I have finally gotten most of the way through the March 7 TLS (yes, I know, why do you think I don’t subscribe? it’s bad enough when I just pick up the occasional issue) and found a very interesting essay by Emily Wilson about the Bryn Mawr Classical Review. She focuses on the venom with which so many BMCR reviewers attack the books under discussion, and her suggested explanations resonate strongly (for me, at any rate) with the discussion of the sorrows of the toilers in academic vineyards that’s been taking place at Baraita (here and here, inter alia), Caveat Lector (go to her grad school category, start with “What he said” on 26 Februarii 2003, and work your way down towards the present), Wealth Bondage (here, with many forceful comments), Frogs and Ravens, and the Invisible Adjunct (passim, and thank goodness she’s back online!). Here’s the heart of it:
There are two possible explanations for the large numbers of hatchet-jobs. First, too many academic books are being published, not all of which are first-rate. The pressures of Research Assessment Exercises and Tenure Review encourage aspiring academics to churn out too many words, too fast, without enough time for real research and, even more importantly, real contemplation. This is a problem which affects all humanities departments at the moment, not just classical studies. If anything, the number of utterly pointless books published in Classics seems lower than in some other disciplines; but that may be my own prejudice. If one accepts this explanation, one may be grateful to BMCR for working so relentlessly to purge the academic body of error and to reassure the readers that most of the books they do not read are not worth reading.
But the proportion of negative reviews in BMCR seems significantly higher than in comparable publications, such as Classical Review. This suggests a second explanation: that the dismissive tone of BMCR may have as much to do with editorial policy as with the state of the classical studies. The majority of reviews seem to be written, not by big-name senior scholars, but by graduate students, junior professors and adjuncts, who hope to boost their publication records. I say “seem”, because there are no contributors’ notes and it is difficult to trace many of the names. A publication in which people of all academic ranks can find a voice may sound more egalitarian than the journals where one sees the same names over and over again. But less senior people are likely to write harsh reviews, not only because of the idealistic brutality of youth, but also because the structure of contemporary academia tempts those at the bottom to trample on their peers and to suck up to their more advanced colleagues. A junior academic or graduate student writing for BMCR can show off his or her scholarly credentials by pointing out the errors in someone else’s first book; books by well-known figures are much more likely to be treated with respect.
So… any thoughts?
Incidentally, the current issue of the TLS features a number of language-related pieces, including Susan Sontag’s “Babel Now” (“I shall argue that a proper consideration of the art of literary translation is essentially a claim for the value of literature itself”), Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s “The EU – all in the translation” (“EU officials and parliamentarians are shielded from the trials of Babel because they have bevies of translators. Anyone able to translate from Latvian into Greek or from Slovenian into Finnish is assured of a prosperous livelihood in the Brussels bureaucracy. For ordinary folk, the absence of any agreement to use one or two common languages will prove a high barrier”), and Mary Beard on Roman bilingualism (not, alas, online). Take a look before they’re taken down and replaced by the next issue.