actually, no it’s not. Here’s Daniel Mendelsohn,  in his recent ‘Critic’s Manifesto,’ discussing how the “the advent of the Internet [has] transformed our thinking about reviewing and criticism in particular”: “First, there has been the explosion of criticism and reviews by ordinary readers, in forums ranging from the simple rating (by means of stars, or whatever) of books on sites such as Amazon.com to serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers.” It’s true he sees this in terms of “ordinary readers” finally going public, not as his having discovered critical peers online, but he certainly acknowledges that there’s more to blogging than seems to be dreamt of in Stothard’s philosophy: he even gives the impression that he might actually have read some book blogs (and not just those run under the aegis of “traditional, confident” publications). Mind you, Mendelsohn (surely someone whose opinion is worth something even to Stothard) has been making more carefully qualified statements like this for years: apparently Peter Stothard doesn’t listen to him either. So, maybe it is hopeless–for Sir Peter.

And for the rest of us? Well, I’m not worried. We’ll just keep reading and writing, and somehow I’m confident nobody will be worse off because of it.

The Worth of Our Work (with Some Thoughts on Jonah Lehrer)

Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this . . that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

The very smart and funny Adam Roberts has decided to put an end to his blog Punkadiddle. Iif you haven’t already had the pleasure, you should check out the archives – I particularly enjoyed his skewering of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, especially this one, which starts hilarious and ends profound (that reminds me–time for a tea break!). As a Victorianist, though, I found posts like this one of the greatest value to my own thinking.

It’s understandable that Adam would decide to close up shop in one venue when, as he says, his time and energy are needed elsewhere. Blogging consistently (by which I mean not just posting regularly but staying involved with comments and generally maintaining a site that reflects genuine engagement with its subject and with other readers and writers) does take a lot of time and energy, and people’s interests and priorities change over time. As a result blogs ebb and flow, and come and go. The Valve, where both Adam and I were contributors, ran out of steam a while back, and that was a group effort, which in theory should be easier to keep invigorated. I’ll miss following Adam’s work at Punkadiddle, but I’ll look forward to keeping up with it in other venues.

One part of Adam’s farewell post really made me think:

Once upon a time writers were paid in money, but now writers are paid (in the first instance at any rate) in eyeballs, which may or may not at a later stage, underpants-gnomically, turn into money.  Part of this new logic is that the writer ought to be grateful simply to have the attention of those eyeballs.  I’m as deep into this new economy as anybody, of course; I read many thousands of fresh new words, free, online every day.  But I wonder if it doesn’t have more downsides than ups.  Take the material contained in the archives of this blog.  If the sort of thing I write is worth paying for then I’m a mug to give it away for free; and if it isn’t worth paying for (of course a great deal of online writing isn’t) then I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own, carrying on.

As a number of comments on his post have noted, it’s tricky to measure the worth of a blog monetarily: for many bloggers, the chief attractions of the form are the intrinsic pleasures of the writing itself and of the conversation that it stimulates. Yet as Rich Puchalsky comments there, “It’s very easy for people to say that the value of an activity is not measured in what it earns… but part of the monetization of attention is that yes, really, it is hard to say whether written work that people don’t pay for is valued.” Certainly as long as work is unpaid it doesn’t make sense to keep it up unless the effort is repaid in some other way, while anyone who’s enjoying the writing and doesn’t need or want money for it can hardly be faulted for continuing to do it. But how much does the willingness of so many people to write criticism for free make it difficult for those who hope to make a living at it?

As Adam says, it’s a strange new economy here on the internet, with attention or “eyeballs” the primary currency. Adam and I are both somewhat insulated from the effects of this because we’re academics. As Tom Lutz wrote about the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit “for free” as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job” (“Future Tense“). There’s a sense in which Adam and I are both already getting paid for whatever we write, depending on how broadly we define our university’s missions and our professional obligations. (I have a few times made the case that academics who write blogs related to their areas of specialization are making valuable contributions — here, for instance, and more recently here.) Blogging for free can be understood as a variety of open access publishing, and I don’t think anyone’s making the argument that academic articles made freely available aren’t valuable–but at the same time, built into arguments about such open access publishing is the assumption that the work is already being paid for. Academics are also hardly used to being paid specifically for their publications. I have never received a dime from any journal that published my work: the currency there is not eyeballs but prestige and professional recognition. (I also wasn’t paid by the LARB for the essay I published there.) I made a few hundred dollars in total from each of my books. Academics are accustomed, that is, to thinking of writing primarily in non-monetary terms. But, as Lutz points out, “many of us are not [academics],” that is, not everyone publishing their writing for free online already has economic support for that effort.

