If the fate of university scholars is based on the old adage of “publish or perish,” then it’s a wonder that so many who haven’t published haven’t perished.
Perhaps that exhortation applies mostly to assistant professors who run the risk of losing their full-time status if they don’t perform adequately in that arena (thank goodness for teaching and service). Still, academics who haven’t published a lot, or at all, might be forgiven for keeping their work from the hands of editors and referees. The outcome of sending a manuscript to a peer-reviewed journal or book publisher can be traumatically ego-bruising, even if the outcome is finally positive, and some colleagues won’t attempt it because they fear rejection.
For those contractual and full-time scholars who do aspire to see their work in print, the experience can be like a game of snakes and ladders, full of ups and downs, dizzy jubilation and profound disappointment, joyous validation and seething frustration. The more one engages in the process, however, the more one can learn to control the hurt upon outright rejection or the annoyance with a request for major revisions. Over time, one experiences an emotional and psychological “leveling out,” a healthier response to it all.
Even the positive responses may be patronizing, impertinent, wrongheaded or meiotic. Some referees see themselves working within the tradition exemplified by certain 19th-century British-magazine critics like the pseudonymed “Christopher North” in England or America’s Edgar Allan Poe, who was known as the “tomahawk man” for his cutting reviews. Poe sometimes announced in print his intention to throw the author’s work out the window or into the fire. Once he expressed a desire to feed the book to the pigs. Elsewhere, he encouraged the author to hang himself or to keep his gunpowder fresh to ensure success in blowing out his own brains. He was gentler with female authors but did call one of them “a disgrace to her sex.”
I have not yet been asked to blow my brains out – at least, not by any referee – but one wonders why some editors do not require their critics to be more tactful in evaluating their colleagues’ work. One of the more abrasive readers referred to an observation in an article of mine as “outrageous,” to another as “ludicrous,” and to yet another as “simply absurd.” I’d feel bad were it not for an alternate reader who responded to the very same piece by saying “I found the idea of this essay fresh and vigorous – representative of a way of thinking less in evidence today.” Sometimes I don’t know whether to strut or hide my head in the sand until retirement.
Other hired readers exhibit not so much vituperation but pomposity and pretentiousness. Consider the external reader, an American, who sat on my dissertation committee many years ago. I knew I was in trouble when his preliminary report began, “I fear this is a dissertation without a thesis”! The verbal affectation came a bit later when he complained about how the argument moves “from the suppositious to the supposititious.” My first order of business was to haul out the dictionary. At least both words were on the same page.
Most who have published often have encountered another species of referee who won’t tolerate any critical approach to the subject or text in question that differs from his or her own. An essay of mine exploring and explaining the astronomical symbols and allusions in Herman Melville’s romance-novel Mardi – about an oceanic journey on the literal level and a galactic journey on the allegorical level – was rejected by a reader who insisted that the journey in the book is comprehensible only within a Jungian framework.
I fear, after all these confessions, that I have undermined the very purpose for writing this piece, which was to encourage nervous colleagues to overcome their trepidation about sending off manuscripts. Despite the egotism, the pomposity, the pretentiousness, the close-mindedness sometimes exhibited by referees, we also encounter the opposite qualities: humility, straightforwardness, enthusiasm, and a willingness to embrace new ideas and critical approaches.
And whether blunt or tactful, my readers have generally been brilliant. Their critical rigour is necessary, for they are being asked not only to protect the reputation of the academic press or journal but also to help the writer provide the best possible product for publication. Ultimately, your reputation is at stake, too, and they stand on guard for thee.
As for my dissertation and the essays alluded to, above, with the aid of editors and referees I went on to publish every one of them. Perhaps I’ll strut a bit, after all.
Dr. Zimmerman is an assistant professor of English at York University whose most recent book is Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style (McGill-Queen’s Press, 2005).