I've now taken my posts on being turned down at NLH and uploaded them as a working paper:
Abstract, table of contents, and introduction below.
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Abstract: The author submitted an article entitled “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature” to a top tier journal, New Literary History (NLH). The article was rejected. This working paper reads that rejection as a rejection of computational thinking that is ideological in nature rather than being grounded in any sophisticated understanding of computation. Back in the 1970s there was a brief window of intellectual opportunity when literary critics where open to the emerging cognitive sciences, but that had closed by the end of the decade. The discipline now recognizes that it needs new ideas but 1) has yet to figure out how to re-connect with the possibilities that were bypassed three decades ago, and 2) doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.
C O N T E N T S
Introduction: Some reflections on being turned down cold at a top journal 2
Outside looking in on the critics’ table 7
What I got out of writing the article 12
Party like it’s 1975! 19
Déjà vu all over again at New Literary History 35
What’s up doc? The Romantic hayride is over 42
Appendix 1: The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over 50 years 51
Appendix 2: Topic Models: Strange Objects, New Worlds 55
Introduction: Some reflections on being turned down cold at a top journal
Early last fall I submitted a paper for publication in New Literary History: “Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature” (PDF). Not only did I have high hopes. I actually had high expectations, which of course is quite different. I really thought this piece 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 on, 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. They were quite dismissive. As far as I can tell, if I wanted to wrtie something that would please that reviewer, I would have to abandon just about everything in the essay. 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.
But Why Go Public with These Thoughts?
One does not generally make a public statement about having an article rejected at a journal. That’s private business. And it’s only quite recently that making a public statement would even have been possible. Without the internet there’d be no way to do it.
Still, what’s the point? I suppose there’s an element of vanity involved, as though my rejection would interest others. But it’s not about me; it really isn’t. It’s about the ideas. For the last four decades I have been pursuing ideas that are significantly different from those that have developed within the profession. I’ve published many of these ideas in various places. In fact, some of the ideas in the manuscript NLH rejected were first published in MLN (Modern Language Notes) four decades ago. But for the most part, these ideas are at best marginal. I was hoping that by publishing them in NLH, they would get broader exposure.
It is widely recognized that the discipline of literary criticism is in trouble; NLH certainly recognizes it. New ideas are needed. And that’s what I’ve got, new ideas, albeit some of them are several decades old.
This is about the what we might call the “possibility space” of literary studies. The discipline has explored a certain range of intellectual spaces over the past century or so. What new possibilities are open for exploration? I’ve explored spaces that few others have explored and I laid out some of that work in the article I submitted. In effect, I sent a test “probe” into “the discipline” and it said “NO”.
What has that “no” told me about the discipline? That’s not an easy question to answer and any answer I come up with will necessarily be highly uncertain. That’s just how these things are.