I was recently at a reception where I found myself among three other authors who had written admirable, major books on American music. Every one of them said he or she was thinking about putting their next book on the internet, specifically to avoid the peer-review process. I empathized completely. I’m going through it now with my Concord Sonata book, and I’m committed to it one more time, for my Arithmetic of Listening book with U. of Illinois Press, and, because microtonalists are so argumentative, I’m already dreading that ordeal. It’s mission creep: peer review is supposed, one assumes, to prevent the publication of misinformation, to verify that an author knows what he’s talking about, but anonymous readers take the opportunity to tell you how they would have written the book and push you towards conformity with their opinions. “I can’t recommend publishing this book until the author rewrites it to agree with my views!” And it’s insidious: a phalanx of scholars who have decided that a certain reading of the facts is the only legitimate one can prevent a writer who disagrees from being published; enough like-minded book reviewers can succeed, for a time, in stifling dissent. Peer review’s effect is to discourage all would-be writers except for the most sycophantically conformist. I find that just mentioning peer review is often enough to make a colleague’s face wrinkle in disgust.
So far, I have only been a reviewer in the cases of young, inexperienced scholars on their first book. They tend to make typical mistakes. The ambitious young scholar (the male especially) is eager to show off how smart he is, yet paradoxically convinced that his readers have read all the same up-to-date books and articles he has, and so he makes confoundingly elliptical reference to abstruse concepts and obscure writers that haven’t yet entered public currency. That was exactly me, at age 29. And my role as reader has been mostly to say, “You seem to know your business, but I have no idea what you’re talking about, and since I don’t want to read all those other books before I can read yours, will you please unpack your references and provide some context?” I tell them what I can’t understand as a reader, but I would never presume to tell them how to write the book, nor what opinions to express. But then, this isn’t really peer review, because I’m an old, experienced writer looking at a first-timer. And I insist that when scholars who have published less than I have are reviewing my work, that’s not really peer review either, but the less experienced taking potshots at the more experienced. I think by the time you’re on your fifth or sixth book and still in good academic standing, publishers should pay you the compliment of skipping the process.
I really shouldn’t complain about the readers’ reviews for my Concord Sonata book, because they were broadly complimentary and willing to attest that the path I had taken was both sound and original, and for once they didn’t even cavil about my colloquial writing style. (Perhaps my blog harangues are having some effect.) But their stern admonition du jour is that my writing shows “insufficient engagement with work in the field.” I’ve been studying the Concord since 1969, and 99 percent of what I have to say about it I learned on my own, but apparently if I mention a chord on page 17, and another author mentioned the same chord in a book written in 1994, I’m expected to preface my remark with, “As Professor X has aptly pointed out….” – lest the reader think I am arrogant enough to speak on my own authority, or – saints preserve us! – that I must not have read Professor X’s book!
Let me say at once that I quote many, many Ives scholars in the book, to an extent that guiltily felt, to me, like I would be perceived as going overboard to flatter my colleagues. I usually write books about topics that hardly anyone else has written about, but I knew what would be expected of me in this well-traveled terrain and gamely tried to comply. And yet, apparently, I should have done ten times more in this regard. I was directed toward an exemplary journal article, which I read, and saw what my reader meant: every paragraph contained quotations from other writers, strings of such quotations in series, a veritable quodlibet of borrowed scholarship, written in the apparent conviction that the juxtaposition of these familiar gems from the Ivesian literature would add up to some new and revealing picture. But since I had already read every book and article quoted, the essay gave me no new information, just the ersatz glow of a trip down memory lane. What would conceivably compel a scholar to collect so many sentences from other writers to bundle up in new packages? Outside of an upcoming tenure review, I can’t imagine. Can’t a person stand up in public and speak his or her own mind? I’m curious to know what the writer thinks.
A quotation is an ornament to a piece of writing when the quoted phrase is so striking and memorable that the author couldn’t have come up with anything as evocative himself. But if I can state an idea clearly (and little academic writing is as readable as mine), why would it carry more authority if put into a sentence I stole from another writer? If what I say is false, and its falsity has been demonstrated in a previous publication, then I should be told to do my homework. But if what I say is demonstrably true, what does it matter whether someone else has said it before? We are not medieval monks, that we fear to record the fact in front of us unless we can find a citation for it in Aristotle.
