Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Academic Publishing Again (or, Still)

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/03/10 at 10:37 AM

At Perplexed by Narrow Passages, Christopher Vilmar raises some interesting questions about scholarly monographs by way of Cathy Davidson. He quotes from a post of Davidson that points to our own lack of engagement with other academics’ books:

If we believe in what we do (and I happen to be a believer), we should be writing for readers, first of all, and, second, we should be reading one another’s work and, third, we should be teaching it.  Right now, a sale of 300 or 400 copies of a monograph is a lot.  That’s appalling.  The result, materially, is that we do not pay our own way and certainly not that of junior members of our profession.  Intellectually, our students never learn the value the genre of the monograph because we teach excerpts in our courses, even our graduate courses.  We do not teach the kind of extended, nuanced thinking that goes into the genre that our very graduate students will have to produce for tenure.  We say the scholarly monograph represents the epitome of our profession and a hurdle to “lifetime employment” at a research university.  So we do not practice what we preach, adding to the crisis in scholarly publishing and the crisis in the profession of English in particular.

Reading both posts and trying to think my own thoughts about these issues (which turn on the problem of which readers we should be writing for and whether it really is “appalling” that highly specialized but often perversely bloated works of micro-scholarship sell “only” 300 or 400 copies), I found myself turning back to John Holbo’s initiating post for The Valve, “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine", which addresses a similar set of interlocking problems, including quoting from Stephen Greenblatt’s 2002 MLA Presidential Address:

the problem, according to university presses, is that we are not reading one another as much as we once did - or at least that we are not buying one another’s books and assigning them to our classes. There are, I know, economic factors here: we are reluctant to buy, let alone compel students to buy, expensive books. But judging from the fate of even modestly priced academic books in our field, the problem is not exclusively economic. Somewhere over the past decade, our interest in one another’s work - or, again, at least in owning one another’s work - seems to have declined.

People reflecting on the decline of humanities publishing sometimes say that scholars should write for a larger public. We should, the argument goes, not address other scholars alone but try to reach the mass of nonprofessional readers as well. These readers would buy our books and journals were they written more accessibly and thereby solve the economic problem faced by university presses. Though the task seems to me much more difficult than it is often imagined, I am not averse to trying to reach a larger readership. But I doubt that our specialized scholarly work can be successfully couched in a marketable form for the general reader - assuming such a reader still exists - and I doubt that in most cases we should try to do so. In our profession, as in every profession, there are many things that we should simply address to one another.

Our great failure in recent years is not that we no longer write for a general public - as if every significant literary scholar in the past had been a Lionel Trilling or an Edmund Wilson - but rather that we no longer write for one another, not well enough in any case to inspire one another to buy and assign our books.

Remember these bold declarations of a brave new bloggy future?

A simple normative principle. Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed - should have it’s own lively blog comment box, not to put too fine a point on it. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent chat from a few dozen souls who specialize in that area shouldn’t have been published as a book - i.e. after several years labor and an average production cost of $25,000. Turning the point around: any book worth that time and expense, that fails to be widely read, discussed and reviewed - that is not given it’s own blog comment box - has been dramatically failed by the academic culture in which it was so unfortunate as to be born. . . .

Why is this really quite low normative standard of healthy discussion not presently met? The technological barriers are non-existent, the financial barriers negligible. It’s cultural dysfunction. Sheer institutional sclerosis.

The Real Circulation Problem - of which low book sales are a symptom - concerns ideas, not paper. The academic humanities have simply never grown hyper-efficient networks for post-publication peer review that are remotely adequate to the excessive volume of peer-reviewed scholarship generated, especially in just the last few decades. This is the real scholarly argument for moving aggressively online, although it is bolstered by many economic arguments. As I have written before, the beast has poor circulation. The only way to get the blood of ideas moving is to rub its sorry limbs vigorously with ... conversations. Intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars, to label this crucial ingredient as the essentially unpretentious thing it is. That isn’t scholarship; but - in a world with too much scholarship - it may be an indispensable complement to scholarship.

