Sunday, February 6, 2011

February 6, 2011 [Academic Work Post 4]: Fit Audience, Though Few

At its heart, to me, every major aspect of this academic gig is about conversation. That might seem to be an obvious point, but I mean it to be at least slightly less so, to be in fact a rejoinder to some of the occasionally but not consistently accurate stereotypes about us academics and how much we love to hear ourselves talk. It’s true that some folks run their classes that way, and mostly expect their students to listen and absorb what they have to say; it’s similarly true that some of us produce scholarly work (or blogs!) first and foremost because we believe what we have to say is hugely significant and that the world (academic or beyond) needs to hear it. But I think that the majority of academics feel the way I do about each of those roles—that the best classes are the ones where our students voices are most present; that producing scholarly and public writing entails entering into a conversation, one in which the responses we get are at least as important as the things we say.
I’m thinking about all of this more than usual right now because just a couple days ago the mail brought a copy of the latest issue of the journal American Literary Realism, an issue in which an article of mine (on four novels whose narrators are also novelists producing novels-within-the-novels) appears. I was very excited when ALR accepted the article, partly because I’m still new enough at this that any acceptance (in a profession when, at least from my experiences, rejections will always outnumber acceptances) is a cause for excitement, but also because this article represents something entirely different from any of my other works (published or otherwise). It didn’t come out of the work for book one or book two; it doesn’t connect to my teaching experiences (as two other articles have); it isn’t focused on an author or text that I’ve thought about for decades (as with my first article on Faulkner or an upcoming one on All the King’s Men). This one just exists on its own terms—I read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008), thought about how much its use of a novelist-narrator has in common with the otherwise very distinct Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997), and connected that pairing back to two modernist novels (Willa Cather’s My Antonia [1918] and F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby [1925]) that likewise feature such novelist-narrators. And the more I thought about the foursome, the more it seemed to me that they could reveal some complicated but key elements of both American realistic fiction and one of its central social subjects, the American Dream.
So I wrote the article, ran it by some of those people on whose conversation I can always depend, revised based on their feedback, sent it off to ALR, revised a bit more based on the reader’s feedback, and got it accepted. The line on the CV can be finalized, the issue can be held in my hand, the many rejection letters can be counter-balanced a bit. All part of the equation, and none of them unhappy moments or feelings. But again, it comes down to conversation, and this is where scholarly publication can get the most dicey, but also the most potentially rewarding. Publications have a way of disappearing into the ether, of getting so few responses (especially journal articles, since books are guaranteed at least one or two reviews somewhere or other) that it really can feel like we’re talking to ourselves. Yet that makes the moments when we do get responses, especially unexpected and genuine ones, that much more meaningful and vital: I still remember the way it felt when I read in an email from someone I had met once at a conference that she had assigned my Faulkner (and Margaret Mitchell) article to a Southern Studies class and the students had gotten a lot out of it; and similarly inspiring was the moment when (having Googled my first book, as I will freely admit to doing frequently) I found a line from a recent article in which some of my ideas were paired with those of a preeminent contemporary scholar of the post-Civil War South in one of those “X and Y have both argued” formulations. I can’t overstate the importance of those moments when it comes time to sit down and work on the next article, the next book, the next entrance into a conversation.
Milton famously wrote in Paradise Lost about the possibility of finding “fit audience, though few”; Dickinson ends a poem by noting that it’s “Best, to know and tell, / Can one find the rare Ear / Not too dull—.” I know that my scholarly publications will never have the built-in conversation starting points that a class does; and I know that they’ll never disperse as widely or easily as a blog can (although here too conversation is key, so keep the comments coming!). But they most definitely are meant to be one voice among many, joining into, adding a bit to, and hopefully being responded to by much broader communities. It’s sure nice to feel, every so often, like that’s happening. More tomorrow, on the extremely challenging libro that every Americano should read.
PS. What are you guys working on?

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