Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Rejected @NLH! Part 0: Some reflections on being turned down cold at a top journal

Generally the introduction is the last thing I write in a working paper. That’s because either, 1) I’ve assembled a working paper out of posts that were originally written as one-offs, or 2) in the case where I know that I’m posting to a working paper, I still don’t quite know the compass of that working paper. This time I’m trying something different.

I propose to write a working paper with this overall title:
Rejected at New Literary History, a Working Paper
I’ve already been blogging on that subject and I’ve made extensive notes and something of an outline for a working paper. So, I’ve decided to start with an introduction. I may well have to revise it when I gather the posts together. That’s OK.

* * * * *

Early last fall I submitted a paper for publication in New Literary History: Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature [1]. Not only did I have high hopes. I had high expectations. I really thought this would be accepted. And yet, when I got news of rejection, I was not surprised. Disappointed, certainly. Surprised, not really.

Now that just doesn’t make sense. If I really thought it would be accepted, then rejection should have surprised me, no? But it didn’t.

What’s going on? The human mind, that’s what. A strange beast. And yet it is precisely because I thought hard about the article and had specific ideas about why I would be attractive to New Literary History, ideas I’ll discuss in a later piece, that it becomes both imperative and possible for me to learn from the rejection. I’ve got to revise those ideas somehow.

Thus I’ve been spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out not only why the paper was rejected but why and how I misjudged things. Sure, I received comments from a reviewer and they were quite dismissive. But those comments were not very helpful.

Why not? And yet the fact that they weren’t helpful, that fact is itself helpful, for it tells me that we live in different conceptual worlds, that reviewer and me. After all these worlds, different conceptual worlds.

What went wrong?

Let us consider some possibilities:
  1. It is possible that I simply don’t have anything worthwhile to say about literature. If that is the case, then there’s really nothing I can do that would have resulted in an article acceptable to NLH or to any other literary journal.
  2. I don’t really believe this, that I have nothing worthwhile to contribute. And given that I have already published in other literary journals, I don’t think it’s the case that I have nothing to contribute to literary studies.
  3. It is however possible that I have nothing to contribute to NLH.
  4. It is also possible that I do have something to say to the NLH readership, but I didn’t manage to convey that in my article. Perhaps a somewhat different article is needed.
Given that I reject #1, how do I decide among #2, #3, and #4?

The reviewer’s comments, which I will get to in a later post, lead me to #3, though quite possibly the reviewer believes #1. The reviewer’s comments center on computing, which is, after all, how I framed my article. There is nothing, alas, in the reviewer’s comments suggesting that they think about computing in a sophisticated way. If they are sophisticated, then those comments are damning indeed.

But those comments could easily come from someone with little sophistication and, moreover, someone for whom computers and computing are little more than ideological talismans of the anti-human. If this is the case, well, what then?

It means that they are no reflection on the basic quality of my work in that essay. It might in fact be poor because I’ve treating computation poorly, but an unsophisticated reviewer wouldn’t know that. They’d only know that I talk of computing and such talk is, in principle, suspect.

I think a lot of literary critics believe that; whether it’s 20%, 38%, 65% or some other value, I don’t know. Whatever the number, perhaps I have little to say to them. And if such critics make up a large percentage of the NLH readership there’s little point in NLH devoting scarce pages to an article that will only alienate those readers. If I want to publish computationally-oriented material I need to go elsewhere, perhaps to PsyArt Journal, an online journal where I published four substantial articles in the first decade of the millennium. All of those articles had a strong computational emphasis, much stronger than what I submitted to NLH.

At the moment I’m thinking maybe #4 is the case. It’s not so much that I’m considering writing a somewhat different article and submitting it specifically to NLH – I’ve got other projects I’m working on. Rather I’m trying to figure out whether I’ve got anything to say to a more or less mainstream audience of academic literary critics, which is what, rightly or not, I take NLH’s audience to be.

I need to get a read on this in order to plan out my work. The number of variety of things I could do, and that I would be interested in doing, exceeds my resources (mostly time). Which of those projects should I work on? That’s what I’m trying to figure out, and that’s why I’ve spent so much time thinking these things through and, once again, revisiting the recent history of literary criticism [2].

Here We Go

Here then are the posts I have been working on.

