Wednesday, May 30, 2007

In which I am confused by the world of publishing

In which I am confused by the world of publishing

I made a day trip to Research Library in the Big City yesterday, where I met up with Tiruncula. We talked a lot about jobs and book projects -- I need one, she has a cool one. In fact, hers is especially cool because it's not history, but I understood exactly what she wants to do, and it sounds fascinating and amazingly simple and clear-gut. Plus, I got to say things like, "Have you looked at X?" so I didn't feel like a complete eejit. Anyway, it was fun to get together with someone who is becoming a better friend the longer I know her, and who knows the most amazing restaurants. OMG people, the food! (and she likes anchovies, too, so we ate things with anchovies AND tentacles!!) I ate more than I needed to, because, well, yummy. And a luscious, if a little spendy, Lacrimae Christi which may now be one of my favourite wine types.

What does this have to do with publishing? I'm getting to that. As I was packing up to leave the library, I noticed a book. I didn't have time to read through it, so I grabbed it and added it to my pile for check-out. Possibly too much of the evening was spent boring my dinner companion with the book's OMG!!WTF??? passages. Later, I had a conversation with Cranky Professor about it. It went something like this:

Me: I could have written that book!
Him: No, you really couldn't. You have standards.

What follows illustrates a collection of problems I have with academic standards, my own academic snobbery (or rather, my uncertainty about whether I'm being a snob or defending my turf or whether my complaints are valid), and how random the standards for academic publication sometimes seem. I'm also thinking in terms of gatekeeping -- if I were employed at a research uni, or even a SLAC with a coherent idea of scholarship and support for research, my work would be judged by people who know my field. But I think many campuses with pretensions are happy to have "books" and "articles" (peer-review is in there somewhere, but I think not necessarily the level of peer review one finds elsewhere), and really have no mechanism for judging the quality of the work. And face it, if the campus offers little support for research, should they expect that their faculty can produce publications equal to those of their colleagues who have access to world-class research libraries, low teaching loads, and sabbaticals? Those are just a few of the things that looking through this book brought to the forefront of my panicky, trying-to-work-on-my-portfolio thoughts.

Before I decided to post about this, I did a little digging. The author's most recent (I think) book, Carolingians in Central Europe, Their History, Arts, and Architecture: A Cultural History of Central Europe, 750-900, published by Brill, was the recipient of one of the most thoroughly painful reviews I've ever read (in one of the last three issues of Speculum IIRC -- I'd look it up, but I keep my journals on campus). The upshot of the review was, "don't buy it, and if your library did, it should ask for its money back!" The book I'm looking at is Schutz, Herbert. The Germanic Realms in Pre-Carolingian Central Europe, 400-750. (Peter Lang: 2000). It's part of Lang's "American University Series." It has disheartened me.

I hadn't really looked at the book, except for the title, when I grabbed it. The title itself made me uneasy, but the name of the author made me think that it was perhaps just an awkward translation of something that had first appeared in German. The back cover dispelled any such illusions. The author of the book wrote his PhD thesis on the 20th c. German novelist and poet Hermann Kasack. This leads me to believe that the author is not trained as an historian. You may have noticed, but I'm an Early Medieval (or incredibly Late Antique) historian. My Doktorvater specializes in Late Antique (but back when he got his degree, that was still the Early MA!), and much of his work is rooted in archæology. I am not a philologist, but most of my Latin and German training came from philologists (I wonder if that's why my French is comparatively not as strong). I may not be quite as au fait at recalling on the spur of the moment secondary sources -- or even some primary ones -- as some of my colleagues, but that's why one has books and notes, right?

