Trading Ideas

Sometimes you read a book where the author seems to have your same experiences.  I suspect that’s why many of us keep reading, looking for connection.  I just finished Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders and immediately began wanting more.  Anyone who’s faced teetering stacks of rejection letters from agents will appreciate the story of Cecil Po, a bookseller in Tandomon.  Like many of us who wind up in book-related industries, Po is at heart a writer.  Like most writers, he’s down on his luck.  When he discovers a deceased, truly third or fourth-rate writer who’s acquired some level of fame, a wild plot begins to hatch.  The story is so compelling that I spent much of this past week wishing for just a few more minutes to read.

One of the things the story does exceptionally well is to point out the foibles of scholars.  Self-important and self-focused, they often fail to see the obvious right in front of them.  There are some laugh out loud moments here for anyone who’s spent time in academia.  Po’s laconic commentary is no-nonsense and witty.  It also seems to contain a rebuke for the big publishing houses that effectively limit what gets read.  Anyone who’s tried to navigate publishing knows the truth of this tale.  There are those who decide which writers will get noticed and then build them up to continuing successes.  It even happens in academic publishing.  Po, talented but uneducated, and—more importantly—unconnected, has resigned himself to a life of peddling books while knowing he has written better than some of what he has read.  Brown takes the gloves off, but gently and politely.

There are tonnes of great, but undiscovered writing out there.  Even those of us in publishing (perhaps especially so) find it difficult to spend the time we wish to on reading.  There is reading and then there is reading.  If people did more of it there might well be less pandemic to go around.  And if more people read for pleasure there would be more demand for books.  It might also lead to more people writing.  The Traders is a fascinating little parable that draws you in with possibilities.  Cecil Po is like so many of us who dream big but live small.  I won’t put any spoilers here since the novel deserves to be widely read.  And it’s just possible that the reader will discover a bit of him or herself between the covers along with Po.

Indexing Life

I’m thinking about indexing my life.  It might help to keep things organized, don’t you think?  One of those odd disconnects that a biblical studies editor faces is the discipline’s love of indexes.  I have volumes on the shelf behind me right now that have five or more indexes.  You can look up subject, author, biblical citation, non-biblical citation, and even for some, places mentioned.  The thing is such books were produced before the internet.  If you’ve read a few of my posts you know that I’m no fan of ebooks.  I like a book in my hands, and a book, in my definition, is made of paper.  Still, I do occasionally look things up in an index.  If at all possible, however, I try to find an electronic copy so I can type what I’m looking for in the search box and come up with the exact reference.  In this I’m not alone.

A great deal of my editorial time is spent trying to explain this to other biblical scholars.  In the post-Covid world academic libraries are going to be closed for quite a while.  They’ll likely increase their electronic holdings while cutting back on paper books.  When someone wants to look something up, they’re not going to scroll to the index and scroll back through countless pages to find it.  They’ll use the search function.  That’s what it’s for.  So it goes.  When I index my life, the early part will be all about looking things up manually.  The latter years will be searchable.  To be fair, I would’ve never come to know this if it hadn’t been for working in publishing.

Indexing points to milestones.  Earning a Ph.D. from Edinburgh was one, I suppose.  For a guy who grew up with ambitions to be a janitor, that’s something a little different.  Some things I’m not sure how to index.  The abrupt transition from professor to not-professor, for instance.  What are the keywords you’d put down to search for that?  Or the part about being treated like a lackey by former colleagues?  I guess that’s not really a milestone anyway.  Besides, it’s in the internet half of life, the searchable bit.  The earlier years, many biography readers note, are the most interesting.  They set us on a trajectory that we type up in our curricula vitae.  When I write my fiction the characters are often janitors.  Unless I put my pen-name in the index nobody will ever know.  Of course, I haven’t got to the last chapter yet.

Learning To Shift

Beliefs have a way of shifting with time and learning.  A regular part of my job is to spend time on college, university, and seminary websites.  Indeed, an editor in my field has to know quite a bit about institutional affiliations.  No matter how much secularists dislike it, our institutions of higher education tended, historically, to be founded by religious organizations.  That’s not unexpected since the very idea of higher education grew organically from the concept of monasteries as the places that preserved learning.  Many, if not most, universities have grown away from their founders’ faiths.  Harvard University, for example, was founded largely for the supply of Congregational and Unitarian clergy.  Not officially affiliated, it nevertheless owed its founding vision to religious needs in the colony.  The fact of moving away from religious traditions is understandable in the cases of universities because learning is essentially a secular enterprise now.