I guess I’m wondering: 2002, 2010—the conversation sounds about the same, except that, perhaps, the energy that went into Holbo’s visionary post has flagged (or has it?) even as blogging has become (somewhat) more mainstream. I don’t hear one administrator (or colleague) at my own university talking at all about changing the way we evaluate research productivity. If anything, the pressure is going up to generate “book projects” of the kind that can get external grants in order to raise our “research profile.” Nothing “counts” for anything unless it’s peer-reviewed (pre-publication, of course, not post-publication, and certainly not post-self-publication). Perhaps more to the point, I can count on one hand the number of people in my faculty who blog (the number who read blogs might require two hands, but not much more, I’m reasonably certain). O brave new world indeed. I’m wondering if not only do we not read each other, but really, we don’t listen to each other, or, for that matter, to the president of the MLA (it will be interesting to see what kind of leadership Michael Berube provides on this issue, given his long blogging history). But for what it’s worth, here’s another, more recent, comment once again pointing to the need for some kind of paradigm shift, this time from the winner of the 3 Quarks Daily Prize in Philosophy Blogging, Terry Tomkow:

I think competitions like this are going to become increasingly important in future years. After all, the only known defense for the absurd anachronism of hard copy academic journals is that the competition for space on their expensive printed pages is essential to maintaining academic standards. Maybe so. But hardcopy journals are soon going to disappear and, if standards are not to disappear with them, academics had better quickly figure out other ways to sort out what is worth reading.


It seems to me that Holbo’s sense of an ecological relationship between monographs and blogosphere is a better one than the “how can we fix the monograph or bust gold standard,” and that they’re fundamentally different kinds of claims.

The problems with the book as gold standard are legion; many or most monographs are not written that way because it’s the appropriate form for the argument but because people are trying to climb the ladder to tenure and the research track necessitates that form. Which means a lot of books are simply not examples of “extended, nuanced thinking,” but are, rather, an idea that might be better expressed in other ways warped and extended to match a much too homogenous institutional notion of what the epitome of scholarly knowledge is, to our detriment. The fact that most academic books are far too expensive for non-TT scholars to afford is, of course, icing on the cake, but I think the real problem is this fixation on the single book as the standard for adademic knowledge production. A well written monograph that deserves to be one is a gift from above, of course, but I know I tend to learn a lot more from reading five scholars writing five different articles on a single subject than I do from the typical single authored five-chapter monograph.

But the point is that there’s room for both, and the problem is that we only privilege one. The idea that “we” bear some responsibility for the single authored monograph’s market failure seems to me to tell a much too simple story; as Vilmar points out nicely, Davidson’s suggestion that monograph-tenure is a ponzi scheme we can fix by pumping more money into it is weird, to say the least.

Which is why I not only find nothing to disagree with in Holbo’s statement, but I find it to be still pretty right on the mark: blogging and monographs do fundamentally different things, as structurally and organically different as a post and a comment box, a paper and the Q and A after it, or a monologue and dialog.

By on 03/03/10 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The new thing in UK academia, in terms of quantifying the respective research rankings of universities, is ‘impact’ (a very problematic category, many of us feel). As far as I know, though, monographs still have a high status for the research excellence framework; which is ironic, since it’s hard to see how a book with a print run of 300 can have ‘impact’ in the way (say) a blog post read by thousands can.  On the other hand, maybe out of the nebulous future of the Google Books furore will come All Academic Monographs Freely Available Online, and students, colleagues and even ‘people’ will start reading them in large numbers.

By Adam Roberts on 03/03/10 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

@Adam: I realize that your last sentence is probably meant ironically, but even if “All Academic Monographs” were “Freely Available Online,” it seems unlikely that students or colleagues, much less “people,” will “start reading them in large numbers.”

I read about as many monographs as I can fit in now, as I do my scholarship.

Students aren’t likely to read them in larger numbers unless they’re assigned, and as Davidson points out they usually aren’t relevant to the larger concerns of most ordinary undergraduate courses (like surveys, for example, where the time needs to be spent on broad overviews instead of specialized inquiry).

And what about the public?  The larger problem about readership is the rhetorical one.  Monographs simply presume too much from the reader to be appealing or very informative to ordinary readers.  Even as an advanced graduate student I often felt frustrated when I came across information that I simply did not have, but was taken for granted by an author.  (And now I do the exact same thing when I write.)

By Christopher Vilmar on 03/03/10 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve observed this from outside—outside the humanities, outside academia—since the beginning of the Valve.

