Without Peer

Peer review makes the world go round.  Well, at least the academic world.  It’s based on a simple enough premise: if your academic work is passable other scholars will be able to tell.  It’s a process fraught with peril, however.  Scholars, being human, are subject to fits of pique or of hypersensitivity, or just having gotten out of the wrong side of bed that morning.  Perfectly good projects can be shot down with a single, well-placed arrow.  Or even dart.  Problem is, there’s no better system for deciding if academic work is adequate, or even good.  There may be some objective measure out there in the universe, but if there is we don’t have access to it.  We have to rely on peer review.

During my teaching years, which numbered nearly twenty, I was never asked to peer review anything.  My first invitation came while I was working as an editor.  Of course I said “yes.”  A number of scholars, however, don’t share the basic reality that if nobody peer reviewed their work, they’d never get published.  Many scholars decline offers to review their colleagues’ work.  I even had a very senior scholar once blithely tell me that he had his own research to do, so why should he take time to review that of others.  Professional reserve prevented me from pointing out that if his colleagues felt the same way he’d be as unpublished as a fresh doctorate-holder.  Scholarship is a cooperative venture, no matter how many Lone Rangers ride the cuesta.  So why is it so difficult to find peer reviewers?

I’ll read your book if you’ll read mine!

Something I’ve noticed is that many scholars are coddled.  Constantly told that they’re brilliant and gifted, they come to believe it like miniature Trumps.  More to the point, perhaps, is the shrinking number of academic positions.  The few who hold actual jobs are bombarded with other tasks, including committee work, advisory duties, and sometimes even teaching (depending on the adjunct pool).  I know it’s tough.  Been there, done that.  Nevertheless, academia cannot survive without the basic peer reviewer.  Education is a cooperative venture.  We may imagine the academic alone in her or his study, but breakthroughs generally come through when people work together.  Of course, my job is one performed in isolation.  Increasingly, academics can be found not in their offices, but working remotely from home.  Is the sense of “peer” itself breaking down?  My own book, Nightmares with the Bible, was slowed down by peer review.  In a sense I’m glad it was.  Hi ho Silver, away!

Voice of Experience

Trust your publisher.  Well, if you have one, that is.  I’m not the only erstwhile academic to have ended up in publishing, but what constantly surprises me is that academics care little about those who give voice to their ideas.  Now this blog is self-publishing.  It contains my ideas, but they are free for the taking, and here’s a bit of useful advice: trust your publisher.  These days with easy online publication and formatting that makes your posts look like a pro (not here, mind you), it’s sometimes difficult to realize that publishers actually provide more than just an imprint.  They offer services to make your book look serious, scholarly, and also to be useful to others.  Those of us who write books are often far too emotionally involved to see this.

I regularly run across academics who tell publishers how the text should look on the page.  I’m not talking about those weird and wonderful sections of ancient texts with <lacunae>… ellipses… [brackets] and whatnot.  No, there are those who want to control kerning, leading, and all sorts of things.  There are those who want practically every single word indexed, although research shows that most researchers access searchable PDFs rather than wasting their time thumbing through pages to find a reference.  And that traditional chestnut, “written for general readers.”  Publishers have access to book sales figures (at least of their own books).  There’s no need to bluff; if your book is only for scholars (does it have words like “reify” or “heuristic” in it?  Be honest now!), publishers know how to handle that.

We’re all nervous when our book gets through the acceptance process.  Peer review always breaks me into a cold sweat.  Believe me, we understand!  Take a soothing sip of tea.  Go for a walk.  Better yet, jog.  Scholars tend to be precise thinkers.  We get that.  When, however, is the last time someone used a map from a Bible for navigation?  Most of those cities don’t even exist any more!  This strange mix of online savvy and adherence to the old ways of print (which I love and of which I shall never let go) clash in ways that cause publishers great stress.  You can find a YouTube video on how to make your own book.  Those of us in the biz can tell at a glance if a book’s self-published or not.  And believe me, we’re rooting for you.  We want your book to succeed.  Why not trust those who know what they’re doing?

Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.

Writing Prophets

So I was sitting at a table with two writers I’d just met.  It was at the Easton Book Festival and since I’m new to the area I was very aware that I didn’t know anybody.  I was also aware that my book, Holy Horror, wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen, despite it being mid-October.  As we were talking my two interlocutors mentioned the advances they’d received for their books, one of whom was able to buy a house with said advance.  As I listened I kept my mouth shut, because that’s polite, even though my jaw was slack.  The other person hadn’t been able to buy a house, but after writing on a topic so obscure I can’t remember it, had been able to do something noteworthy with the advance.  My royalties from Holy Horror wouldn’t have covered the cost of this dinner.

In the weeks following the festival—always busy with AAR/SBL looming, then Thanksgiving, then December—I began some soul-searching.  What was I doing wrong?  I also did some web-searching.  One of the articles that came up, written by a business writer, suggested pulling up your socks and getting to it, demanding money for your writing.  I don’t see anywhere to put a coin slot on this blog, which is more of a labor of love than anything anyway.  Then the kicker came.  This business writer cited Hosea 4.6, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,” as the basis of why people would pay for content.  Now pardon me for taking things a little literally, but I doubt Hosea was in the business of giving business advice.  The knowledge people lack, in context, is knowledge of Yahweh.

Now here I was back on familiar territory.  I’ve taught classes on Hosea, and this intriguing prophet was commenting on Israel’s lack of knowledge of God’s ways.  There were some folks akin to prosperity gospelers back in the pre-Gospel days, suggesting that if you kept God happy rewards would roll your way, but history had other plans.  Israel fell to the Assyrians shortly after Hosea’s time, his writing advice apparently unheeded.  As I revise Nightmares with the Bible for publication—the reviewer felt it was too tradey—I have to wonder about my conversation back in October.  Neither book of my conversation partners was one of broad appeal.  In fact, the second was rather technical.  They had, however, been paid for their work.  Academic publishing is built on the paradigm that the writer already has a university job and doesn’t need the money.  Hosea also said, if I recall, something about what happens if you sow the wind.

J L Seagull

Perhaps it has happened to you as well.  At some undisclosed period life became so busy that you felt as if—in a good southern California metaphor—you were riding on a huge wave and you couldn’t get off.  Back in my teaching days I had time to plan my trips to AAR/SBL and fit in some human activities as well as maybe even getting around to see the outside once in a while.  It’s great to run into so many people from every stage of my academic life—toddlerhood at Grove City College through my current doddering editorship—but I can’t help having the feeling that I’m popular now because I’m thought to have something others want.  The keys to the kingdom.  A possibility of getting published.

Those of you who read my daily reflections know that I’m glad to share publishing knowledge.  I encourage academic authors to learn a bit about the publishing industry.  It’s rapidly changing and when you have an inside track (here is the real added value) you need to look beyond your current book project to see what goes on behind the veil.  Widen the focus.  There’s a whole world out there!  My glimpses out the hotel window inform me that there’s an entire bay to be explored.  I watched seals or sea lions (it’s hard to tell from this distance) playing in the water as the sun rose.  Then a seagull flew up and landed inches from my face on the windowsill of my room.  It stayed for nearly a minute, looking me over as I looked it over.  Noticing the tiny white feathers that formed a W on the edges of its beak.  Its Silly Putty pink feet with small black nails.  The emerging red patch on the underside of its bill.  It took a step off the ledge, spread its wings and looked elsewhere for a snack.  I soon learned why.  A second later a larger gull landed in its place.  We too regarded one another curiously.  Had the glass not been there, we could’ve easily touched.  It also lept off to be replaced by an even larger, more mature gull.  None of the three were in any hurry to get away, but when they realized I couldn’t give them what they wanted, they left.

I’m a great fan of metaphor.  Academic writing, unfortunately, doesn’t encourage the craft of utilizing it (neither does it often encourage being coherent).  Later this morning—it will be early afternoon back home—I have to rush to the airport to catch a hopeful tailwind back east.  Someone else will check into my room.  If, perchance they sit by the window with the curtain drawn before dawn, the gulls will visit.  And maybe a lesson will be taken away.