Seminaries are a little different.  When searching for my first (and, to date only) full-time teaching job, I was acquired by Nashotah House because I was Episcopalian.  All the faculty were.  I’ve been turned down for a good many jobs over the years by seminaries silently stating that I wasn’t Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or ________ (fill in the blank).  Ironically, as I’ve come to know many seminary faculty members through work, most of them are not of the same denomination as their institution.  Quite often they are Bible faculty, which, when you think about it, is pretty surprising.  Denominations, especially Protestant ones, draw their lines in the sand over their interpretation of Scripture.  

All of this leaves me wondering what it really means to belong to a religious body.  After Nashotah House sympathetic Episcopalians were difficult to locate.  Even those in the academy seemed to accept my sudden disappearance with a studied lack of curiosity.  I’ve sat on the sidelines for a decade and a half now, watching others play the game.  Some win.  Many do not.  Some have denominations that open up for them.  Others do not.  Looking back at the origins of higher education, those of us who studied the original academic field are now considered non-essential even among the non-essentials.  And yet society feels like it’s reeling because of its lack of understanding regarding what religion is.  There are few places to go to learn what your particular brand teaches.  But then again, beliefs do have a way of shifting over time.

Wondering about Fall

I’m not a professor, but I play one on—no, wait—wrong commercial.  I’m not a professor, but I used to be.  Now as the spring semester, which ended remotely, is winding down all over schools are asking what they should do in the autumn.  Should the fall semester—the great migratory event of the human species—be virtual or actual?  We know the coronavirus will still be lurking out there, and we know that colleges mix people from all over the world, which is one of the real essentials of education.  I try to picture myself teaching to a classroom of masked faces.  I try to envision frat parties with social distancing.  I try to imagine the dining halls where students are packed in closely together, handling knives, forks, and spoons that others have touched.  I think and shudder.

I know some younger folks.  They tend to trust certain internet personalities because they seem smart.  I’ve even occasionally asked what the qualifications of such personalities were only to receive an “I don’t know” answer.  This is among educated viewers.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t have my diplomas on the wall behind me.  I never even had them framed.  They’re still in the tubes.  I had to show my Ph.D. diploma to two recent employers even though I was hired by universities without ever having to unroll it.  That was back in the day when you could have face-to-face interviews.  Back when a bona fide degree from a world-class research university meant something.  Now economics are being weighed against wisdom.  It’s not a fair fight.

There’s a reason economics is called “the dismal science.”  With Malthusian overtones, we increase to the point of stressing our resources.  A disease breaks out and quickly spreads through our dense populations, but not our denser individuals.  We don’t want to be seen as uneducated, but there’s the great god Mammon to consider.  Funny thing is, back when I was still teaching schools like Rutgers had a difficult time getting tenured professors to train for online courses.  Why put yourself through the trouble when your job is already secure?  They trained adjuncts such as myself instead.  There was, to put it in economic terms, already a demand for online education.  But there are campuses to be maintained, and there’s only so much you can do at home with your own chemistry set.  And so we face the summer wondering how it will end.  It’s time for some critical thinking, but that’s above my pay scale.

White Whales

Every once in a while I return to Moby Dick.  I’m not sure why exactly Melville’s classic has such a hold on me.  Perhaps because I first read it while living in Boston.  For a land lubber like myself being so near the ocean was a kind of epiphany.  I read the novel as part of a course on wisdom literature in the Bible.  Harrell Beck, who was an influential person in my life, insisted that if wisdom themes were truly wisdom they would be found outside the Good Book.  We were assigned a list of modern novels from which to choose and I selected Moby Dick.  The thing that immediately struck me about the novel was just how biblical it is.  Ahab and Ishmael aside, the many references to Jonah and Job and incidental asides referencing scripture made this an intense reading experience.

I started reading it for the fifth or sixth time just before the pandemic became a crisis.  It is a large book and I didn’t want to rush through it.  I tried to pause and appreciate it this time around and I noticed just how remarkable it was that a man who made much of his life as a laborer, without any higher education, was so incredibly literate.  Classical references that I had to look up, and citation of sources blend together in a story that is compelling as it is unsettling.  Long explanations and descriptions are part of the tale, and the soliloquies are so philosophical that you have to sit back in a reverie after reading them.  I’ve read many novels in my life, but no others like Moby Dick.

