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High Stakes Criticism: The Case for Academic Gossip

One foggy fall day, I came across a savage review of an academic book. The book was written by someone I know well. The reviewer seemed delighted by his own vitriol, and as I read, I got irritated, on the author’s behalf, at what struck me as an ungenerous misreading of the work. Was this review being well-received? Did it have merits I didn’t see? What effect do reviews have socially and professionally? How was this affecting public perception of my acquaintance’s work? I reached almost automatically for my keyboard and typed in the name of the author and critic. I wanted to tap into my field, get some alternate perspectives. I wanted to see smart people hash out the merits of the review and, by extension, the book.

The review was published nearly a year ago in a respectable academic publication. I’d heard nothing at all about it, but surely others in my field had. Someone somewhere must have posted a response, or a discussion, or something. Both parties were fairly prominent in their field, and a direct attack is the kind of thing academics chatter about incessantly in the halls. Some of that must have leaked online!

So I did what I usually do when something of interest turns up: I Googled the two names to see who was discussing the review, its merits, and anything else of interest that might arise in connection with the review, which felt like the opening salvo in an intellectual battle.

No results.




The absent of comment is shameful. There’s a popular misconception that gossip is harmful. It often is, but gossip is a complex thing: whatever harm it inflicts is a direct function of its main virtue. Gossip is a socializer, a community-builder, a way of establishing ethical, social and intellectual baselines. Its perniciousness-–which is real, and which I don’t mean to minimize—is a result of what gets excluded from that community-building: a fence will always have an outside. There are reasons to treat gossip with care: too often it reinforces extant power dynamics (the good old boys’ network is the gossipiest institution in history). And it often gets derailed by trivialities, mistaking the personal for the professional. We aren’t and shouldn’t be in the business of gossiping about how academics dress, or who’s sleeping with whom. (At least, not anymore than we already are.)

But why aren’t more of us gossiping about each other’s disciplinary interventions? I don’t mean hand-wringing over the state of the profession–we’re having that conversation everywhere, and it’s probably a good thing. I’m referring to the substance of what we do: I mean that article, this book. The internet offers anonymity, and it should be a hotbed of gossip: it should be where young scholars are talking with each other, thinking aloud about the critics we’re working with and against, and putting this lunatic enterprise into some kind of human perspective. (And it’s happening in some places! The postcolonialists are ahead of the rest of us–cf., for example, Gayatri Spivak’s response to Vivek Chibber.)

Why isn’t someone reading that review and saying I AGREE, AND HERE IS WHY! And why isn’t someone else saying THAT REVIEW IS HOGWASH: BE DEVASTATED BY MY REASONING.

There were no Google results, just as there are few online discussions of various academic articles, even when they’re provocative. Even—or especially—when they’re written by top scholars. It’s not that the impulse is lacking; plenty of people rip on Stanley Fish now that he’s no longer in a position within the academy where he’s likely to punish small-time critics. The vacuum on the internet is a symptom of something else.

I found and read all the other academic reviews of my acquaintance’s book. They were much less inflammatory. They existed tidily in their respective publications, no review engaging with any of the others—not, of course, that any such engagement is necessary for a review, but as a TV reviewer of sorts I’ve found it interesting and productive to engage with other reviewers. It seems backward that I’ve learned this in my nonacademic circles. Most reviews of my friend’s book appeared in print, but even when they appeared online there were no “comments”, no “reactions”. (This is where I confess, shamefacedly, that I love comments.)

The dead silence online, the lack of any visible or accessible discussion of the book and its reviews, demonstrates a strange and increasingly troubling pattern of omission, particularly in the humanities. Why aren’t we discussing more articles online? Why aren’t we talking about bad reviews (or good ones)? Why do we instead consign our conversations to the conference format, which might have been specially engineered by some humanities-hating mastermind as a means of eschewing meaningful, substantive engagement?

The answer has everything to do with academic culture in the humanities. I don’t know that we actively avoid public discussions, but we are skittish about informal modes of intellectual engagement. If forced to express an opinion or reaction, we gravitate toward more intimate models, where disagreements stay politely off the record. Meanwhile, our written documents get polished and perfected into irrelevance, channeled into a discourse community wherein, if a challenge ever comes, it will be a year or two later, long after the author’s intellectual investment in the problem has subsided, replaced with other things. Nor does she truly need to respond if any such challenge comes—no one is watching the exchange with enough interest for the author to care. We are failing to witness our own arguments, even on those rare occasions when we have them. These are avoidant behaviors.

Not the perfection but the isolated slowness is a problem. It’s a lowering of stakes, a denial of urgency, a resistance to actual conversation on the current human timescale. By artificially decelerating conversations that are happening more quickly and with more interactivity everywhere else, even in snail mail exchanges, we tacitly acknowledge that the stakes are low, that urgency is lacking, that passion is inappropriate and personal engagement unnecessary, maybe even distasteful.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for slow publishing or painstaking academic work. Of course there is and there should continue to be, but it should be supplemented and nourished by ongoing online discussions, reactions, debates. This is why I’m grateful to people like Holger Syme, whose review of Stephen Marche’s book was inflammatory, certainly, but also expressed a real expectation of what an academic work ought to be and how it was falling short. One of the reasons I review TV shows is I actually get to have the meaningful exchange of readings I thought I was going to graduate school to experience full-time. I want this in my academic life, and I suspect others do too.

Lili Loofbourow: Eats books.

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  1. I totally with your assessment. In my field (19C literature) we do have one resource: http://www.nbol-19.org/about_us.php Reviews are posted much faster than usual, and there’s even a space for authors to engage reviewers in dialogue. A proposal to get the MLA to take on similar projects didn’t go anywhere, but I’m (perhaps naively) optimistic this kind of model could catch on.


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