Saturday, July 30, 2005
Dr. Crazy suggests that what separates blogging from academic writing is, in part, the reader’s desire:
Because there is that immediate response, and you know that the response has nothing to do with academic hierarchies but rather with the fact that people are interested enough to read, not because they must read your blog for work but because they feel like reading it - whether because it makes them laugh, makes them think, or makes them feel whatever.
Academic bloggers certainly attract a readership well outside their field of study; after all, I find that economists, physicists, sociologists, computer scientists, and biologists wander over here, even though I rarely (never?) say anything applicable to any of those fields. If I had simply stuck to writing thrilling and chilling prose about novelist X from the Religious Tract Society, my existence would have remained a blank to most (all?) of my readers. People might even believe that I’m an English professor, not a historian. In any event, it’s true that blogging generates a different kind of public "footprint" than one’s academic prose, sometimes with bizarre (startling?) results. Presumably, my most recently published article will appeal to that segment of the academic population deeply fascinated by Victorian women writers who specialized in religious fiction--or, more charitably, Victorian women writers who wrote religious fiction, or Victorian writers of religious fiction, or (at a stretch?) maybe Victorian women writers. But I wonder how many of those readers overlap with this blog’s audience.*
My own reading habits, though, don’t quite answer to Dr. Crazy’s plaint:
When was the last time any of you had time to pick up a journal article or a book with an unfamiliar author just because it seemed interesting? When was the last time any of you checked something scholarly out of the library when you didn’t need to look at it for your own research? When was the last time you read a book that you were using for your own work cover-to-cover?
This week, as it happens--not only is The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat not immediately relevant to my research, except insofar as it relates to Reformation and post-Reformation issues (and even so, my interest in the Reformation really only extends to what nineteenth-century writers thought about it), but also I read all 715 pages of it.** I think, though, that my definition of "work" may be a little broader. When I read scholarly books, I ask myself at least three questions: Does this help me understand problem X in project Y? Does this help me pose useful new questions about problem X more generally? Does this help me clarify my own approach to scholarly writing? A lot of immediately "irrelevant" scholarship actually speaks to question #3. A writer may teach me something about method, suggest a new way of working with evidence, address problems with archival research, and the like. Of course, I don’t always "learn" what I’m intended to learn--the year I spent working for an academic journal taught me that excessively jargonified prose is just really, really dull, which is why my book doesn’t quite*** read like my thesis. But I try to operate on the assumption that the field of "relevance" might be far wider than it looks. Who knew that reading books on the history of textual editing might teach you something about changing attitudes to historical research? That being said, I think my reading habits speak to the speed at which I read, and not to my skills as a researcher, although the Jewish guilt thing may also play a part. ("I started this book--I must finish it. Think how badly the author would feel if s/he knew I was stopping halfway!")
It’s true that American academics tend to be more formal (stuffier?) than their current British counterparts, all stereotypes aside, although the current trend in British academic prose--rapid shifts from the formal to the informal register, occasional slanginess, offhanded walloping of other scholars--may be its own "form" instead of something truly "personal." I’ve been known to make tart comments about a writer under discussion--"What we notice here, apart from that really dreadful last line..."****--which a very few people have interpreted as being "dismissive." I prefer "honest"; I write about people who are genuinely interesting for historical reasons, and see no reason to pretend that they are somehow aesthetically equivalent to Dickens or Eliot.
*--Of course, determining my actual readership is well-nigh impossible, since I only know a) who comments and b) who links, aside from c) those who have told me in other venues, "I read your blog." Maybe the Shadow knows. I suspect that questions of audience are slightly different in my case than for an anonymous blogger.
**--And let me tell you: lugging that book on my daily walks around the village was seriously hard on the shoulders. Not quite as dangerous to life and limb as the various Norton anthologies, but still.
***--I don’t think that I managed to de-dissertate my style entirely, and to my eye there’s a difference between the chapters left somewhat as-is and the massively revised chapters, but at least I managed to eliminate "gynohistoriographical" from the introduction. ("That’s an...interesting term," one of my former undergraduate instructors gently observed.)
****--"No clarion save the lark, no sanguine flood,/Save verdant veins of vegetable blood" (Eaton Stannard Barrett, Woman ). "Vegetable blood"?! Huh? What? I’d like to report that Barrett, who also wrote satires on contemporary fiction, was trying to be funny, but, alas, there’s no evidence to support that claim.
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
2. fig. and transf. Applied, always with conscious reference to prec., to liquids or juices in some way resembling or suggesting it, as a. to a blood-like juice; b. poet. to the water of a river personified; c. by partially scientific analogy, to the sap of plants.
Better than Keats, it is.
Putting together the two parts of your post, it seems that blog writing and trad scholarly writing have more in common than we’d imagine, in terms of reception: both may potentially be found and taken up by unknown readers who the writer isn’t directly conceiving of as her primary audience.
I had the weird experience not long ago of sitting in an auditorium packed full of people all reading the catalogue essay I wrote about the movie we were all about to see. Such a strange feeling! the more so as I never have a very clear idea of who (if anyone) might be around to receive my communications.
I suspect there are lots of us who read not directly relevant scholarship speculatively, or for pleasure broadly interpreted. I’m in the middle of Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (mentioned here by commenter Luther Blissett), half on the lookout for anything I can use, and half just for the pleasure of seeing what she has to say about books & movies I like & think are interesting. It’s usually more enjoyable to read outside your field than inside it, I guess.
One of my two movie roles was as “The Hands” in a splatterpunk student film, “Vegetables Is Murder”. If the filmmaker had known the Barrett, he might have quoted it in his titles.
By definition, all the scholarly journals and books that I read are for pleasure, and much the same sort of pleasure I seek online. But Dr. Crazy has a point insofar as scholarly texts were written more or less blatantly assuming that some other motivation will have driven most readers there. (I certainly appreciate the writers who put extra effort into anticipating mixed motives or a mixed audience, though!)
Dr. Crazy asks, “When was the last time any of you had time to pick up a journal article or a book with an unfamiliar author just because it seemed interesting?”
If only I could stop picking up books and articles just because they seem interesting. Right now I’m having a hard time putting down Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality. It’s written from the perspective of evolutionary biology—Foucault would toss and turn in his grave, and the Boston Women’s Health Collective have probably just shaken their heads sadly. While I don’t necessarily agree with the authors’ perspective, I’ve learned a lot so far from the book; it’s full of asides like the story of Mary Toft, which I hadn’t read about before, and the tidbit that kwashiorkor is sometimes explained as “[t]he evil eye of the child in the womb upon the child already born” (p. 151).