As metaphorical stories go, the book is remarkably natural.  The descriptions of whales are as scientific in their own way as they are literary.  For an author with no scientific training this too is remarkable.  Indeed, a good part of the draw of Moby Dick is Herman Melville himself.  Although I have gathered a few degrees over the years, in my mind I am, like Melville, unlettered.  I’m sure he would’ve understood.  The fiction I write, although in a very different style, is a tip of the hat to him.  Friends used to tell me that nobody writes like that any more and that no publishers would show an interest.  The latter has proven to be true, and so much more’s the pity.  We could use more novels like Moby Dick.  And were my days not even fuller during the pandemic, I might even have a few moment to pursue my own white whales.

Honey and Wine

Academic writing tends to be limiting.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy reading a well-crafted academic work, but when facing a new one I always experience that sinking feeling that this will be difficult work.  That doesn’t stop me from getting a little thrill when something academic I’ve written appears.  Pickwick, an imprint of Wipf & Stock, recently released the cover of Some Wine and Honey for Simon, the Festschrift for Simon Parker to which I’ve contributed.  As I’ve written elsewhere, this was an orphaned article that required some polishing up to be able to submit.  Thinking back on it, I reflect on how much has changed since then.  How I’ve left the land of Festschriften.  How my own research has changed.

Research, traditionally wrought, requires an academic library and lots of time.  You need to be able to spend your hours requesting books and articles that you can’t afford—really publishers?  $40 to purchase twenty pages that I won’t even enjoy reading?  Access to JSTOR will cost you if you don’t have a university post.  Now I trawl Academia.edu hoping to catch what I need in my net.  Sometimes it works.  Other times you bring up a coelacanth.  That’s the way of research outside the academy.  Also, I find myself reading books that appeal to me rather than strictly books on topic.  Many of them aren’t academic, but they are informative.  Part of research, it seems to me, is learning to access sources you wouldn’t normally find.  There’s the element of discovery.

Monsters appealed to me as a research area since there hadn’t been much written on them academically and I’d read most of what had.  The field is starting to take off now, which means  high-priced monographs and inaccessible research.  Working in publishing I think I understand the mindset—employees are expensive, especially in the United States.  They require salaries so they can live, and medical coverage so they can continue to live.  And most books sell so few copies that they really aren’t profitable.  But I like to think people would read about monsters, if they were priced down around the level of the demographic that appreciates them.  So one of my academic articles is about to be released to the world along with some wine and honey.  I’m still trying to sort out how to contribute from the margins.  And I hope Simon, who was always kind to me, appreciates the effort to honor a scholar and a gentleman.

Begging Your Question

I still remember when I first consciously heard it.  The phrase “begging the question,” I mean.  I was a doctoral student at the time and one thing you do in grad school is ask a lot of questions.  I asked my advisor what the phrase meant.  “Asking a question when you’ve already assumed the answer,” he replied.  I’ve been writing quite a lot about feedback loops these days, and this was yet another of them.  Begging the question, in other words, is a fallacy where the asker isn’t seeking an answer, but is attempting to persuade another of a pre-decided outlook.  The concept is subtle, but important.  That’s why it disturbs me that most academics these days use the phrase “begs the question” when they mean “asks the question.”

I’m afraid I don’t have statistics here, but I read academese all day long—it’s my job.  I can’t footnote where this occurs but I can attest that it happens all the time.  Whenever I read “begs the question” I stop and reason it out.  Does the author mean “begs” or “raises” or “poses” or “asks” the question?  Begging a question isn’t the same as raising or posing or asking it since the latter three indicate an answer is being sought.  Precision in thinking is difficult work.  It can give you a headache.  We all fail sometimes.  Perhaps that’s why we eschew it, as a society.  It’s much easier to beg the question.  Still, doesn’t that mean this valuable concept is in danger of losing its, well, value?