After Easton

I’m still recovering.  The Easton Book Festival was a fine example of liminal time.  Ordinary time—the day-to-day, or “workaday” variety of time—may pay the bills but comes up short on meaning.  Literary time is rare and sacred.  No, there weren’t great crowds at my two sessions.  In fact, the crowds were modest.  More people showed up for my church presentation on Sunday morning than came to either of my more “secular” presentations.  The festival, however, wasn’t about numbers.  It was about the love of books.  Much of the time those of us who love reading are perceived as “Poindexters” who deny the excitement of a life spent in sports and adventure.  There’s no reason, however, that the two can’t get along.  After all, authors write about adventure and sports as well as religion and philosophy.

As Halloween nears and November encroaches on the days of trees losing their leaves, I reflect on how my entire October was leading up to this.  Half a year ago I was contacting libraries and bookstores about doing Holy Horror presentations in the autumn.  Only the Moravian Book Shop and the Easton Book Festival took me up on my proposal, but they allowed me, as my wife expressed it, “to put myself out there.”  To be part of the conversation.  People are busy, I know.  Still, I came away with the business cards of a few more successful writers, and I gave away a handful of bookmarks for my too-expensive tome.  I was after conversation, not fame.

Although I met the director of the festival a couple of times, I don’t know the results.  I do sincerely hope that another will be offered next year.  Gatherings of the bookish are dicey affairs.  I attended the banquet not knowing a soul, but left having learned of others nearby who practice the craft.  Many had made that transition from workaday to writer.  I learned that getting the pennies I do for my books is, really, an aberration of the academic publishing scheme.  Most academics have good paying university jobs and don’t really need the cash.  Book festivals are opportunities to learn, classrooms in everyday life.  I met authors of topics more obscure than my own who’d earned healthy advances.  This was liminal time indeed.  I feel honored to have been included among those feted for putting their words out there for reading and possible rejection.  Books are conversations, and in a world far too busy, book festivals are a source of truly significant discussions.  Long may they continue!

Digital First

Publishers these days are all yammering about being “digital first.”  Now, I use technology when I write these days, despite the fact that I am coerced to shut down programs at 3:30 a.m., my writing time, because tech companies assume people are asleep then and that’s when upgrades happen.  Still, even as an author of the modest academic sort I know the unequalled thrill of seeing that first printed copy of my book.  Authors live for that moment.  It’s our opiate.  Publishers don’t understand that.  Five years back or so I had a novel accepted for publication.  (It never happened, but that’s a long story.)  At one point the publisher changed its mind—post-contract!—and decided that my story would be only an ebook.  They tried to make me feel better by saying they thought it would do well in that format.

Who wants to hold up a plastic device and say “Look what I wrote!”?  It makes about as much sense as smoking a plastic device.  No, writing is intended to lead to physical results.  Even those of us who blog secretly hope that someday someone will say, “Hey, I want to publish your random thoughts as a book.”  As long as it’ll be print, where do I sign?  In some fields of human endeavor there are no physical signs that a difference has been made.  Is it mere coincidence that those who work in such fields also often write books?  I suspect not.  Writing is a form of self-expression and when it’s done you want to have something to show for it.  All of that work actually led to something!

Since I work in publishing I realize that it’s a business.  And I understand that businesses exist to be profitable.  I also know that technology sits in the driver’s seat.  Decisions about the shape of the future are made by those who hold devices in higher regard than many of us do.  I’m just as glad as most for the convenience of getting necessary stuff done online.  What I wonder is why it has to be only online.  The other day I went looking for a CD—it’s been years since I bought one.  At Barnes and Noble about all they had was vinyl.  I’m cool with records, but my player died eons ago.  I had to locate a store still dedicated to selling music that wasn’t just streamed or LP.  That gooey soft spot in the middle between precomputer and 0s and 1s raining from the invisible cloud.  I went home and picked up a book.  Life, for a moment, felt more real.