Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The sorrows of peer-review: now less sorrowful

At long and painful last, that article I wouldn't shut up about has been accepted. As I've mentioned, this is the most difficult experience I've had getting something published. Some of that is just the random luck of the draw, but there may also be specific reasons this was such a tough sell.

First, it's on Shakespeare, on a hyper-canonical play, and it deals with some touchy political material. This means, on the one hand, that there are more people in the world with investments in the material than is usually true for the texts I write about, which perhaps makes pushback more likely. On the other hand, since it isn't my primary area of specialization, it's possible that I initially framed my argument in ways that struck others as naive--or that were only aslant or adjacent to the important existing critical conversations.

I do think that earlier versions of my essay were worthwhile and publishable--and that a few of the objections I got were unreasonable, not to say batshit crazy--but my last round of revisions really did lead to a mini-breakthrough, allowing me to synthesize two strands of argumentation whose relationship I had never previously been able to articulate. And doing that led me to a major realization about the argument of my second book.

So though I'm on record as hating the cult of "it was all worth it" and "now I'm so much better off," what with their haste to deny the lived reality of suffering and suckitude, it's also hard to regret that things turned out this way. That, I guess, is a larger motto for this blog: insisting on the shittiness of the past doesn't mean wallowing in that past--or denying its utility. Sucky things can make you stronger (and lead to non-sucky things), but they still suck.

(That's why you read my blog, right? For these philosophical gems?)

Anyway, as reminder and reality check for Older Flavia, when she's agonizing over the long gestation period of some future project, I thought I'd detail the timeline of this one--an article of not even 10,000 words--from conception to acceptance.

Spring 2010
Notice a Thing
Run a quick MLA database search
See that someone Noticed my Thing 40 years ago and wrote a few paragraphs about it.
Boo: I'm not the first! But yay: no one's done anything interesting with it!

Fall 2010
Accepted to a relevant-sounding SAA seminar
Spend a week doing enough research to write a 500-word abstract

February 2011
Spend four weeks doing increasingly desperate research into increasingly esoteric fields
Cobble together 3,000 words for a speculative seminar paper

April 2011
Receive a lot of enthusiastic seminar feedback
Someone I know slightly buttonholes me and tells me to publish it immediately.
GAAAAAAH. Like hell.

February 2012
Admitted to a very different SAA seminar
Intend to do a ton of new research; instead just write a new introduction and conclusion.
Decide this framing opens up the topic more fruitfully

Summer 2012
Do my literary-critical due diligence
Email strangers begging for evidence of what I feeeeeel to be true
Spend six weeks writing
Submit resulting essay to a journal

Fall 2012
Receive two readers' reports: split decision
Journal requests a revise-and-resubmit

Winter 2012-13

Spring 2013
Submit to a different journal

Summer 2013
Another split decision, but this time with a very encouraging editor
Revise lightly and resubmit

Fall 2013
Unhappy reader still unhappy
New third reader has useful and targeted suggestions
Ambiguous communication from editor suggests he wants another revise-and-resubmit

December 2013
Do a shit-ton of new historical research
Majorly restructure essay
Oops: turns out that ambiguous communication was a rejection!

January 2014
Decide new version suits a journal I hadn't considered before
Desk-reject within two weeks (guess I was wrong)

February 2014
Submit to a fourth journal

April 2014
Receive two exceptionally helpful reports
Find self--nevertheless--demoralized by another R&R

April, May & June 2014
Avoid working on essay
Weep whenever I think about it

July & August 2014
Revise with excruciating pain
Send revisions to a friend
Receive new & different set of ideas for revision
Weep some more
Realize two of his suggestions might solve my most intractable problem
Revise some more

September 2014
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
Wait, that's it?

Astonishing how something can be such a relief, and so anticlimactic, at the same time.


Historiann said...

Congratulations! Well done. I am sitting down this month to revise something that at this point I don't know if is revise-able in a convincing fashion. (Or rather, I don't know if I'm up to the job.) Your story gives me hope & maybe a kick in the seat.

Flavia said...


Courage! I certainly couldn't have revised this again--at some point, there's just a problem of too many cooks, and it's impossible to take on board new ideas, even good ones. But I bet you have it in you.