I don’t know how to do the math here, really, especially when models that assume scarcity increases value hardly seem to apply. Criticism is not a pursuit that responds well to supply and demand, any more than literature itself is–not if what you want is some version of “the best that has been thought and said.” The relationship in both cases between popularity and quality is surely a vexed one. It makes sense in some ways to expect the best work from people who will do it no matter what, simply because it means that much to them, but then with professionalism comes a particular kind of experience and expertise, as well as editorial and public scrutiny which, perhaps, leads to better work overall. (Even as I wrote that last bit, though, I wanted to retract it: the quality of criticism that appears in a lot of paid venues is not inspiring, outside a few elite publications. Punkadiddle is–was–many times better than the review section of my local paper, or of either of Canada’s national papers, for that matter. But isn’t that as much a sign of the limitations of the marketplace as of anything else? Presumably, newspapers publish the kinds of reviews [they think] their subscribers want to read. See also this critique at Lemonhound of a recent published review, though I don’t know if it was paid for.)

In any case, as Lutz says, “We don’t know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food.” Edward Champion wrote a strongly-worded response to Lutz’s essay. “Financially speaking,” he observes,

The Los Angeles Review of Books is no different from any other group blog or online magazine. As Full Stop‘s Alex Shephard observed, the question of basic survival is crucial to all writers, regardless of where they come from. The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s present interface relies on Tumblr and, even though it has featured close to 100 posts, it is just as dependent on volunteers and donated time as any other online outlet. As such, so long as it does not pay, it assigns zero value to the labor of its contributors, which makes it not altogether different from The Huffington Post.

“Lutz’s essay is unwilling to swallow the bitter pill,” Champion concludes: ” in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value. . . .  those who want the content are so used to getting it for free that they expect writers of all stripes to surrender their labor for nothing.” In the comments, he and Lutz go back and forth a bit about whether his assessment is unduly negative. I’m certainly hoping that the Los Angeles Review of Books succeeds in its aim of finding a sustainable financial model that includes fair pay for its contributors. As Champion points out, Open Letters Monthly is one of several other “quality online outlets” that have been “getting by” with basically no revenue stream. It’s a labor of love, something we keep doing because we believe criticism is intrinsically worth doing as well as possible. Is this, as Champion says, “an unsustainable model in the long run”? As he’s well aware, oddly it isn’t (as long as we’re willing to cover the core costs, like server space and postage, ourselves), because enough people want to write that they’ll do it for free–if they weren’t, it would certainly be impossible for us to keep offering the magazine for free, which is what the new internet economy expects. Would we like to pay our contributors, never mind our editors? Sure! But we can’t, and they (and we) are all willing to do the work anyway. Maybe, as Adam says, we’re all mugs.

That said, there are people who are paid for their writing, and it seems both inevitable and just that at this moment when there is so much great criticism online for free (the problem, of course, is finding it reliably: the challenge is curating and filtering the endless proliferation of material) there is sharp scrutiny of those lucky few. What should our expectations be–what should the standards be–for those who somehow have made writing a paying gig? It would be gratifying if the hierarchy of quality were clear: if only the very best (the smartest, the most engaging, the most eloquent, the most original) writing was writing that made money. (Heck, it would be gratifying if the very best writing was the writing that attracted the most eyeballs! If only.) This is pretty clearly not the case, and I know I’m not the only person writing for free who sometimes puzzles or even fumes over the results (see, for instance, Steve Donoghue’s often excoriating series on ‘the penny press.’). “You have eight pages in The New Yorker!” I have been known to rant … you’d better use them really, really well! Meaning, of course, use them as I would use them, if I ever got the chance! (Though is it really the money that matters, or, still, the eyeballs? Writers want readers above all. Hence the difficulty of figuring out the economics.)