I realize that posing such a question makes me sound like one of those old guys who says, “back when I was a youngster…” but the fact is the educational system in the United Kingdom made you ask lots of questions.  In a way that’s unheard of over here, where money assures your credentials, I knew two students who failed out of the doctoral program at Edinburgh when I was there.  One of them an American.  It wasn’t just a matter of laying your money on the barrelhead and walking out the door with a diploma.  I’ve read certified copies of dissertations (not from institutions in the United Kingdom) where Zeus was spelled “Zues” (throughout) and the biblical seer was called “Danial.”  Now, I suppose that raises the question of the value of degrees where you don’t even need to spell your subject’s name correctly.  Begging the question is a fallacy, not a synonym for asking.  And I know that if your thesis begs a question then you’re barking up the wrong tree, but that won’t stop you from landing a job in the academy.

Reading Connections

It’s flattering to have someone notice your work.  The other day I had the very first email from someone who’d read Holy Horror and wanted to discuss it.  It was from an undergraduate, no less, who was doing a report on religion and horror.  She’d read my book (and yes, it’s undergrad friendly) and wondered if I’d be willing to talk about it.  I can’t express how surprised I was (and still am).  You see, I have emailed authors after reading their books.  Many of them show no interest in carrying on a conversation with someone they’ve “met” through email.  I’ve had so many single-sentence responses with no enthusiasm whatsoever that I’ve begun to think of those employed in academia as hopelessly stuck in tunnel vision.  If you write a book you’re wanting conversation with those who read it, I should think.  At least I am.

Those of us outside academe don’t have tenure committees to please or effectiveness committees to placate.  We write books to try to engage readers.  Unfortunately Holy Horror is priced for the library market.  During our phone interview, my interlocutor asked about the cover.  She said something publishers should hear: when walking around with Holy Horror her friends asked what the book was about because the cover is intriguing.  (It’s actually based on Chloë Grace Moretz from the reboot of Carrie, discussed in the book.)  In the midst of a pandemic, this first show of interest made my day, like seeing the first crocuses after a long, hard winter.  I do welcome conversation about my book.  I don’t have a classroom of students to force to buy and read it.  It’s out there for discussion.

Nightmares with the Bible is nearly finished.  Of course, publishers have hit a bit of a slow patch with many of their business partners shutting down.  Some publishers have gone into hibernation during the pandemic.  Books, though, will get us through.  A colleague of mine said the industry reports are showing that novels continue to sell while nonfiction is suffering.  Well, I’m no expert, but I do wonder if nonfiction might do better if authors would be willing to respond to this who express an interest in their work.  I know it’s a radical idea.  I also know that my books reach nowhere near what most publishers consider a viable readership.  What people are looking for during enforced isolation is a sense of connection.  Reaching out to find someone reaching back.  Books can do this, even if we never physically meet.

Distance Education

As an exile from academia, I do feel for my employed colleagues who are having to learn distance education techniques on the fly.  I do also feel compelled *ahem* to note that I was trained in online teaching long ago at Rutgers University.  The school declined to hire me then, and I’ve had no offers since.  Now it’s become fashionable for academics with virtually no online experience to look to the hills—whence is their help to come?  It’s not very often that I can claim to have been ahead of the curve.  In fact, I’m usually so far back that I don’t even know there is a curve.  Mismatches like this (someone who’s always been good at teaching, and trained to do so online, who’s been deemed exile-worthy while the unprepared now brush off their virtual bona fides) occur all the time in history.  It’s one of the things that makes it interesting.

Higher education isn’t a luxury.  I disagree with President Obama that all people should go to college, though.  Not everyone needs to.  Everyone should be able to attend, however, if they feel compelled to do so.  There are a number of myths about it that politicians of all stripes should seek to dispel.  One is that the more education you get the higher salary you’ll be able to demand.  As a Ph.D. holder I know that is decidedly not the case.  There are plenty of manual labor jobs that pay better than the options open for a humanities Ph.D. earner.  I also know that universities don’t tell new doctoral candidates this fact.  The old ways are changing.  I’ve often wondered if the collapse of civilization would be slow or rapid.  Living through it I now can see it looks slow from the inside.  Future historians will need to assess for future readers how it looks from the social distance of chronological clarity.

Historically crises have helped people pull together.  This one seems only to have divided us further.  If our government knew how, it could now model kind and considerate behavior.  It doesn’t know how.  The selfish often don’t comprehend how the wellbeing of others can affect their own.  Some companies are beginning to realize that customer loyalty after the crisis may depend on reasonable treatment at at time like this.  For others it’s more difficult than house-training a new puppy.  Nobody wants to go into exile.  When you do, however, you can’t help but notice how it changes your view of things.  Ironically I was hired away from academia the very year I had completed my training in distance education.  I can image how it might’ve been.  But then, I’m living in a land not my own.