Also, for grad student readers and others daunted by the prospect (or the reality) of peer review, my friend Vim just drew my attention to a post of hers I'd missed over the summer that shows what she argues--and I agree--is a typical instance of peer-review-gone-frustrating, but not wrong. It's a nice reminder that for all the horror stories, the reality is more prosaic: lots of people working hard (unpaid, in borrowed hours), generously giving of their expertise.

Her reviews are entirely in line with what I've seen 90% of the time. I have received curt, bland, brief reviews (once positive--I guess, though hardly effusive--and once negative), along with one insane rant and one reviewer dug into an absolutely untenable theory and refusing to accept even detailed proof to the contrary. But most of the time even my more obtuse and exasperating reviewers have clearly taken a lot of time, and thought hard about my work, however much they may have misunderstood its aims or wished it to be something else.

And the helpful reviewers--well, it's hard to convey just how amazing it is when a total stranger spends long hours helping you think through your ideas and make them better. I had two external reviewers like that for my book, and 2.5 for this essay; neither work would have been nearly as good without their input.

Susan said...

Congratulations! Something else to remember is that peer review is blind, and so we really don't know what will help you, as we would with a reading group or if we're reading for a friend. So you try, but you are being constructive from your reading of an article which you may come at from left field. So sometimes the unhelpful reviews are unhelpful because they don't connect, sometimes,es because they reflect too much the writers own obsessions, and sometimes because the reviewer has just done a bad job. I think the one time I struggled with a review was when I was pretty sure I'd read another version of the article for another journal, and it appeared that nothing I said (and not "why didn't you cite me") had been taken into account, That's not to say reading from left field isn't helpful - it's a good reminder that people come to our work from all sorts of conversations - but of the author it may be strange.

PhysioProffe said...

Congrats! We just had a paper finally accepted after starting work on the project in 2010, first submitting to one journal in 2012, getting rejected from there, doing a fucketonne more experiments for a year and a half, submitting to a second journal this summer, getting rejected from there, resubmitting to the first journal, and getting accepted without any further revisions.

PhysioProffe said...

Vim's post on peer review is quite interesting. Here are a few thoughts:

(1) We operate in several different subfields that only have a very small overlap in potential reviewers of our work. In one of these fields, reviewers of papers and grants tend to be absolutely vicious, and the entire subfield is pretty much a circular firing squad all the fucken time. The other subfield looks after its own, and is more like a circle jerk.

(2) Vim's point about her negative reviews almost always being very knowledgeable and defensible on the substance raises something I have seen many times, both as a reviewer and reviewee of grants and manuscripts. Anyone who is knowledgeable in a field can kill a paper or grant dead without making "errors" or "mistakes". They do this by being very substantively accurate--like about the Scottish mercenaries and Shakespeare--but then make subjective unfalsifiable assertions about the "scope", "interest", "impact", etc of the work: "well, you only even mention Shakespeare after twenty pages and it's not really all that important to understanding Shakespeare, blah, blah, blah". This is why there are some scientific journals that claim an editorial policy of excluding such subjective judgments and only considering whether the work is rigorous and the conclusions supported. Of course, these journals are much less prestigious than the ones that see themselves as gatekeepers of "impact".

fourtinefork said...

Congratulations, Flavia! And thank you for laying out this life of your article for us. I'm extraordinarily slow in revising from conference papers (those I can do), so this gives me hope that my moldering papers and thoughts might still see a wider audience someday.

Anonymous said...

Pah! Four years? That's nothin'.


Seriously, though, congratulations! That is awesomesauce.

Flavia said...


Yes, that's a good point, and one I hadn't considered--that without a sense of the author's larger project(s) or other work, it can be easier to miscategorize or misunderstand its import.


Those are both true, or can be true, in the humanities. Usually working on obscure stuff has probably been more helpful to me than not--I get reviewers who are really excited that someone else is interested in the same material they are (unless they've misunderstood it, as per Susan's suggestion)--but I know people for whom the opposite is true: the established reviewers are serious turf-policers.

Fourtinefork and meansomething:


Renaissance Girl said...

"it's hard to convey just how amazing it is when a total stranger spends long hours helping you think through your ideas and make them better." Yes. This.