Friday, November 29, 2013

Anatomy of a Rejection

(This is the coda to these two posts.)

The email began, "I'm afraid the news is not good..." and pretty much went downhill from there. The more I read, the more capricious the decision seemed.

Jewish Quarterly Review should have been a good fit for this article as a journal the covers many disciplines united by their treatment of Jewish material. And on top of that, it's also the place where the editio princeps of the poem I analyze in the article was published by Nehemia Allony; that is to say, there were historiographic reasons for my choosing that journal on top of all the others. I don't necessarily want to position myself in Jewish Studies, although many people would place my work there, but at the same time, because this is something that I wrote while I was at the Katz Center, giving their journal right of first refusal seemed like the right (and, to be fair, expedient) thing to do. I  just wasn't expecting them to exercise it quite so literally and refuse.

I'm not enraged over the article's rejection. I'm enraged because it seems to have been made on other-than-scholarly grounds. You might be thinking at this point that anybody would say this and that of course my own work is in my blind spot and maybe the article actually sucks and JQR was right to reject it; but one of my strengths is that I'm capable of reading my work pretty honestly and I do that. I've had one other outright article rejection, and in that case I had no qualms about it. I thought it was worth sending in because it was at a standard of work that that journal published, but it was definitely not as good as it could have been and certainly wasn't my best work. I submitted that article and just sort of hoped that nobody would notice its flaws. They did. And I was okay with that. But in this case? This is a good article. The documentation is meticulous and it offers a way to make sense of a poem that people have spent eighty years throwing their hands up in the air over. The people whose opinions I value, and who are honest with me about the quality of my work, think it's good. I know it's good. And yet I have this infernal, perplexing rejection letter.

As angry as I am, I didn't tear the letter up in pique, but rather in resignation. I had held out a fleeting hope, as I received the paper copy, that it would say something different than the email; of course it didn't, and I was foolishly disappointed anew.

That's not to say that I'm not angry. I did a lot of venting during that first week or so in real life, and it seems that everyone I've vented to has a story about JQR being capricious or taking forever to simply reject a piece or sending things out to inappropriate reviewers or generally being a den of nepotism. (Although oddly, in this case, I ought to have benefitted from the nepotism since, as I said, this is the in-house journal of the research institute where I was a fellow last year, a research institute where we all got a spiel about how much the journal likes to publish the work of former fellows. This, of course, then leads to a really destructive spiral of wondering how bad my work must really be if I couldn't even succeed when the deck would appear to have been stacked in my favor — not a rational or realistic way of thinking about things, but present nonetheless.)

When I'm done venting, and when I have the article accepted by a more suitable journal, I'm thinking that I might tone down what follows here, put it all together and send a sort of "anatomy of a rejection" to the dead letter series; I'm imagining it'll be something like The Lifespan of a Fact, a running gloss on the text and the reviewers' paratext. Realistically speaking, it'll probably not happen. For the meantime, anyway, if not posterity,  what follows the jump is, essentially, my review of one reviewer's final response to my article.


One thing that the reviewer disliked was that I referred to what is probably the most important article ever written about this poem. Authored by Ezra Fleischer, it represents the identification of the author of the poem as Dunash's wife and offers a completely speculative historical context in which it might have been composed. (A short English-language preview of the article may be found here.) I acknowledged that the interpretation was Fleischer's and that it was speculative. I'm certain that if I had omitted mention of this article, I'd have been criticized for overlooking an important piece of the historiography; by holding me to account for an earlier, important scholar's speculation, the reviewer was setting me into a double bind. Furthermore, that Flesicher's totally speculative contextualization and interpretation of the piece even appears in a peer-reviwed journal makes it easy to begin to think that the process is not blind and that standards are not evenly adhered to.

In a separate comment, the reviewer said that he would have preferred that I invert the paragraph that contained my delineation of the historiography, a paragraph that appeared in the revised version exactly as it did in the original submission. This is not a change that I made before I ultimately sent the article to another journal, but if JQR had asked, I could have taken care of this (and everything else on this list) in a matter of minutes. A set of stylistic qualms that could all be changed in under an hour should not a rejection make.