So. This book. It follows few of the conventions of my field. Secondary sources and primary sources are not separated. The primary sources are almost entirely in translation, either in English or German. There are a couple of sources from the PL, but you wouldn't know it unless you were familiar, as the bibliographic entries point to Migne (after the occasional misspelling, so that 'Medielanensis' is where Ambrose is from). Again, this stuff isn't a problem, if one already knows what the sources should be. The same is true for the Latin within the book. Some of it is just wrong, both in forms used and in translations thereof. (There's also a lot of random capitalization and italicization that just irritates me. ). In general, the book screams, "The author just doesn't get it!" For example:

The Royal line of the Franks -- Merovech, Childeric, Clodovech* -- contrary to that of other peoples who derived their descent from Wodan/Odin, 46 derived their ancestry from a territorial maritime divinity in the shape of a bull, a Quinotaur, 47 -- the horse harness in Childeric's grave had the golden head of a bull attached to it -- hence the frequency in the Merovingian names of the syllable mer, meaning ocean/sea, used either as prefix or suffix.48 (p. 152). [The author continues with a discussion of the changes conversion to Christianity would have brought to a people used to worshipping a localised deity and posits that the Franks might have seen the Christian god as a local god of Belgica Secunda]

I could go on, but I've spent too much time on this. There's a strange discussion of the relation of the words 'duke' and 'Herzog' via Indo-European, with absolutely no reference to the Latin title and/or office of dux (p.304). There are strange insinuations (I cannot find the pages, but will, if asked) that the Franks may have been Arians before conversion and that the Merovingians were trying to recreate the Roman Empire. There's the strange usage of 'Agilulfingians' and 'Arnulfingians'. But basically, what it boils down to is that this book contains nothing new or insightful, is primarily a synthesis of the stories in the narrative sources and relatively current scholarship, and is frequently just misleading and wrong.

Medieval history is hard. It requires training and skills. It takes most of us years to acquire any expertise, and most of the people I know who are experts are still not experts in everything -- they regularly engage in conversations with their colleagues in order to make sure they aren't missing things. It's not that I don't think people can shift fields and gain the expertise necessary to write in those fields, but I think it's very difficult. The people I know who are best at it are those who have become experts in sf/f, but the historians among them tend to take a more historical approach to the literature and avoid Lit Crit. Also, well, sf/f has had connections to medieval scholars for a long time. Having said all that, I think this is a case where a History Channel person thinks he's a Historian, and hasn't had the training. And yet, the book is here. It's tangible. OK, it's published by Lang, but the book was funded by a major grant from the Canadian government. This series of Lang books seems to have helped the author to have gained a contract with Brill. My mad google skilz show that Schutz's books are being used all over the interwebs by people who aren't scholars -- and he does rely on the works of reputable people, although I really do get the feeling (the one an experienced teacher gets when reading student papers) that most of the references to primary sources are gleaned via the scholarly works. I'm not entirely sure what I'm trying to articulate here, because it's really hard to define things that just create a general unease. It just seems to me that this is an example of several systems having been gamed (and I think with the best of intentions -- someone just fell in love with a topic and decided to write about it), and it makes me feel devalued, disillusioned, and very unsure about how much role luck and chutzpah play in this academic life.

46 The Venerable Bede, Baedae, Opera Historica, With an English Translation by J.E. King in 2 Volumes, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Loeb Classical Library, I, XV (Cambridge, Mass. London 1963), p. 73

47 Wood, Kingdoms, p. 37, concerning the supernatural origin of the dynasty. This mysterious origin is only reported in Fredegar. Gregory of Tours does not make reference to this supposed supernatural origin of the dynasty. Either he did not know the legend or he deliberately suppressed it. See Graus, p. 319f.

48 Kaiser [Das Römische Erbe und das Merowingerreich(1993)], p.83, in his review of the literature indicates that Gregory of Tours tried to displace the sacred, pagan elements of the Merovingian kingship, in order to bring the achievements of Chlodovech to correspond with Christian ideals of monarchy.

*Schutz announces early on that he uses the forms of names that seem least confusing and most melodious to him -- apparently those are better criteria than English-language convention.*


Steve Muhlberger said...

Discouraging, yes.

Have you ever seen that big 20 year old or so picture book on Medieval Warfare? Great pictures, text written by a German historian trained in the history of WWII.

One caption refers to a huge picture of a castle assault (13th c from the script). Caption refers to the funny horns on the main soldiers' helmet as descending from Viking helmets. Of course if you can read Latin it tells you that this is the forces of Aristotle assaulting the fortress of stultitas. Or the other way around, can't remember now.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I should look for it! It sounds like it could come in very useful for the methodology course next year. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I think this is gatekeeping. I'm not sure if I think that's good or bad.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think it is -- but it's also a failure of gatekeeping. I think people have a right to publish whatever they want, but I think it's a real problem when the person has no expertise, and trades on the fact that they have a PhD in another field to somehow legitimize their work. There's an implied agreement, I think, between academic publishers and their audiences that the works that are published will be of a certain level. It takes a bit of digging to figure out that, on paper, this person does not have that expertise. Even without that knowledge, I'd have been thinking, "WTF?" and have tossed the book. But my students and the interested amateurs are not likely to make the differentiations that I can. That I found this is a respectable research library is pretty problematic for me. If it were in the local public library, I'd probably mention to the librarian that it wasn't a very good book, but then, one doesn't expect tons of peer-reviewed scholarly works in the public library.

And there are bad books by good scholars. This is unfortunately a mediocre book of dubious scholarship, and it's in my field. It's such a cool field, and there are so many horrible popular misconceptions that this book does nothing to dispel, that I'm a bit touchy about it.

Wegie said...

You're not being a snob. If anybody's being a snob it's the author who thinks that his PhD in a completely unrelated field makes him capable of transitioning to scholarship (sic) in a complex and difficult area of history, because obviously he's so brilliant that he doesn't have to undergo the training that the rest of us do. Which rather makes me wonder why the hell I bothered ponying up the money needed to do the MA in Classics at Birkbeck (cough, even if I didn't submit, cough) because obviously my degrees in modern history and politics and computer science/knowledge management make me perfectly capable of being a scholar of late antiquity. Ugh.

Thankfully the sun is shining at the moment. I shall take my copy of Heather to the cricket to read in those moments when the sun doesn't shine.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Heather and cricket sound about perfect. And really, my goal was not so much to trash the author as to talk about the issues of academic publishing and scholarly writing that have been weighing on me. The Schutz books, or at least the Brill one, seem to give legitimacy in a way that troubles me. They also show that, even in a world of Googling, we scholars can't always trust our own skills. One of the reviews of the Brill book was part of a multi-book review that included books by R. McKitterick and Simon MacLean. On the surface it makes sense -- book from reputable publisher, google the author or read the preface, and you know he's got several monographs on the subject of things Carolingian. Except, of course, that they are published more on the vanity press side.

I think it's really good that reviews appeared in places with good reputations among scholars. I just wish, in a world where getting book contracts is reasonably difficult, that the publishers were more careful.

squadratomagico said...

Random bullets of comment:

-Anchovies and tentacles are among my absolute very favorite things to consume. Yay for you!

-In regard to the Franks being Arian: I thought that it was a pretty respectable hypothesis by now that Clovis may have converted to Arianism first, and only later came to "real" Christianity. Gregory of Tours, of course, presents a more triumphal narrative. But I've heard respectable early medievalists advance this idea.

-Notwithstanding that point, it does sound as if this book has some problems. But not as many as the ms. I once reviewed, from an author whose only language appeared to be English (hence all European scholarship was ignored and all sources were in translation); and that used Rudolph Otto -- a nineteenth-century Protestant minister -- to explain eleventh-century monastic piety. The quote from Otto was folded into the text with no introduction of it's provenance, so that, structurally speaking, it appeared to be a primary-source, medieval quote. Except that it didn't read like a medieval quote at all, so I checked the notes. How uncritical can you get?!