The hard truth, which perhaps they suspect, is that I sometimes ignore a book or article because I find it wrongheaded and uninsightful. (Perhaps the reviewer even wrote one of those books.) I have no reason to create new enemies by criticizing the argument of some journal article that my reader may not have read. If my argument diverges from Professor X’s, the reader can judge which is more convincing without my trying to downgrade Professor X. Part of my reason for writing the book, as I detail in the preface and footnotes but try not to bore the reader with, was my strong dissatisfaction with tendencies in recent Ives scholarship, and it was my gentlemanly strategy to set a superior example rather than engage others in intellectual combat; I was a critic for decades, and I’m tired of arguing. Books I read and disagreed with are listed in the bibliography along with the rest. If you decide to assume that because I didn’t refer to one I must not have read it, so what? And then, I don’t always disagree with everything I don’t quote. Occasionally I will say to myself, “Well, that’s a clever insight, but I didn’t come up with it, and there’s no need for me to partly obviate the reason for reading her book by reprinting its best idea elsewhere.” Sometimes an author is right, but his sentences are too clogged with jargon to be of use to me. I’m really good at analyzing music, and I read hardly anything analytical about the Concord that I hadn’t already figured out myself: if I had the insight independently, why quote someone else?
Is it not obvious how vanity-driven all this is? A friend of mine in the philosophy department says that to get published young philosophers have to quote articles by the editors of the journal they’re trying to get into; this is not intellectual discourse, but a petty brand of payola. Is the scholar’s life really so meager of reward that we have to ostracize the writer who fails to scatter enough crumbs of citation for his fellows on every page? Do we let external readers blackmail authors into mentioning their books? I will confess, when I see a new book on American music, to sometimes looking first in the index to see how often I’m cited, but I don’t think we should warp the discourse by catering to this; the absence of my name stings for a second, and then I forget about it. About a year ago I read an article that quoted me so many times that I felt rather more plagiarized than flattered, and wondered why the author couldn’t have come up with his own ideas. A wise and mature person will not take offense every time a subject he’s written about is written about again without paying him obeisance.
I did not write a book to flatter my colleagues, but to give a truer picture of the Concord Sonata than has been given before. I am already ashamed of the extent to which I went obsequiously fishing for quotations beyond the ones that leapt to mind as felicitous. Like Thoreau, I’m always regretting my good behavior. If we’re stuck with the peer-review process, as we seem to be for now, we could all contribute to making it a cleaner, more honest experience. It should not be an opportunity for getting ego strokes at the author’s expense and settling professional grievances. The author of five books does not need to be told how to write a sixth. Is the logic clear? Are the statements arguably true? All else is vanity.
Virginia Anderson says
You’re preaching to the choir here, Rev. Gann. I’ve had many of these peer reviews for articles: the editor who gave my article correcting his colleague to his colleague, who kept it for a year before soundly rejecting it; the reviewer who suggested that my article on 1960s was useless unles I advertised his compositions in the 2000s. But mainly for me the problem is how much and what knowledge people should have. I automatically include a footnote in all my work that AMM is an acronym, but it’s secret (David Borgo is wrong, by the way) and defining time-space or proportional notation. But to be told that I must use ‘aleatory’ throughout because they don’t know indeterminacy and chance is depressing. People write all kinds of Adornoean gobbledegook without explanation, but I have to explain the equivalent of a C major chord. I’m really considering self-publishing the book I’m writing now, if the people I admire will do the peer review informally for me. I’m not big-headed enough to do it alone….
KG replies: Something told me you’d be on my side, Virginia.
What happens if you don’t implement the recommendations of the readers?
KG replies: It’s all up to the publishers’ editorial board. I wrote a stirring defense of the book as is, which it’s a shame to be compelled to do, but it’s part of the job. Some editors are pretty good at seeing through biased readers’ reviews – they go through this with every book too, after all – but even if I succeed in persuading them, they can request an additional reviewer until they get two to sign off on it, which could add a couple of months to the process (happened with my Ashley book). Worst-case scenario is I’d have to withdraw and find another publisher, and it’s a shame to be faced with that possibility at the end of every book. Or maybe someone who’s actually been through the worse case can tell us his or her story.
Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says
I never actually notice the publishers. If I see a title that I want, I buy it. I’ve bought several books on music recently that turned out to have been published by the author. Other than design and marketing (and arguing over house styles), does the publisher do anything for you? Are you committed to using them? Do they guarantee library and university purchases? Do they offer legitimacy? Do publishers guarantee a prominent review, and does self-publishing (even for someone with your stature) result in no review? Three of my books have been via ‘real’ publishers. I made less money than I did self-publishing — and got no reviews that I didn’t get by sending the book out myself anyway.
KG replies: Good questions, Dennis. I sometimes think I should try smaller publishers who might appreciate me more. One problem is that editors move around in the business a lot, so that by the time I finish a book, my original editor has usually left and the new editor is stuck with me and has no interest in the project – I’m facing that one right now. John Luther Adams has had a series of editors who believe in him, but that’s the luck of the draw. I’ve had editors who believed in me, but they’ve never stayed in their jobs long. If someone gave me a tutorial on self-publishing, I would certainly consider it. At this point, it’s more about leaving an intellectual legacy than about sales.
Doug Skinner says
One of the ironies here is that the subjects of academic attention often had nothing to do with its protocol. Ives didn’t submit the Concord Sonata for peer review, and had no qualms about publishing it himself.
I like the idea of peer review, but in practice it’s compromised by all the usual human frailties. I guess it depends on the peers.
KG replies: Ya know, the publishers ask them these specific, market driven questions – What institutions would use the book? What grade level does it serve? – and so on, and if they’d stick to answering those, they’d do less damage. But they can’t hold back the floodgates of their opinion. If I had Ives’s kind of money, no academic publisher would ever hear a peep out of me.
Susan Scheid says
Well, all I can say is, the book I want to read is YOUR book, as you wrote it. Not any d**n committee’s book. I’ve had a couple brushes with something analogous to this myself (not at your level, needless to say), and you articulate the problem extremely well (no surprise there).
This has every air of a nightmare.
I dunno, but it always does. Say something striking yourself and people discount it, pay no attention, regard it as trivial and don’t even bother to read it. Quote the exact same sentiment by someone else and suddenly readers fall all over themselves to fawn and grovel and genuflect at the majestic brilliance of the statement.
It’s weird, but there you are. Homo sapiens: big frontal lobes, tiny little common sense.
Arthur Sabatini says
Not to be too contrarian. but there is – and should be – a difference between writers and scholars, academic prose full of references (the more theoretical and up to date the better) and good. old insightful, personal and well researched writing. It’s kind of a medicine verses a home remedy thing. And it shouldn’t be either/or. It is arguable that if universities and scholars and institutions are about some forms of exploring and debating ideas and knowledge, the criteria, trends and errors are part of the territory. Academically speaking, writing about the arts and culture is not exactly like science, but it is formalized (if sometimes wrongheadedly), systemic and of its own discourse. But, if, Emersonianly, a reader is “curious to know what the writer thinks,” and individual writers and thinkers take on a subject, by all means pick up their books. You can blame them for the errors, praise them for insight; and rail against peer reviews, dubious theorizing and overdone footnoting the next day. (The relationship between what an artist does and says about their work and how it is dealt with by journalists and scholars is related to this issue.) I can think of some great living writers who have a lot to say about music in unfootnoted articles, but I am not sure they add any more to my understanding than journal articles that send me into other journal articles and books and broaden what I can learn as I slog through them. Another analogy (since I am Winter break): this is somewhat like the composition vs. improvisation discussion that often surfaces. ‘The music of what happens’ can be checked against the score in the former situation; for the latter, unless the tune is a standard, there is no precise way of knowing how what was heard was. Oh, as for Kyle, we all know, can do both – and write music! So, there.
Lyle Sanford says
The cynic in me can’t help suspecting part of all this is that if they let you get away with being able to do real, original scholarship and then write it up so well that non-specialists can understand it – where does that leave them?