Thursday, August 13, 2009

Many are the ways of sucking

Apologies for the unannounced hiatus--I had a couple of posts brewing, but not yet fully thought through, when Cosimo and I left for a week with his extended family in New England.

Our cabin in the Maine woods, less than a quarter-mile from the beach:

(One of my friends in Boston said to Cosimo, upon meeting him and hearing how we'd spent the previous several days, "You took Flavia to nature?" Yes: and nature survived.)

But because it's August and crunch time, I brought work with me: a book manuscript I'm reviewing. I read half the thing the day before we left, in a splendid blaze of productivity, and the other half in dribs and drabs in the car to and from our various destinations.

It's a collection of essays on a topic of immediate interest to me, so the task was worthwhile even though the essays themselves varied widely in quality. Having just read a dozen pre-publication essays, though, I now consider myself in a position to give advice to essay-writers everywhere.

So! Among the things I would strongly recommend you not do, especially if you have any regard for your future reviewer's travel companion, who may not be wholly interested in hearing her exclaim about the iniquities of your essay for miles on end:

  • Refer repeatedly (and in tedious detail) to your article on the same topic published fifteen long years ago, which apparently didn't get the attention you think it deserved.
  • Mention how poorly-received the conference-paper version of your essay was.
  • Spend nearly half your essay on a lit review establishing how appropriate a particular critical approach is to your topic--and how entirely validated that approach has been by major scholars in the field for nigh on 20 years now. Especially do not do this if you subsequently
  • Spend pages and pages patting yourself on the back for the boldness and radicalism of your approach.
  • Change your topic--not just your argument, but your entire topic, including the texts you're looking at and the theoretical approach you're taking--in the middle of your essay.
  • Open with a long and self-congratulatory anecdote that has no real connection to the rest of your essay.
Seriously, dudes. I know we're academics, and thus inherently self-involved--but please try not to appear that way.


Sisyphus said...

I think the real question here is were all of these failings part of the same essay?

(PS still jealous that you found an extra week of summer and a beach vacation getaway! I'm still here in the library watching the homeless people snort and pick their noses.)

Lucky Jane said...

Poo yi, as the Cajuns say.

+1 on Sisyphus's question. I for one hope all those nuggets were encrusted on one spectacular horror, so as to limit your pain.

On the other hand, it would be pretty super if editors of journals and essay collections were indeed inundated with such cluelessness: the 85-90% reject rate has to come from somewhere. All the better for the rest of us.

Susan said...

And changing the topic in the middle? Nooooo. Seriously, did the editor of the volume do ANY work at all?

Flavia said...

These are not the failings of a single essay, alas (that would have made my irritation and exclamations shorter-lived), though the strong essays definitely outnumber the problematic ones. But it's interesting to me how similar are the problems that the problematic ones have.

And Susan: I know! It's not clear to me that the editor did much more than issue a CFP for this collection, and (presumably) select the best ones.