First, I’ve observed that the technical problems, which John brushes away as non-existent in that old post, are very much existent.  Part of the project that John embarked on was publication of various works, using the new “anyone can be a publisher” tools.  And he did publish a good number of things.  Then he found out how much work it is to edit and lay out a book.  My sense of it, having tried to make one, is that it’s enough work so that you don’t really want to do it unless you spend enough time doing it to get good at it.  Which leaves out the people whose jobs are, after all, something else.

Second, there was going to be a blog comment box for every book.  But think of the problems there, really.  Blog posts are localized in time.  The Valve can keep links to past book events on the left margin, but they’re dead.  There are tremendous psychological barriers to commenting on them now, even if one of the people who reads all the comments would in fact respond.  They aren’t really about the book, they’re about the book at a certain moment in time.

There’s also the decentralization problem.  Is a Valve book event “the comment box for the book”?  Well, you can Google it, I suppose.  But what if more than one blog has written about the book?  What about the Amazon reviews?  The LibraryThing conversation threads?  There’s nothing to make the conversation naturally settle in one place.

In short, blogs are not designed, as software, to be natural resting places for long-term conversations about books.  They introduce as many barriers as they lower.

The third part of the project that I remember was a bit of encouragement of academics to blog, with the implicit or explicit hope that this would help them professionally.  I think that I was always pretty skeptical about that.  Once the barriers to entry are dropped, the prize becomes ... what?

By on 03/03/10 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As for monographs-become-books, I’ve bought a few of them, mostly in history.  I remember, for example, one about Josephus, a historical favorite of mine because of his successful acts of survivor’s cowardice.  My sense is that it’s very hard to hit the right level for a non-academic.  There is a definite bloat in what I think as the typical monograph, sure.  But worse in some ways is the uncertain level of erudition assumed.  Taking this case as an example, I would have appreciated reading the details of what was really known about this figure and the associated historical events, and how it was known.  But perhaps in an attempt to avoid jargon—which is a good idea, as I don’t know the jargon—the author also seemed to avoid most of the details.  There were far too many cases of the author writing more or less explicitly “X authority argues Y, but I don’t believe that to be true.” OK, why?

In literature, the problem was compounded by the whole Theory thing.  Derrida I didn’t find that difficult to read.  The academic explicators of Derrida I do find hard to read.  There the jargon becomes an end in itself: I remember the defensive theory from some figures involved that writing should be purposefully obscurantist, otherwise it would be misused.  That’s a dead issue at this point, more or less, but it’s left its marks in the writing of people who went through that period.

By on 03/03/10 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

even if “All Academic Monographs” were “Freely Available Online,” it seems unlikely that students or colleagues, much less “people,” will “start reading them in large numbers.”

I agree, and I think the problem is hyperspecialization. Most monographs published in “my field” are of peripheral interest or relevance to me. Their authors are off in their corner doing their thing. Even new “readings” of core texts make little difference to me, in most cases, because in my teaching I’m not going to highlight some obscure angle with an audience that doesn’t know the first thing about what’s in the book yet, and in my own scholarship, well, I’m off in my corner (the one with the dust bunnies, but good wireless connectivity) doing my own thing instead.

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/03/10 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At the risk of a bit of self-promotion: this problem of the glacial rate of change in academic publishing is the motive force behind my book project, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy—a project that had its birth here on The Valve.  The entirety of the thing is online as part of an open review process, one that’s run parallel to NYU Press’s traditional review process.  The print version of the thing should be out late this year or early next (probably early next, at this point).  I’m pointing to that project in part because it’s about the questions you raise here—about the processes of academic validation, about the changes in our conceptions of authorship and of audience and of scholarly community that working online requires—but also because of the odd situation I now find myself in with respect to that project.  (I almost called it ironic, but I’m not sure it’s really irony, except in the Alanis Morissette sense.) I’m currently in the midst of a review at my institution, and no small part of that review has come to hinge on the question of whether Planned Obsolescence can be said to have been “published.” I’ve been invited to give five talks around the country about the project this semester, and it’s being taught in four graduate classes that I know of.  But, of course, it’s not yet in print, and I’ve got a few revisions I intend to make before it gets set in type.