Rejected @NLH! Part 1: Outside looking in on the critics table – With undergraduate and graduate work (MA) at Johns Hopkins in the 60s and 70s and PhD at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-70s I was institutionally positioned at the center of change in literary criticism. My publication debut in the Centennial issue MLN in 1976 was very visible. But it was also cognitive science, which no one was ready for. By the mid-1980s I realized that, conceptually, I had moved to the far periphery of literary criticism, if even that. I conceived of a Socratic bargain (cf. The Crito) with the academy and have been pursuing it ever since. Where is that today? Why submit to New Literary History?

Rejected @NLH! Part 2: What I got out of writing the paper – In the article, Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature, I assemble several different topics and modes of thought into a single document focused on two examples, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 and Obama’s eulogy for Clemente Pinckney: form, computation (the sonnet), descriptive analysis (the eulogy), psychological dynamics in a group (Obama’s performance), and interpretive analysis (the eulogy). That’s what I got from the article, seeing those different kinds of intellectual work together in one discourse. I expected the NLH audience would see the same thing, except that the discussions of form and interpretive analysis (of Obama’s eulogy) would be most familiar to them. The other materials are foreign, but ready and waiting for those critics who want to do a bit of exploring.

Rejected @NLH! Part 3: Party like it’s 1975 – In the introduction to his 1975 Structuralist Poetics, Jonathan Culler imagined a type of literary study that “would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning” (p. xiv). But that never really happened, not even for Culler himself. That possibility had emerged by the beginning of the decade and had disappeared by the end.

Interpretation attracted increasing professional interest after WWII. By the mid-60s it had spread across the profession, but had also become problematic. The profession began to look outward to other disciplines.

Thus looking forward from early in the 1970s the profession was open to new ideas, even ideas outside the familiar discursive realm of literary criticism and scholarship. Perhaps linguistics and structuralism had something to say to literary criticism? Looking back, however, it appears that this is also when those new possibilities, the non-discursive ones, were rejected. Poetics was relegated to a distinctly secondary role in the profession and interpretation became the discipline’s central focus. One might almost say that, at least for some, interpretive criticism approached a secular theology where individual humans and texts are subordinate to transcendent systems of various kinds. Interpretive activity was directed at those transcendent systems.

Rejected @NLH! Part 4: Déjà vu all over again at New Literary History – One thing that struck me about the reviewers comments is that they echoed a different reviewer’s comments to an article I had sent out for review in the 1980s. Both thought the article they were reviewing looked like that old structuralism we’ve put behind us, and neither knew quite what to make of the diagrams. Could it be that little has changed in the discipline since the 1980s, that it remains as closed to non-discursive modes of thought now as it was then?

Rejected @NLH! Part 5: What’s up doc? The Romantic hayride is over – The Romantic hayride is the dismissal of the sciences dating back to the Romantics. This is alive and well in the humanities, though I rather suspect it’s a minority affectation, albeit an influential one. Still, this is the 21st century. What are literary critics going to do? What of description, which has been getting a lot of play recently? And then we have the digital humanities and computational criticism; here we have substantially new conceptual methods. Will they be allowed to flourish?

Appendix: The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over that last 50 years – This is a guide to my historically oriented and autobiographical writing about the profession, which I have already posted [2].

Toward a Common World

One reason that I decided to submit to New Literary History is that the journal, and its editor, Rita Felski, has been championing the work of Bruno Latour. Recently NLH devoted a double issue to Latour and the humanities. Here’s a passage from her Introduction (New Literary History, vol. 47, Nos. 2 & 3, 2016, p. 221):
A final verb: composing. In a manifesto published in New Literary History, Latour articulates a vision of composition as an alternative to critique. The latter, he notes, is exceptionally skilled at deconstructing and demystifying, seeking to render things less real by underscoring their social constructedness. It is very good, in short, at pulling out the rug from under one’s feet, while failing to provide a place where one might stand, however temporarily or tentatively. The idea of composition, by contrast, speaks to the possibility of trying to compose a common world, even if this world can only be built out of many different parts. It is about making rather than unmaking, adding rather than subtracting, translating rather than separating.
Just which common world are we talking about? Certainly a common world here on earth where we must all live. In a more limited way, however, (p. 222): “In his recent Tanner lectures, Latour proposes that the humanities and sciences find common ground and create new alliances in the face of shared threats to academic institutions.”

Just what does that mean, concretely, for the humanities and sciences to find common ground? That’s what I have been doing for the last four decades and that’s what I did in that article that received a summary dismissal from NLH. It is one thing to promote common ground at conferences as something we’ve got to do, someday, you know, in the future when we have time. It’s something else to actually do it, now, in the present.


[2] The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over that last 50 years, January 2, 2017: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-profession-of-literary-criticism-as.html

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