One of the questions that this poem raises comes in its last line, when the poetic voice speculates whether her beloved couldn't be enticed to stay in Spain in exchange for half the kingdom. I'll return to that in a moment, but for now, some more setup is required. The poem describes a female figure giving her bracelet to her husband and the husband giving her his signet ring. In the poem they are described as mementos; my argument is that the gift exchanges in the poem actually reflect economic transactions that would have been recognizable to medieval readers as such; the bulk of the article deals with documentation of transactions similar to the ones represented in the poem. S.D. Goitein writes about women's jewelry quite extensively in A Mediterranean Society and in several articles on trousseaux lists; and one of his observations is that women wore silver bracelets in pairs. Furthermore, several Genizah documents show women consolidating their liquid assets in the form of jewelry to fund their own or their relatives' travel; that is part of the crux of my argument. In this poem, the female figure hands over one bracelet to her husband; my literary reading of this gesture, in light of all the other economic details in the poem and of the observation made by Goitein, is that she is handing over half her fortune in a literary foreshadowing of the question about half the kingdom. The reviewer wondered: "Maybe she had a whole box of them at home! We have to minimize the amount of guesswork we are putting into print." I would have defended this point on its merits, but even if I were to concede the point for the sake of the argument — it is speculation within an articulated methodological framework based on documentary evidence — is it somehow more satisfying or more professionally responsible to throw up one's hands and declare the poem to be uniterpretable? In effect, with a good, sensible, satisfying interpretation of the poem yet to be produced, that is what has happened.

Returning to the issue of funding travel, the reviewer further took issue with my writing about the female figure funding the travel of the male figure with her jewelry, writing that "“it’s no secret that goods were used by travelers as money.” Of course it's no secret. That wasn't at all what was new about this article, and I'm quite certain that an impression to the contrary was not the fault of my writing. It's a foundational assumption of the article. All I’m trying to do is show that the specific types of goods that are exchanged in the poem relate to the ways in which they were used in the documentary sources by travelers; and that yields the interpretation of the poem that these images that have puzzled readers in their poetic form since this was first published are drawn from something other than the standard quiver of poetic metaphors and that the well-known documentary record offers a way of making sense of the puzzling poem.

One comment appeared to be the result of the reviewer not reading to the end of a paragraph, which makes one wonder how much of this decision was predetermined and required only a pliant reviewer to provide some cover. The reviewer thought that I did not consider the value of the signet ring sufficiently, writing: “As signet ring isn’t only jewelry; it’s used to authenticate a transaction; thus, giving the signet to the wife might be tantamount to giving her power of attorney…the transaction is more equal: she gives him money and he gives her power.” At the end of that paragraph, though I had written: “she has helped to fund her husband’s travel by her own means and is left with an object that, as jewelry, retains some economic value that she could use to support herself and that, symbolically, is an emblem of the power wielded, erstwhile, at the caliphal court.” I didn't go as far as the reviewer did because that would have been speculative, but I did address the issue of the ring being more than just jewelry. How am I to know when speculation is acceptable and when it isn't?

There was one serious error in the piece, an error that I introduced during the revise-and-resubmit phase, and I'll cop to that: In editing a translation, I inverted the subject and object in one line of the poem. For philologists and literary scholars, it's a serious problem and I was rightly taken to task for it. That said, I was doing enough with text in the piece that it was obvious that I know what I'm doing and that this was, more or less, a huge typo, that I still don't think that should have been grounds for rejection.


One mistake and everything else was stylistic and debatable. 

Explain this all to me one more time? Tell me again how double-blind peer review is the only process that allows the good work to be published and weeds out bad. Tell me again that it is fair. Tell me it does not skew intellectually conservatively. Tell me that my only value as a scholar comes through my ability to please a reviewer like this. Tell me all that one more time? Because it's still not making sense to me.

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