All this to say that if our systems of review and validation in the humanities still so fetishize the apparent finality of the printed object that even in the case of a scholar appointed in digital media studies it still becomes a question—if we haven’t yet figured out how to account for the impact of things that haven’t been done in the usual way, even when the unusual way is key to the field—well, little surprise that we haven’t made faster inroads into changing the publishing culture in the more traditional disciplines.

What I hope, though, is that the print version of my project might help foster the kinds of discussions amongst departments and administrations that could provoke some change.  Which is to say, when it comes out, buy a copy for your dean and your provost…

By Kathleen Fitzpatrick on 03/03/10 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s also important to note how much the profession has expanded in recent decades (whenever you want to mark this idealized golden age where everyone read everyone else’s monographs).

I forget who --- didn’t Bousquet have a post about the huge percentage increase in faculty in the 60s and 70s? If you have twice as many (or whatever number) of faculty members publishing books, all the while the old books aren’t actually being stricken from reading lists, pretty soon you go beyond the number of books it is feasible to read and you start shrinking your interests to ever more narrow parameters.

Maybe back in T.S. Eliot’s day there were few enough academics that everybody knew each other and read each others’ books, but if you look on the MLA convention lists today you won’t be able to even recognize all those thousands and thousands of members, much less be able to keep up with their research.

By Sisyphus on 03/04/10 at 12:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"And [Holbo] did publish a good number of things.  Then he found out how much work it is to edit and lay out a book.”

How very true! And yet it still seems to me true also, what I wrote in that inaugural post: namely, every book should get a book event when it’s published, otherwise the whole system is out of whack.

By John Holbo on 03/04/10 at 03:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Every book should get a book event” is normative, and could be considered to be true even if you don’t really know how to do it.  But do you agree that blogs are not really a good design for doing that?

By on 03/04/10 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,I don’t think “blogs” is a useful generalization; there are so many different blogs and kinds of blogs and so many different forms and forums of internet discourse that it seems reductive to act as if “the” blog is one thing or another. And your earlier comment on all the things that are wrong with the form seem to me to be, from my perspective, true because they point to the kind of form we should be trying to create, a form and forum which the fact of having not yet created doesn’t necessarily preclude.

I want to ask what the de-centralization of the blogosphere can accomplish, for example, and I think the answer is quite a lot; the potential openness of the medium means that while dropping the barriers to entry might lower the professional rewards, it also allows people not embarked on a monomaniacal quest for an R1 TT job to join in, which is a good thing. Peer review is a form of censorship, after all, both a spur to rigor and a brake on innovation; by allowing less rigorous forms of discourse (or just voices not painstakingly accredited in the academic vocation), you also allow a lot that the academic machine tends to weed out of its acolytes. 

Moreover, I don’t want to brush away the technical problems of the medium, but creating a discussion forum is vastly different than creating an e-book. Making the Moretti discussion into a book takes a lot of work; providing the space for the original discussion, it seems to me, is work of a very different kind, and much less substantial in the terms you’re talking about, not a software problem at all.

And finally, being localized in time is exactly what we don’t have with the current model of publishing. A year after a book has been published, you start to see the “real” reviews and published reactions to it, and those tend to be the landmarks one uses to navigate by after that point. But *until* that point, there is little or nothing available meta-commentary to read, a gap that the blogosphere seems really well-placed to fill.

By on 03/04/10 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kathleen, I have looked often at your Valve post (and the discussion that followed), but I hadn’t kept up with what grew out of it (and your other work, of course), so thank you for the link to Planned Obsolescence, the sort-of-book-version. It really is startling that there should be any question about its having been “published” in the ways that matter. Have the people doubting that actuall read any of it? Surely, if they did, they would see the irony. I spent a long time reading it last night (and muttering to myself, “I should be working,” which is another problem, namely, our specialized work inhibits the time and effort we can “afford” to spend thinking about systemic issues or meta-critical issues, or doing the kind of wide-ranging reading, too, that would make us better generalists). One of the comments you make that struck me most sharply was about remembering why we engage in scholarship and writing--it should be about the ideas, in short, not about (or not just about) the professional steps.