I think this paradoxical context of scarcity amidst abundance is relevant to the recent brouhaha about Jonah Lehrer, whose “self-plagiarism” has cast a shadow over his recent appointment to a pretty plum position: staff writer for The New Yorker. Is ‘repurposing’ your own work the worst sin a writer can commit? Of course not. Writers rework material all the time. Academics, for instance, routinely use material first in a conference paper, then an article, and then in a book. A writer like Lehrer whose main contribution is a particular expertise or insight in a field is bound to repeat it in multiple variations. But there are ways and ways of doing this, and the measures of how best to do so (ethically, creatively, intellectually) surely include not just transparency (acknowledgement, “as I said in this prior piece,” and attribution, “previously published in”) but also development and enrichment (if large chunks of wording need no revision whatsoever over a long period of time, that suggests not so much dishonesty as mental stagnation). Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.

It’s also a kind of double-dipping. Some have disputed the entire idea of “self-plagiarism,” on the logic that you can’t steal from yourself. That’s true in a literal way, but you can try to get credit twice for doing something once–for submitting the same assignment to two different classes, for instance. That’s considered cheating at a university because it means you did not in fact do the amount of original work your credit-based degree requires. It devalues your credential, and it means you looked for a short-cut, too. The best students don’t do that; the best educated students haven’t done that. The best writers, similarly, won’t be the ones doing the same thing over and over and trying to get credit for it every time. You can’t put the same publication more than once on your c.v. as an academic or, I assume, on your resume as a writer. That’s padding, to make your list of publications look longer than it is. In both situations, time pressure is proposed as an excuse (students are stressed and over-committed, Lehrer’s a busy guy). Srsly? Without even sorting out whether Lehrer had the legal right to rerun material he’d already published (and as far as I know, the consensus is that he retained copyright on his material, but I don’t know the specifics of his contracts), again, don’t we expect something more of our best writers? And don’t we expect staff writers at The New Yorker in particular (a job many of those Champion describes as currently having to “debase themselves for scraps” would be overjoyed to get) to be conspicuously the best? Don’t the editors of The New Yorker expect that their writers will set an example of intellectual curiosity, originality, creativity, and rigor?

Yes, there’s an element of Schadenfreude here, but  it’s about something more than just sour grapes. Those of us who write for free online have heard for years about the deficiencies of our amateur efforts (here’s Ron Hogan on the same example)–it’s no wonder that we get riled up when the very publications that supposedly set the bar for us all turn out to be kind of slack, orwhen  those who somehow (“underpants-gnomically,” as Adam so colorfully says) turn their writing into money turn out not to be conspicuously better than those who don’t or even, like Lehrer, kind of worse. I’m not saying Lehrer clearly doesn’t deserve to be a staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s not a book critic, and he’s got special expertise and celebrity of his own, so he brings things to the table that presumably have their own kind of value. (Still, I would have expected that kind of disrespect for the magazine to be disqualifying for keeping his post.) Even so, I think his example does further complicate the discussion about what writing is worth. In some of the ways that really count, Adam’s writing at Punkadiddle is clearly worth more to him (as an exercise of his own intelligence and wit and expertise) than Lehrer’s was worth to him. Lehrer wanted the paying gigs: to sustain them, he had to take shortcuts and, as a result, he shortchanged his readers and his publishers.

How should we really measure and repay the worth of our work or others’? It’s a wonderful thing to do work that you love, but as the economy of the internet shows (or, for an example in a different area, the economy of higher education), love can make exploitation awfully easy–and there’s no guarantee that love is what you’ll buy with your money, as The New Yorker found out.

I have no interest in monetizing Novel Readings. I am fortunate not to need this work, which I enjoy and benefit from in other ways, to be a specific source of income. But I know (as Ed Champion and Tom Lutz know) that the work we do online is not really free, even if we make it freely available, and I worry that Champion is right that we are all contributing to the devaluing of criticism even as, ironically, we all read and write it for free because we do value it. Open Letters Monthly does not have the manpower or resources or infrastructure to do the kind of massive fundraising work going on at the Los Angeles Review of Books. We do, however, have a PayPal account set up for donations. If you’re ever wondering if you can do anything to help sustain the wonderfully rich and generous and perhaps (if Champion is right) ultimately unsustainable world of online book reviewing, one small gesture would be to put a little in the hat there. At the very least, it would help us with the cost of our web hosting, the one thing eyeballs alone can’t buy.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Academic Blogging

Logistics and institutional issues: how do you find time for it, where (if anywhere) should it go on your c.v., and how should tenure and promotion committees evaluate it?

