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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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There is an article, published in a “top” journal in my field, that makes a series of claims with which I substantially disagree. In fact, I think the piece, which will probably go on to be widely cited and used, is flawed. I feel, in some ways, that it merits a response article that critiques it (while also being aware that this will attract symbolic capital to the piece through scandal).

There are some reasons, though, why I probably won’t write such a response. The first is a sense of self-preservation that drives me away. I cannot see how I would write such a piece without being very antagonistic to the author of the original (both in the act of writing and publishing it and in the criticisms I would have to make), whom I tangentially know. I don’t really want the conflict, even though I think the piece is not brilliant and that a field of literary studies that was truly open to thinking communally about our work could conduct such a debate in public without it leading to personal hostilities. I feel by not writing it, though, I am somewhat betraying what I really think and what I think our discipline should be doing. It’s not really OK for people to build reputations on sub-par work. (I admit: I dislike some of my past work and could criticize that, but this was really author-specific stuff, not claimed paradigm-changing theoretical narrative.)

The other set of reasons why I probably won’t do this, though, is that the “rebuttal” is not a particularly prominent mode in our discipline’s culture. A critique of this article that was framed explicitly in such terms would then appear atypical for our discipline’s practice. It might even present itself as unnecessarily hostile.

Rebuttals and responses are more common in digital humanities circles, even if conducted less formally. For example, I think of the discussions between Matt Jockers et al. about his sentiment analysis work. That said, some initial searches did turn up a few of the types of conversation in which I am interested:

  • Kramnick, Jonathan, ‘Literary Studies and Science: A Reply to My Critics’, Critical Inquiry, 38 (2012), 431–60
  • Faherty, Duncan, ‘Rethinking the Future of Early U.S. Literary Studies: A Response to Philipp Schweighauser’, Amerikastudien / American Studies, 58 (2013), 497–99
  • And this from Jim English: (but, again: DH)

There are also special issues that agglomerate around theoretical concepts. However, they are mostly somewhat respectful in tone. It is rare in my experience to find outright, detailed, line-by-line engagement with work that subjects already-reviewed and already-published material to significant and sustained criticism. (I would call this: post-publication peer review.)

I wonder if part of this reluctance in our field to engage with work that has appeared is concerned with an anxiety around peer review. I still think that peer review as a gatekeeping mechanism is deeply flawed. Such criticisms of work that has been through this process would prompt more difficult conversations among ourselves about the predictive ability of our value judgements to reflect future acclaim. I also wonder whether it’s because so much rides on these works, for the reputations and careers of those who publish them, and that we exist in small sub-disciplines. While we are very used to treating novelists as distinct from the voices in their own novels, assaults on work quickly appear to be ad hominem.

There’s also the distinction here about what we want our discipline to do in its professionalised era. Journals serve as markers of that professionalised disciplinary culture and publication is the act of certification that leads to all sorts of material rewards. Yet, in library circles, publishing is called “scholarly communications”. How strange it is that we have built mechanisms for the one-way-out flow of knowledge, rather than “communication”, which has to be more than a speaker with a megaphone and earplugs.