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/04/10 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"it should be about the ideas, in short, not about (or not just about) the professional steps” is exactly right. And the blurring of print/internet distinctions that Kathleen’s work represents is exactly the kind of thing that might not have a clear rationale in terms of professional advancement (potentially the reverse) but doe shave a really clear rationale in terms of the kinds of ideas that the process can produce.

By on 03/04/10 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

” there are so many different blogs and kinds of blogs “

I have to disagree, because I’m not talking about blogs in terms of content, I’m talking about the structure of the software.  In that sense there is very little variation among the different blog platforms.  And one of the basic things that they do is that they prioritize a time element.

I’ll leave decentralization aside—it’s both good and bad, and it effects far more kinds of fora than just blogs.  But in terms of time, I don’t agree that filling the gap between when the book is published and a year after it, when you get what you call the “real” reactions to it, is a gap that needs to be filled.  The blogosphere might or might not be suited to filling it.  But it’s not a gap that anyone should care about, really.  Why would anyone need a place for what’s defined as ephemeral chit-chat that lasts a year and then is replaced by the “real” reaction, one which probably owes nothing to it?  It takes effort to set up book events.  It even takes effort to respond, in any sort of non-trivial sense, to book events.  It’s fine to do that just for amusement, but we shouldn’t say that it’s needed in any sense.

In short, I think that the blogged book event is only useful if it’s part of an ongoing conversation about the book.  But blogs, with their time-sensitivity, are not good for conversations that last longer than a week.

By on 03/04/10 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What about this dream scenario:

Tomorrow: Famous Scholar A and B and Unknown Scholars C and D publish books. I notice this fact in a bookstore window.

The next six months: the Valve provides a forum for the various people who went right out those four books because they are particularly interested and it becomes clear that:
1. Scholar A’s book is a continuation of Scholar A’s last book,
2. Scholar B’s book employs the work done by scholars S, T, and U to produce a very different account of topic X,
3. Scholar C is publishing a revised dissertation on a topic that was trendy ten years ago, and
4. Scholar D’s book is going to be an argument that people will be talking about for years to come.

Six Months after that: I buy the book that interests me and read it informed by the work of contextualizing and framing that’s already been done.

This is a particular scenario, of course, but it’s a way of thinking about the kind of useful work that can be done in the terms I outlined. And it seems to me to be the sort of thing that academic presses are really bad at doing and which journals and other reviewing apparatuses don’t do at all.

By on 03/04/10 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan, I hesitate to speculate too much on the degree to which my colleagues read Planned Obsolescence, precisely in a venue that will leave googlable traces.  But yes, irony abounds, in any case.  Thanks for reading - I’m hoping that if the review goes as it ought I’ll be able to serve as a precedent for other folks who need to justify their digital ways of working to review committees…

By Kathleen Fitzpatrick on 03/04/10 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a dream scenario, it just isn’t ambitious enough.  What it seems to involve is reviewing and book chat.  Reviewing is the one last thing that the reviewing apparatus does.  I don’t see any real value in having it done a bit faster and more informally.  Why not just wait a year?  Book chat—well, there are other blogs out there that do that, that don’t have anything like what John Holbo presented as the purposes of the Valve.  And I’m personally just not interested.

Here’s my own dream scenario, informed by what I’ve actually observed about the book events.  For many of these books, it’s quite possible that the book events will contain some of the best writing that’s ever done about those books.  Let’s take, for example, “What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts.” I wasn’t impressed with the standard-venue reactions to it.  And it seems unlikely that people are really going to devote the same amount of effort to it once Berube writes whatever his next book on the subject is.  So the book event isn’t the toss-away first-year temporary reaction, it’s a major part of the critical reaction that the book is going to get.

It needs to be archived, but more than that—it needs to be extended.  If someone does come out with a later, more extensive or polished or insightful or professional or whatever criticism of the book, that criticism should get linked into the book event, so that if someone looks at What’s Liberal ten years from now, they can turn to the book event and get a complete history of what’s been written about it.  And—even more ideally—those later criticisms should show some sign that their authors have read the book event and considered what’s been brought up in it.

Only some kind of continuity between the immediate criticism and the later really makes the “every book should have a comment box” idea worthwhile.  Books have comment boxes, if they aren’t academic monographs: they’re called Amazon rating comments.  And they’re pretty much worthless.  People are willing to write something that takes as much work as a Valve post for a while for the novelty of it, I think, but once they’ve done it a few times and they realize that whatever they write is just being buried in a huge pile of historical Google-trash, why bother?