See Index Saw

Too much of my life is taken up with indexes.  If life with technology is a teeter-totter, then my generation stands just above the fulcrum.  There are guys with whom I attended college who maintain no internet presence at all.  I’ve repeatedly searched for college buddies and come up blank.  Those in the decade following mine, if they want to work, have pretty much resigned themselves to tech.  Those in the decade before, not so much.  What does this have to do with indices?  Plenty!  You see, in academic publishing, and its consequent research, you need to look stuff up.  If you read multiple books on the same topic you’re not likely to be able to pinpoint a page number without an index.  You remember you read it here (you think) and so you stick a finger in the back and begin checking out the pages referenced until you (hopefully) find it.  That’s the old school way.

I’ve typed my fingers down to the marrow trying to explain to guys my age and older that the average academic no longer uses a print index.  Just about everything has been digitized.  Although I’m no fan of ebooks (I very seldom read them) looking things up is sure much easier with a searchable PDF.  Type in your search term and voila—an easy list of references appears that can be quickly clicked through and checked.  And yes, my colleagues, that’s what people are doing these days.  I lament the decline in print books.  When I set out to write a book I have a physical object in mind.  It has pages and a cover.  A spine.  I am writing a book, not “content” to be “exploited” in “multiple formats.”  And yet, the index is really no longer necessary.

The typical academic author whose book is at the production stage fusses greatly over the index.  Calmly I explain that indexes are very rarely used.  They must have detailed indices, they insist.  The thing about teeter-totters is that they move.  I have an inner-ear problem.  As a child this prevented me from doing the usual playground things like swinging and seesawing and spinning, to different degrees.  I still can do none of those things well.  My wife and I bought a gliding rocker early in our marriage, that seats two.  We quickly learned that I couldn’t rock with her.  Indexes, you see, are on one side of that long board.  It’s the side on which the heavy weight of time rests.  So ponderous is it that the kids on the other side just can’t get it off the ground.  And I spend my days over the fulcrum trying to get the two sides to play nice together.  Without rocking the thing too much.

Photo credit: Chicago Daily News, via WikiMedia Commons

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!

Reading Education

Perhaps like me you’re afraid of the news.  Not because it’s fake, but because it’s real.  Then every once in a while curiosity gets the better of me and I uncover my eyes.  Sometimes you can’t help but see.  With the utter mess we’re in over here, it’s difficult to keep up with news from other countries we know.  I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and I’ve worked for British companies.  Needless to say, I wonder what’s going on over there from time to time.  Lately I’ve been getting auto-replies to my emails to British colleagues stating that they’re on strike.  I asked a friend in the UK about this.  It used to be the professorate was treated with some regard in Her Majesty’s domain.  Not being a financially minded person, I haven’t been aware of how deep or devastating our capitalism-induced recessions and depressions are.  Apparently they’ve been bad enough to derail even British higher education.

Compensation for the professorate has been eroded away.  Their pension plans have been depleted.  Knowing the problems we have over here with professors refusing to retire, I was surprised to learn the UK has the opposite problem—professors unable to afford to retire.  Now, lecturing isn’t physical labor, but class preparation (and committee work) take a considerable amount of effort.  I could see not retiring if it meant lecturing only, but with everything else required, not retiring would be, well, exhausting.  As over here the root of the problem is that higher education is the route into which many smart people are steered.  You’d think it’d be a wonderful problem to have too many highly educated people.  It’s not.  With advanced study comes advanced debt.  And limited employment prospects.

There are nations in the world where higher education is deeply valued.  Where educated people are respected.  Ironically, the nations enamored of capitalism aren’t those places.  The only learning that’s required is how to get money from someone else.  Beyond that, the rest is commentary.  British higher education has fallen on hard times since I read for my Edinburgh doctorate.  Schemes have been put in place to ensure faculty are being productive.  Yes, there are some lazy ones.  The majority, however, pull their weight and then some.  And now they’re being told they must do so until the grave.  No retired professor wants to spend her or his old age bagging groceries at Sainsbury’s.  And so they’re going on strike.  If only the world valued knowledge more than money there might be some news worth reading.

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?

Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

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.