Monday, 15 January 2007

Little Circles "Blogging," Conventional Wisdom declares, "is a poor representation of your intellectual output. Why not spend the time you devote to blogging writing conference papers four people will hear or articles eleven will read?" On its face, the idea that bloggers aren't serious scholars requires an unintellectual notion of what constitutes "serious" scholarship. To not produce useless intellectual artifacts is to be unprofessional. To participate in a culture of engagement—one in which ideas matter in ways they seldom do without the life-support of seminar rooms and qualifying exams—is to be unprofessional. To be professional is to embrace the intellectual isolation responsible for so many unreadable articles and books. Not that all articles and books are unreadable. Far from it. But pull your five or ten favorite books from the shelf. Scan the acknowledgment page. Now marvel at how frequently the same names appear. You see, small circles of serious readers exist, but they are largely closed to young scholars in remote climes. But the people they read? These scholars and their students occupy the upper reaches of the discipline. They already belong to a serious, engaged intellectual culture. They already possess what so many on the professional peripheries desire. They already have what many academic bloggers hope to create. They have every reason to consider blogging unnecessary and unprofessional. The articles they help place, the dissertations they direct, the books they review—all the useless intellectual artifacts others lack the time and resources to read with the attention they deserve? They've earned the privilege to read them in a professional capacity. Most scholars haven't. And sometimes, they blog.
Too Hot for Jack_London Early last week, someone on the Jack_London listserv complained about "struggling through" some of London's later works. He asked whether they were the product of a once-talented drunkard pumping out hack-work. This is not, for the record, an unreasonable characterization of late-period London. He may not have been a drunk, but few would oppose the idea that as his debts mounted, he began to churn out mediocre work. I mean, every London scholar worth his or her salt knows he paid Sinclair Lewis for story ideas. Another member of the listserv said as much, then added that "there is nothing to be gained by struggling through the crap." The listserv exploded. An email entitled "Crap Criticism" shot into my inbox and demanded he provide the gathering mob "with a bibliography of his or her published books and stories so we may examine them and determine what their professional writing and critical credentials are." Fellow torch-bearers sputtered congratulations: "You tell him!" "Well done!" "Martin Eden!" After a brief interlude in which people debated the vulgarity of the word "crap," the original nay-naysayer returned to object again. I paraphrase: To call supremely terrible work written solely for money "crap" offends my scholarly sensibility! Now I quote with emphasis: Otherwise we have only opinion, perhaps useable on a blog or over beers at Heinold's, but not useful in a serious London discussion website ... I asked for the credentials of the crap-sayers because few, if any, of them have ever written creatively and therefore know nothing of the creative writing process. Confused by the use of the word "website" to refer to a discussion on a listserv? You're not alone. Had this statement been made in a film like CNN or ESPN—you know, one which didn't complain about the accuracy of a particular claim or question the authority of the person who made it—I might have let it slide. Couple that with the fact that my contribution has been deemed "unsuitable" by the list-moderator and you see why I must stick to my guns and post my crap-saying on my blog: Credentials don't make the critic, as I'm sure the St. Grottlesex-prepped, Ivy-educated London would agree. While I may not use the word "crap" to describe some of London's work, I would venture the following: "philosophically unsophisticated," "didactic," "overwrought," and "egomaniacal." Despite not having an extensive record of publication, I think myself capable of defending each of those terms. For the first, I'd discuss the cultural Lamarckism of Call of the Wild and White Fang; the second, any of the relatively frequent discussions of Darwin or Spencer (this would, obviously, dovetail neatly with my discussion of the first); the third, almost anything from the closing chapters of The Iron Heel; and the fourth, well, how many times do must you rewrite an idealized version of your own life before someone calls you "egomaniacal"? That said, I find London's work fascinating, oftentimes for the very same reasons I find it, say, philosophically unsophisticated. He...

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