By on 03/04/10 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Figuring out how best to utilized electronic publication and how to give professional credit for it, that’s one set of problems. The monograph that sells “only” 300 or 400 copies, that’s different. It’s a problem for the publisher who has high fixed costs that can’t be recouped by selling 300 copies (unless they charge $100+ per book, which is not unusual), but I’m not sure that it represents a problem with the intellectual structure of the discipline. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t; I just don’t know. In any event, I should think that on-demand digital publication would be the way to go with print publication for such books.

By Bill Benzon on 03/04/10 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony Cristini writes:

“On the imaginative literature side of things, the irony is that by comparison to nonfiction, universities publish relatively few contemporary fiction “monographs”, i.e. novels, but teach relatively many of them. No matter the higher level of use of novels in class, the lack of university publishing of them is still also a great problem. What exists is the facilitation of a lot of contemporary corporate commercial fluff and formula, branding and worse, in other words, the truncating, warping, and death of a vital full literature and culture.”

I thought that this blog had already hosted a few acrimonious discussions of “modern literary fiction” versus “corporate commercial fluff” AKA the books that people are actually buying and reading.

I protest the lumping of all popular fiction together as denigrated “commercial fluff.” Yes, a large chunk of it is Dan Brown; but writers like Ursula LeGuin and P. D. James are also part of that “fluff”.

Mr. Cristini also seems to believe that university presses, as well as going broke publishing monographs few people want to buy or read, should accelerate the onset of bankruptcy by publishing fiction few want to buy and read.

By on 03/04/10 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

POD or e-publishing dispense with some publishing costs, but presses would still have to pay for editors and proofreaders, if the books are to be any good at all. (A marketing budget might not be amiss as well.)

Unless you’re assuming that the author pays.

Not only would that be a burden to many authors, it would remove much of the control that publishers have over the quality of the books. Many authors—particularly the ones who most need editing—have to be told, “Submit to editing or you won’t be published.” The publisher pays the editor, which to some degree insulates the editor from the anguished howls of the aggrieved author.

I speak as an editor who has worked for publishers and authors, and for authors who would listen (usually the good ones) and authors who resented anything beyond correction of typos.

Tony, I think you also overestimate the value of the university imprimatur, and the ability of the presses’ editors to choose the books that will be bought, read, and remembered. I rather doubt that they’d get it right more often commercial publishing houses. They’d make different sorts of bad calls, that’s all.

By on 03/05/10 at 12:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Related post by Dan Cohen

We need to work much more on the demand side if we want to move the social contract forward into the digital age. Despite Updike’s ode to the book, there are social conventions surrounding print that are worth challenging. Much of the reputational analysis that occurs in the professional humanities relies on cues beyond the scholarly content itself. The act of scanning a CV is an act fraught with these conventions.

Can we change the views of humanities scholars so that they may accept, as some legal scholars already do, the great blog post as being as influential as the great law review article? Can we get humanities faculty, as many tenured economists already do, to publish more in open access journals? Can we accomplish the humanities equivalent of FiveThirtyEight.com, which provides as good, if not better, in-depth political analysis than most newspapers, earning the grudging respect of journalists and political theorists? Can we get our colleagues to recognize outstanding academic work wherever and however it is published?

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/05/10 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

BTW, Puchalsky’s right about the inadequacy of blogging software, and not just for book events. The fact that posts just trail off into the past and then are lost is a general problem, especially if you regard your (more substantial) posts as part of a long-term ongoing agenda—as I do. The search engine helps, as do the category tags (though we need a better set), but old posts are still pretty much lost. And where there’s real substance in the comments, which there is often enough, that’s really hard to track down unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. We need a way to keep relatively large bodies of material (such as book event commentary) current and ongoing, without pushing out the stream of new stuff.

Probably the blog stream needs to be closely associated with some other facility that’s doing this other job, however you characterize it.

Some humanists at Stanford have set up ARCADE, which includes a bunch of blogs, but also other facilities. That’s a step in the right direction, but the blogs are still self-contained entities, unlinked to any aggregation facility.

By Bill Benzon on 03/25/10 at 09:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: