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.*