Publish or perish – #1

23 April 2009

This blog is all about authors getting published. So it is in my daytime job, where the authors I work with are scholars in various fields of Asian Studies. And yet, and yet … there are times when I feel confronted by the subversive thought that there is a certain futility to all of this ‘busyness’.

Such a time was this morning after I read a fascinating (and somewhat dismal) piece by Mark Bauerlein, ‘Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own’, downloadable from here. Bauerlein’s main argument is that professors are under so much pressure to publish that increasingly they are failing to do their job as teachers.

Unfortunately, continues Bauerlein, that is not the only problem. In addition, the massive surge in publications means that fewer and fewer books are being sold and – even worse – the sheer number of books published means that few authors can be sure that their books will even be looked at by their peers. This is not surprising.

… professors simply can’t read all of the works published each year in their fields, as the numbers cited above make clear. An expert in Herman Melville can’t cover the 11 books (2,684 pages in total), 56 articles, and 12 dissertations devoted all or in part to the novelist that appeared in 2007. And underlying those explanations lurks a disturbing possibility, that is, that literature professors feel no urge or need to monitor publications in the discipline in order to keep up with research in the area. In vibrant fields, researchers follow everyone’s work because if they don’t they fall behind and can’t participate. In literary studies, though, scholars now pick and choose, keeping current through piecemeal browsing in tables of contents and press catalogs. If they overlook much of it, they don’t suffer. Meanwhile, throngs of scholarly compositions appear each year only to sit in distribution warehouses unread and unnoticed. The fields and subfields proceed without them, and the grand vision of a community of experts advancing knowledge, broadening understanding, and closing holes in the historical record fades to black.

Bauerlein concentrates on the dire state of literary studies and seems to think that this may be the worst affected field. Maybe. From my own experience, I suspect that there are other fields in a similar state, or nearly so.

What does this mean to you, someone looking to get published? Perhaps not a heck of a lot. Personally, I’d recommend that you read Bauerlein’s essay as it does much to question many of the assumptions and values on which the academic and publishing worlds are based. On the other hand, you might find such hand-wringing a bit of a waste of moisturizer. As Bauerlein points out:

Ask a younger scholar or advanced graduate student, “Why are you working so hard to complete a manuscript and submit it to a press?” and the answer is blunt. She doesn’t say, “I’ve developed an idea about Keats’s odes that I must share with fellow Romanticists,” or “T. S. Eliot’s critical essays haven’t been appreciated for their implicit religious doctrine, and they should.” Instead, looking at you with a snort, she mutters, “So I can get a job.” Or, “To get tenure.”


Thanks to Paul Kratoska over at NUS Press for the link to Bauerlein’s paper. Paul also pointed me to another paper, on the role and future of the monograph in Arts and Humanities research, which is equally interesting.