What’s the Great Scholastic Novel?

Yes, another aside at the beginning of a post, but, thanks to a very nice reference from The Smithy, home of other fans of John Duns the Subtle, ye olde humble blogge’s visitor counter’s pretty much exploded. Seriously, I’ve gotten almost as many people visiting in the last three days as I’ve ever gotten in a month around here. Thanks for visiting, y’alls!

Why aren’t there any great novels written from a Scholastic viewpoint? For that matter, how many truly great works of literature that weren’t written by Dante can those of you who don’t study the middle ages name that explicitly follow a Scholastic worldview? Heck, what about the great Stoic novel? Sure, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations aren’t poorly written at all, but really, what great play, poem, or book follows a Stoic worldview, rather than explicitly espousing one?* It seems that you can’t be an existentialist without writing novels (Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir were all pretty dang good novelists), and postmodern nihilism, especially of the “there is no truth—which should really scare you” postwar variety, produced any number of temporally disjointed and bone-crushingly dense black comedies. The Greek aristocratic ideal gave us some of the greatest epic poetry and drama the world has ever known, while postwar Japanese novelists infuse their works with Zen Buddhism’s unique wabi-sabi aesthetic, and Romanticism and German Idealism gave us a flood of great poetry. Heck, even Puritanism has produced great novels—according to at least one argument I’ve read, all of them.** So where’s the great stuff involving the nuances of virtue ethics, natural ends, and hylomorphism? Continue reading


Coincidences . . .

WordPress posts a little quote about writing each time you make a new entry. Guess what the last one was?

“I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” Blaise Pascal

Appropriate, no? End of Provincial Letter 16, if you’re interested.

Short Thoughts

A few quick notes from the slush mines while I ready the posts I’ve actually been spending time with:

✶If you wouldn’t want to take the time out of your busy academic schedule to read the monstrosity of a manuscript you just sent to us, nobody else will either.  Contrary to what you may believe, everybody else is just as busy as you are, and thousand page manuscripts filled with bone-crushing prose just aren’t something we really feel comfortable asking people we like to read.  Frankly, we can’t pay people enough to slog through that kind of thing—not because we’re short on cash, mind you, but because there are some things not worth doing, no matter the price.  Furthermore, when that book’s printed and bound, it’s going to be a doorstop.  People will balk at buying it—it’ll be so long we’ll have to increase the price, you’ve probably made it so specialized nobody’s going to want to read it, and we’ll get stuck with boxes of expensive bricks in our warehouse.  If we tell you to cut it by half, we don’t mean a quarter, we mean half.  Seriously, any book that long has things you can cut.  If you’re fluent in four languages, two of them dead, you shouldn’t need us to tell you the meanings of “proportion,” “concision” and “reasonable.”

✶I may have said this before, but, if you agree to review a promising manuscript from someone you’ve never heard of, the author is probably a junior scholar on the tenure clock, and your dragging your feet on the review has the chance to seriously ruin someone’s life.  If someone doesn’t get a book published before their tenure review because you took your sweet time about it despite frantic e-mails from the valet* and his boss, they’re probably not going to get tenure.  Knowing that the reason you missed your one shot at steady academic employment, the thing you sacrificed eighteen great years of your life, true love, and more profitable employment for, is because some anonymous reviewer couldn’t be arsed to actually finish their review in the six weeks they agreed to do it in has got to be rough.  If you’re asked to review a book by a junior scholar, keep in mind that it’s someone’s livelihood at stake.  If it’s an established person whose book you’re reviewing, be a decent, ethical human being who keeps their word and turn the damn thing in on time.  You know you’re going to get drunk with this person at the next conference anyway; do you want to hear them complain about how their book was delayed by some dumb reviewer?

✶Every once in a while, read a book that isn’t academic, pretentious, or highbrow.  Your writing, both Academic and “for popular audiences” will improve.  Popular biographies are a good place to start; mystery novels and thrillers might be even better.  Heck, seemingly everyone else in book publishing wants to get into literary YA, so I can probably get you a slew of recommendations there.  Whatever.  If your subdiscipline is known for bad or tortured writing (which, granted, if you’ve been in your own particular academic bubble for long enough, you might not realize how truly hideous your cohort’s prose really is), try a 2:1 academic prose:real prose ratio for at least two months.  If you’re planning on writing something for a popular audience, spend a month reading nothing but popular nonfiction.  Those of us who review papers and sort through the slush pile have noticed that you have absolutely no clue how normal people write and talk.  Your academic papers are nigh-well impenetrable,** to the point that I have no idea whether you have an actual point that you’re doing a great job burying under the technical jargon, Latin, and petty allusions to minor distinctions, or if you’re putting up a storm of words in what you think academic prose should sound like based on how senior figures write to cover up the fact that you’re insecure in what you’re doing and aren’t confident in your points.  Probably both.  Trust me, cut the first half of your paper, the one in which you give “proper historical context,” cut the David Foster Wallace footnotes, ditch the extraneous side references you put in to make it clear you know who that person is, and you’ll actually end up looking smarter once your audience knows what you’re banging on about.  As for popular writing…”popular” does not mean “dumb.”  You can engage thoughtfully with serious issues in what will seem like a short amount of space without sounding like a kangaroo after a troughfull of espresso.  Don’t try too hard, and you’ll be just fine.  With all the popular nonfiction you’ve been reading, that thoughtful yet lively prose style should be coming naturally to you now, right?