At least, this is what the audience questions were almost exclusively about when I spoke about blogging at my faculty’s “research retreat” on Friday. Here’s a link to the Prezi I used, which is basically a condensed version of the one I prepared for the British Association of Victorian Studies conference in August. I was supposed to speak for only 8-10 minutes, so I just highlighted the arguments for and against blogging as I see them and quickly pointed out what the illustrative quotations were, on the principle that interested parties can easily find the Prezi and read them (and follow the links) themselves. What I really tried to emphasize in my own remarks is that if we think about why we do research and publish it in the first place–to advance or improve a conversation–then writing online makes perfect sense. I also stressed that for me, the real benefits are intellectual. I specifically invited follow-up questions about ways my blogging had affected my teaching, my research, my writing, and/or my intellectual life. I didn’t get any questions about that at all, leading me to think that the single most important quotation in the presentation is the one from Jo VanEvery: “Scholars lose sight of the fact that academic publishing is about communication. Or, perhaps more accurately, communication appears disconnected from the validation process.” What people wanted to talk about was “validation.” As I said at the close of the discussion, I think that preoccupation in itself is worth reflecting on. It’s inevitable, perhaps, because we are professionals trying to get and keep jobs and build careers, but I think concern about bureaucratic processes should follow on reaching a better understanding of the value of the activity, to the individual scholar, to the university, and to the broader community. Maybe people were taking for granted that blogging could be beneficial in the ways I was describing and so didn’t need to ask about it, but the impression I got (perhaps unfairly) was that they couldn’t quite imagine those benefits trumping the low likelihood of professional rewards for the time spent. The one specific positive benefit someone raised from the floor was that blogging might help lay the groundwork for a grant application–but as I noted, that assumes that getting grants is itself a priority. What if we don’t need them to do the work we think is important? (You certainly don’t need a grant to keep a blog.)

And my responses to the questions that were asked? Well, the “how do you find time” question is not one that gets asked about activities that we do not perceive as “extra” to our “real” work, so the answer to that would depend on how you find time for anything you think should be among your priorities. I don’t have a strong opinion about what heading the blog should be under on a c.v. except that I think it should in some way be treated as a research, writing, and publishing project, not as “service.” And I think tenure and promotion committees should evaluate it by reading it — not one post, or even a few posts at once, but ideally by following it for a while as well as exploring the archives. I think bloggers (and academics involved in any non-traditional kinds of work) need to help by explaining clearly what they are up to and contextualizing it so that people who have never read a blog before (and there are still many of these people in academia) have some appropriate frameworks for what they are looking at, and they should also help by thinking about how to curate their blogs so that newcomers can easily grasp their range as well as follow key examples. In my own case, I think (I hope!) the index pages I’ve built are useful in this way. As indicated in the new MLA guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship, I also think that tenure and promotion committees need to include people who understand new forms of scholarly communication, including as external reviewers. Someone who is also a blogger, for instance, is more likely to appreciate and fairly assess the quality and contribution of another blogger’s site than someone who reads only conventional scholarship.

The other panelists  were talking primarily about newspaper op-eds and letters to the editors. It was interesting to me that in general, they expressed more discomfort or dislike for the experience of being exposed to the unfiltered world of the internet. Being social scientists and historians, though, they were talking about writing on political topics, so they are engaging in conversations where stupid virulent attacks are more likely, not just because a national newspaper is much higher profile than my own quiet corner here, but also because politics rile people up more than whatever someone happens to think about The Good Soldier or Lightning Rods.* I can understand why one piece of advice they had, then, was simply not to read the comment threads that follow but to wait for the wave of attention to pass and hope to have made a small difference to the public conversation and perhaps to create further networking or writing opportunities for yourself by the exposure. I felt lucky, really, that though I am not Utopian or idealistic about the openness of the internet, my own experience of it has been, by and large, really positive and rewarding.

*Though it is possible to rile people up a bit on these topics, if you have the right audience!