The Valve “is a literary weblog dedicated to the proposition that the function of the little magazine can follow this form. We mean to foster debate and circulation of ideas in literary studies and contiguous academic areas.” All that’s up right now is John Holbo‘s introductory post, but it’s long and meaty and deserving of your attention. After a fine blast of Trilling:
From the democratic point of view, we must say that in a true democracy nothing should be done for the people. The writer who defines his audience by its limitations is indulging in the unforgivable arrogance. The writer must define his audience by its abilities, by its perfections, so far as he is gifted to conceive them. He does well, if he cannot see his right audience within immediate reach of his voice, to direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie. The writer serves his daemon and his subject. And the democracy that does not know that the daemon and the subject must be served is not, in any ideal sense of the word, a democracy at all.
and an encomium to the “little magazine,” he digs into the depressing subject of the publishing crisis in the humanities, and specifically the problem of too many academic monographs chasing too few readers. His prognosis is both plausible and heartening:
Humanists – particularly in overcrowded, monograph-ridden literary studies – should embrace e-publishing. No dibble-dabbling skeptical toes to see if the water is just right. ‘Let’s not be hasty’ is not prudence but confusion or status anxiety (‘everything the internet touches turns to crackpot’.) Which just needs to be gotten over. Let us hear no false dichotomy arguments to the effect that the book is still valuable. No one is proposing the things are to burn. It is a question of ratios. Electronic-to-paper will tip increasingly steeply in favor of the former. Good. Form should follow function. Academic publishing is supposed to get rarified stuff out to the few. Books that exist in editions of 200 are, well, rare books. Sprinkling the academic world’s libraries with probably non-optimal assortments of (over-priced) rare books is not the best method of pairing these products with the rare readers. PDF or HTML, served up free online, makes more sense. (And searchable. And ready to be marked up and tagged in intelligent ways. Imagine if we had Thinkr, an academic-journalistic version of Flickr. An electronic environment in which academics could compose elegant bibliographic glass bead games, to guide colleagues to the good and warn them off the bad. How delightful! Just a thought.)…
If overproduction is inevitable, which I grant, the primary question is not how to fund it but how to ameliorate the damage it does us. (Having gone overboard by describing excess scholarship as ‘effluent’ I should probably add: producing things no one wants to read is perfectly harmless so long as these undesired things do not collectively block the road.) The question (I’ve asked it before) is how to overproduce with intellectual dignity? (See also, Tim Burke’s reply to that post.)
The answer, I think, is that a supplement is needed to a pre-publication peer review process that inevitably hyper-produces hypertrophic ‘conformist excellence within the heuristic contraints …’ The supplement should be a hyper-efficient post-publication peer review process that tells you what you might actually want to read.
A simple normative principle. Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed – should have it’s own lively blog comment box, not to put too fine a point on it. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent chat from a few dozen souls who specialize in that area shouldn’t have been published as a book – i.e. after several years labor and an average production cost of $25,000. Turning the point around: any book worth that time and expense, that fails to be widely read, discussed and reviewed – that is not given its own blog comment box – has been dramatically failed by the academic culture in which it was so unfortunate as to be born.
His style is lively, his thoughts are provoking, I will be returning regularly to see what his co-valvulators come up with, and I wish this new creation every success.