✶The day will come when we look back at our current obsession with sans-serf fonts and wonder what we were thinking.  You see these fonts here?  You know how many of them are good for setting pages of type in?  None of them, that’s how many!  I don’t care if it looks hip, I don’t care if all the cool kids are doing it, I really don’t care if it makes your philosophy or humanities journal look more “sciencey,” just use frikkin’ Garamond already and spare us the eye strain!  Caslon and Minion are also acceptable, Filosofia is lovely if you’ve got it, and Didot or Bodoni in certain very controlled contexts if you must.  But please, don’t contribute to the Great Gotham Blight.

*Yes, I’ve been promoted by Bigbossman from Intern-in-Chief to Press Valet—the final “t” is pronounced, in proper English fashion.  For those of you who haven’t seen Jeeves & Wooster starring Fry and Laurie, the significance of both the promotion and the pronunciation might be lost on you.
**And this is coming from someone who considers Simone de Beauvoir and St. Augustine bedside reading.

Peer Review: It Ain’t That Hard, People!

No, really, it isn’t.  I swear, though, if there were a university publisher equivalent of College Misery, bad peer reviewer stories would keep the place running.  All we want is a 5 page, double-spaced book report—and the first page or so is pretty much padding.  Any of your grad students could do this.  Heck, you ask more from them when they do lit reviews.  Is it really too hard to read a book in your obscure specialty (we picked you for a reason, after all!) and toss off an undergrad seminar paper on it?  It would take you a weekend.  You’re an expert, this should be easy—otherwise, we wouldn’t ask you to do this! Continue reading

Even More Things I Learned at the Press!

—All the laws of physics can be explained by appeal to the 12 signs of the Zodiac
Bigbossman’s got a PhD in physics.  It sure surprised him to find this out

—When Christ returns to Earth, he’ll be a member of the College of Cardinals
Not the Pope, though.  Also, Lutherans beware.

—Not even Jesus can get a book published at our press
So don’t feel too bad that your (actually pretty good) dissertation got rejected.

—Some of our authors really could sell cookbooks based off their name alone
However, when the first recipe is for nightshade casserole with arsenic sauce . . .

—Some people don’t read about our press, and send us original poetry
We have never published original poetry.  Ever.

—If you submit really and truly awful poetry to the Press, it will get passed around.
The thought of doing a YouTube video of the Press staff reading it was floated.  10k hits, minimum

—Rejection letters are more fun to write as street poetry/Urban Folk.
I don’t think we actually used it, but here goes:

The (Happiness) Press would like to thank you for the time
And all the work you did in bustin’ out yo’ rhyme

But we read what you sent us, and I simply gotta say
That we just can’t use your masterpiece this day

So good luck in the future, and don’t let us get you down
Since we’re not the only ones who publish books around.

Peace out,
The Press

Reviewing Reviewers

I’m going to grab my fiddle while people are setting fires and ignore the whole Finch Report Open Access bomb that’s blowing up right now.*  Suffice it to say, I need to finish reading all of it (I don’t do journals right now, so only about thirty pages are of more than academic interest to bookies like me) before I act like I have something intelligent and novel to say about it—but, worry not, I will talk about it.**

Instead, let’s talk about something that’s tangential to the whole Finch Report/Open Access debate: the institution of peer review.  Yes, a lot of people aren’t too keen on it (“why are we paying for this, again?”), but for those of us who publish things, it’s important.  Sure, it’s the gold standard, sure, it’s an assurance of quality—but for us, if it doesn’t pass peer review, we don’t have to waste good money publishing it. Continue reading

Storytelling and Reality: Telling Lies Truly

I think I’ve mentioned two works of fiction on this blog so far more prominently than any others: David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, and Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried.  Both deal with an odd notion that philosophers have been playing with for the last few decades—how is it that things that don’t exist in the ordinary sense can nevertheless be true?

“Everyone knows” what a unicorn is.  It’s a horse-like being with a horn.  Easy enough, right?  Okay, so pick the unicorns:

One of these things is not like the others . . .

Continue reading

The Things They Carried

It’s a long story involving a hated high school English teacher and my first published piece in a newspaper, but, after ten years, I finally got around to reading Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried.

Highly recommended to all, which I expected—but not for the reasons I expected.  Yes, it’s a great set of war stories, but an even greater set of meditations on storytelling.  As he realizes, through stories, the absent become present, and fictions become real.

Go find it.  You won’t regret it.