Is commercial writing more honest than academia?

William Deresiewicz thinks so:

I far prefer the discipline of the market to the discipline of the disciplines. Here’s the incident that brought things into focus for me. The last time I wrote an academic article (on Jude the Obscure), the editor sent it back with all kinds of niggling comments. What especially galled me was her insistence that I “fix the pronouns.” In other words, I had committed the cardinal sin of using the word “we,” long discredited in certain circles as an instrument of repressive liberal universalism. Never mind the fact that I had used the pronoun in a different sense entirely, merely to refer to “we” readers of the novel, Hardy’s implied audience. Now I’d have to mar the piece—it was for a Festschrift for my graduate advisor, so the prospect was especially painful—and for no good reason other than the imbecilic crotchets of one individual. Who was this person, anyway? She taught in a prestigious department, but when I looked her up, I found out that she was mainly a bureaucrat: lightly published but on lots of boards and committees.

This is a trivial instance, but I saw far graver versions of it all the time: people who were blocked from getting jobs or keeping them, people whose work was rejected for publication (a body blow in academia, of course), and only because a single individual decided to stand in their way, a single human bottleneck, and often for motives that were purely personal, or self-interested, or just plain arbitrary. The market is indeed no respecter of higher values, but at least the transactions are honest. If a publisher thinks your book will sell, they’ll buy it from you. There are no hidden agendas. They aren’t going to care if it conforms to the latest intellectual fashions, or whether you’ve cited their friends. You’re also shooting at a vastly bigger target. Millions of people buy books in this country; only a tiny fraction need to purchase yours to make it a success. In academia, where job openings are scarce and only a few journals exist in any given field, a handful of gatekeepers decide your fate.

Let me see if I understand.  Deresiewicz’s editor at an academic journal doesn’t like the collective “we.”  This is “imbecilic” and “niggling,” and worse — the secret reason his editor changed the pronouns was PC orthodoxy run amok!

The editor in question hadn’t been publishing much herself.  My assumption is that she’s devoting the larger share of her time to undergraduate teaching, which is exactly what handwringers about academia are always telling us we should be doing!  But Deresiewicz seems to feel she spends most of her energy forming task forces to hunt down pronouns that might be giving comfort to capitalism, or something.

Deresiewicz is lucky indeed if he’s never written for a commercial client that changes his pronouns.  In my experience, editors will cheerfully change pronouns, punctuations, spelling, and word choice in order to fit their stylebook, whether I think it “mars” the piece or not.  They will also write headlines that make stronger claims than does the piece itself, and strip away whole paragraphs.  Only sometimes do they ask for your approval.  And commercial editors most certainly do care whether your piece conforms to the latest fashions; they have to sell it, after all!

I once wrote a book review for a large-circulation publication, which came back with the word “failure” removed from the final paragraph.  I wrote back saying that the book I was reviewing was, in fact, a failure.  I was told by the editor that they had relationships with major publishers, that the books they reviewed were by definition not failures, and that if I wanted to get paid for the piece I was going to turn in a version of the piece without the word “failure” in it.  So that’s what I did.  I suppose their agenda was hidden only from their readers, not from me.  Should I feel good about that?


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6 thoughts on “Is commercial writing more honest than academia?

  1. harrison says:

    This is where open publishing (and blogging!) has an advantage over both, no? It’s sort of a false dilemma to assume you have to deal with the demands of intellectual fashion in academia, or the demands of the market in commercial publishing, if you’re allowed to put a rougher version on the arXiv or your personal webpage or whatever.

  2. Sam says:

    Good heavens, what field is Deresiewicz in? It sounds like one where peer review is completely absent! The only reason I can think of for an editor in my field to turn someone down themselves– without a reviewer’s report to back them up– would be if the paper blatantly violated the journal’s official house style, as documented on the journal website… and if that’s the case, Deresiewicz is clearly in the wrong. Other than that, as far as I understand (from my very limited experience), they’ll get a peer reviewer to check the paper even if it seems like a hopeless case. In some journals, you might even enjoy double-blind peer review! Good luck getting *THAT* in the free market!!

  3. John Baez says:

    Deresiewicz doesn’t seem to note that you can argue with the referee, and often win if you’ve got a really good point. Most of the changes I make due to referee’s comments are improvements. Most of the changes that would be really bad, I manage to avoid.

  4. Ooooh, I like it when you get pissed, Jordan!

  5. JSE says:

    I just realized that I complained a few months ago about something else William Deresiewicz wrote!

    I promise it’s just coincidence and I don’t have anything against this dude.

  6. […] JSE: Is commercial writing more honest than academia? […]

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