Anonymous said...

i was going to say that I was taught(at the graduate level) that the franks were probably arian, although it was stressed that this was conjecture.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I shall check that. I can't remember ever having heard that before.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

There's an article in a book called, er, drat, I don't have those notes any more--hang on while I hit up Regesta Imperii--ah yes, Religion, culture, and society in the early middle ages: studies in honor of Richard E. Sullivan, eds Thomas Noble & John Contreni (Kalamazoo 1987), which has in it an article I thought was barking mad when I read it as an undergraduate, which must have been "Sacral kingship, biblical kingship, and the elevation of Pepin the short" by David Harry Miller, pp. 131-154, and I'm pretty sure that's where I heard the `the Franks were Arians before' thing, but I think I also got it elsewhere. Assuming that I'm not insulting your reading, that might be a place to look for references to the theory. Am I straining too hard if I think I remember that its extrapolated from some of the things Remigius says to Clvois in his letters? Do such letters even exist? Man, I'm out of date on this. Hang on, there is an early medieval housemate next door.

Right! Yes! The source is a letter of Avitus of Vienne to Clovis, not Remigius. I've just borrowed Tom Kitchen's copy of the Shanzer & Wood translation of the letters, and at p. 369 I got: "The chasers after various schisms, by their opinions, different in nature, many in number, but all empty of truth, tried to conceal under the cover of the name `Christian' the lies that have been uncovered by the keen intelligence of your subtlety." Shanzer & Wood reckon this points to converts among the mobility, but don't say they included Clovis, and add that one of Clovis's sisters is said to have converted--Tom says this is taken to be from Arianism, but not actually said, the source being a lost homily of Avitus of which we have only the title--and another did so when she married Theodoric.

That doesn't tell you who's written about it, but that's where it comes from we think. Buy Tom a drink next Kalamazoo if you see him, or something :-)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks! I e-mailed a good friend who's a Merovingianist this afternoon and he said it was Wood and told me to look in Wood and Shanzer. The bit about the conversion is also suggested in Gregory, but Gregory is not clear about the Arian part. Those are the only two extant pieces of evidence for Arianism among the Franks, apparently.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

the conversion of the sister, that is.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Wait -- just re-read his note -- Gregory is clear that the sister was Arian.

Horace said...

I don't know if this explains anything, but when I was approached by the publisher of the book you are currently looking at, I was told in no uncertain terms to run far far away: that they had such a terrible reputation of virtually non-existent review practices that they were barely a step up from vanity presses, and that publishing with them would be worse for my career than not publishing at all. So in that sense, you've already done better than this author!

Tiruncula said...

I don't have anything to add to the Franks as Arians question, but I wanted to pipe up to say:

1) I'm so glad we have a community of interest emerging around anchovies and tentacles. Squatratomagico, if ADM and I can ever manage to be where you are, we should arrange a tentacular meetup!

2) The fact that the Franks question has prompted serious discussion may make it sound like this book is less appalling than it is. Truly I tell you, you would not believe the combination of gross ignorance, lousy language skills (all primary sources cited in translation), etymological argiments that would embarrass Isidore's less-talented imitators, and just plain bad writing.

This fiasco of a book raises important questions about the feasibility and desirability of writing outside one's field, which I'd like to address at greater length - perhaps later, after more coffee. But for the moment, Horace's appraisal of the publisher is on target and I wouldn't want to make ADM doubt her doubts about how this kind of thing can have ended up in print.

Sisyphus said...

I know _nothing_ about things medieval or medieval scholarship. But! I can tell you that when I run into Peter Lang books in my field I am always very disappointed in them --- they appear to be completely unrevised dissertations (including _no_ copy editing, even for horrible and obvious typos) or ... strange. Like making arguments that make you wonder if the author was writing in another language and badly translated, or might need to be on medication.

I've gotten to the point where I don't even get the books out anymore, if I figure out they're this publisher.

Anonymous said...

I can't confirm this from their website, but my Doktorvater told me that Peter Lang is at least in part a vanity press. I've had the same experiences as the rest of you, that Peter Lang books are usually only good for making you feel better about the quality of your own writing, and, occasionally, for their bibliographies.