Monday, March 26, 2007
Oscar Wilde and the Quirks of the Academic Review
I’m reading literary biographer extraordinaire Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde and, as I always do with scholarly material, I hopped onto JSTOR to read reviews. (Were this another sort of post, I’d write something about why I feel the need to read reviews of every scholarly monograph I read. Were this another sort of post, I’d write about how frustrating it is to not be able to find any reviews of scholarly monographs until five years after they’ve been published. Were this another sort of post, I’d announce that our solution to this problem is host yet another book event, this time on Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. But this is not another sort of post.) As I was saying, I was sifting reviews of Oscar Wilde when I stumbled upon a review of Melissa Knox’s Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide. Its reputation seems to hinge on how the reviewer feels about vulgar Freudianism—recent concessions about literary Freudianism aside, I think my position on psychoanalysis sufficiently established—still, I’m baffled by the final sentence of John Stokes’ review:
A book as profoundly wrong-headed as this can never produce the right answer for the very reason that psychic processes are of their very nature over-determined, which is also why the debate about Wilde and syphilis will fester for a long while yet.
I understand that this is one of those rare cases in which literary interpretation can yield a correct answer—Oscar Wilde either (1) did or (2) did not contract syphilis—so the nod to “the right answer” is not throwing me here. Nor is it the pun on syphilitic discourse—although I wonder whether the question of Wilde carried what the English called morbus gallicus ("the French disease") and the French called la maladie anglaise ("the English disease") will fester in quite the same way its trademark pox will. What confuses me is that Stokes seems to identify as “profoundly wrong-headed” the very methodology he employed in judging it “profoundly wrong-headed.”
This oddity can be attributed to a problem with conventional academic reviews. Unlike the popular arbiter-of-taste—who, if not a known quantity, borrows some cultural capital from the venue in which the review is published—no one assumes any academic reviewer is without methodological bias. There is no singular conception of quality to which an academic reviewer can pretend to measure a work against. Despite this, most academic reviews are written as if there were, the result being strange compressions like the one quoted above.
Obviously, this isn’t the only problem with academic reviews, and my annoyance is such that I may even start a series in which I complain and complain and complain ...
Some good articles on what’s wrong with the Ellmann bio are by Merlin Holland (in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde) and Hitchens (originally in The Nation, possibly expanded for inclusion in Unacknowledged Legislation).
"There is no singular conception of quality to which an academic reviewer can pretend to measure a work against.“
You think not? Surely we go to an academic reviewer for expertise, such that if a book about the vowel shift in Medieval East-Swabian is being reviewed, then we expect the reviewer to have the necessary historical-linguistic expertise to judge it. That would be one measure of ‘quality’ against which the review might be judged. If we read a review of Updike’s Terrorist, the only expertise we assume on the reviewer’s behalf is ‘novel-reading’, which is an expertise very widely shared (ie: we don’t necessarily expect the reviewer to know a lot about terrorism, or adultery in Pennsylvania, or anything else like that. If a newspaper did employ an expert in terrorism to review Updike’s Terrorist, it would look like a gimmick, not like a proper review.)
We might also assume that academic reviews, unlike those frothy crowd-pleasers or bear-baters in the popular press, tend to adopt a more disinterested and measured tone. Not that I’m trying to stop you complaining and complaining and complaining, mind you. You go right on and complain.
Josh, thanks, that’s what I was looking for. I’m not very fond of the Cambridge Companions, I must admit, but that’s only because 1) they’re never in the library, as some undergraduate always has them, which 2) makes me believe they’re meant to be bought—preferably at Barnes & Noble—and bought by undergraduates, despite containing works of such complexity as to likely baffle them.
Adam, I’m working up my complaining and complaining and complaining, but the short version would be that coupling the illusion of objectivity (adhered to rhetorically, at the least) with the narcissism of small differences makes it very difficult for non-experts to get a sense of what the reviewer intends to convey. The adoption of a disinterested and measured tone not only doesn’t change that, it subtends the illusion that you’re reading a disinterested review, even when—if you’re familiar with the reviewer and the reviewed—you know that can’t be the case. (My main problem with this series? Finding examples which won’t be used against me when I hit the market.)
I take your point; I’m just not sure either that objectivity is always an illusion (within the tolerances of our sublunary existence of course), or that the narcissism of small differences is necessarily incompatible with a broadly and genuinely disinterested approach.
... and, given that you “read reviews of every scholarly monograph [you] read”, I’m guessing that neither are you.
I don’t want to reveal too much about future posts here—the problem with writing them in advance, I suppose—but I’ll say this: I consider American Literary Scholarship annuals as an example of an actually disinterested form. After all, when you have but a sentence per article/paragraph for book, you don’t have time to inject your own predilections into your summary. Now, if you could write a 4,000 word review, you’d have plenty of space to brief your readers on your biases, so that they could understand the position from which your review springs.
Instead, we have a worst-case-scenario, in which you have 500 words to summarize a project which likely took 10 years. There’s not space enough for you to outline your own approach, such that even if you take a disinterested tact, it still can’t be trusted—or shouldn’t be, by people trained to think paraphrases heresy. I think you see where I’m headed with this.
Granted, there are some reviews which seem genuinely disinterested—but they’re invariably middling, in the evaluative sense. Anything sparkling is suspect, as is anything overly negative. Or maybe I’m just the distrustful sort ... only, I can’t count on all my digits (multiplied a couple of times) the number of times I’ve read a review obviously written by someone with a bone to pick. (And I’m speaking of reviews of books I’ve read here.) All of these reviews were written in recognizably neutral rhetoric, despite the patent biases of their authors. Again, I’m not blaming any individual author here—which is why I’m having such a difficult time writing these posts with anything resembling examples—but the practice is endemic.
Howdy. Just stumbled on your review of the review that you’d stumbled on of my book, _Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide_--just noticed how thoughtfully you’d considered the comments of Stokes et. al. and thought I’d throw in my very biassed opinion as The Author. Just this: Anytime you write about sex in any form, somebody will froth at the mouth. P.S. Especially relatives of the subject of one’s biography. The book actually concerns much more than Wilde and syphilis, but yes, he thought he had it and yes, I think he did as well, but who the hell knows what he died of? The only medical records I ever found were urinanalyses, which showed he was dehydrated (must have been all those absinthes he was fond of drinking). But I do understand how his grandson is touchy about my mentioning Wilde’s probable infection with syphilis. Anyone who wants to know more of what I think: Amazon still has the book, or just write to me at