Thursday, November 21, 2013

Anatomy of a Revise-and-Resubmit, part I: Writing While Female

I've just recently received word about the final disposition of an article I submitted for possible publication in the Jewish Quarterly Review: after an initial decision of revise-and-resubmit that led to some really major revision of the piece, the article was ultimately rejected. The process was flawed at every stage and doesn't inspire a huge amount of confidence in the value or merits of the double-blind peer review process as the sine qua non it is often thought to be. The next few posts will reflect upon the process.

Just for some brief contextual reference, here is the abstract that accompanied the article:

 Of thousands of poems written in Hebrew between the closure of the canon of the Hebrew Bible and the dawn of modernity, a single exemplar is identified as having been written by a woman. Modern scholarship concerning this poem has primarily been interested in it as a unique and curious artifact of a woman writer working in Hebrew. The present article will reconsider that poem in light of documents in the Cairo Genizah that deal, from a documentary perspective, with the same concerns and activities that the poet treats in verse, specifically the ways in which women supported themselves financially in the absence of their husbands. This study will argue that the work of the supposed Andalusi Hebrew poetess reflects economic and social realities faced by women in Muslim Spain and more broadly in the Mediterranean society documented in the Genizah. The exchange of personal effects between the woman depicted in the poem and her husband stands as a literary comparison for records of similar exchanges and calls for both a more historicized reading of Genizah poetry and for studies of this poem that move beyond the question of the poet’s gender.

As much as I wanted to ignore the question of authorship and all the attention paid to the poem because it might have been written by a woman, my methodology was, nevertheless, a little bit programatic in this respect. I was drawn, in large part, to this poem because I was really bothered by what, to me, seemed to be very condescending treatment of it and of its ostensible author in the very small amount of scholarship devoted to it. I mentioned this in the introduction to the article and offered a very brief intervention.

One of the anonymous reviewers put on his best condescending air in order to make the following comment on that section:
“So much hot air about a non-issue! It is true that Fleischer and Rosen say that there were no women poets in Hebrew since Deborah. No one made a “comparison” or “identification” with Deborah. To make an issue out of it is not to be able to discern what’s important and what’s unimportant.”
Actually, it’s not a non-issue, and here’s why, explained with text borrowed here from a footnote I added to the the article as I revised it:
“I think that it is important that when we speak about this poem we perhaps moderate more carefully the gendered language with which we describe Dūnash’s wife. For example, even though this poem is rarely given scholarly attention, when it is, some mention is always and invariably made to the gap in women’s Hebrew poetry between the biblical figure of Deborah, whose exploits are recounted in the so-called “song of Deborah” expressed in her literary voice in Judges 5 and the wife of Dūnash; the latter is described as the literary heir to the former, the heritor or lamplight or bastion of Hebrew verse ostensibly written by women. Although it has recently been suggested to me that this is never intended as a serious comparison between the two, it seems that the persistence of the juxtaposition of Deborah and Dunash’s wife ensures a certain, likewise persistent, flattening out of the distinctions between the very limited number of women authors and women’s voices in literature. Especially if the comparison is superfluous or unserious and serves no real purpose but could, rather than illuminate our understanding of the text have a deleterious effect on reading and interpreting it, I should think that it is an analogy best consigned, quite deliberately, to the literary-critical scrapheap; when the identification of the poet as a woman at all is in doubt, this is particularly important.”
Don't even get me started (and I didn't even try to address this in the article) that we in the field, both colloquially and in print, refer to the poet, known as the wife of a poet named Dunash ben Labrat as "Mrs. Dunash."

During my first year of graduate school, after a week on feminist theory in an introduction to theories and methodologies in the field course, I asked the professor what the expectations generally were for women scholars to do feminist scholarship or write on women authors. I did not, I told her in no uncertain terms, want to be pigeonholed as a “girl Arabist.” And she gave me this incredibly sensible, sensitive answer, which was to say that no, I definitely didn’t have to do feminist scholarship or write about women, although some people might occasionally ask me why. She continued that it was possible, though, that in the course of reading text in line with whatever critical schools of thought I might ultimately decide to be valid, I might, by virtue of being a “girl Arabist” (something I couldn’t ultimately do anything about being, she pointed out to me) notice things that a male colleague might overlook or that I might be sensitive to certain textual resonances by virtue of being a woman.

This is not to say that all women readers would all notice the same things, or even that all women readers are uniformly sensitive to the same elements of writing by or about women. (The aforementioned Rosen, after all, is also a woman.) But I think this is one of those cases where the critical status quo bothered me because of the complicated gender issues in the text and in the academy in a way that male colleagues — and I am only assuming that this anonymous reviewer is a man — can overlook and call a load of silly, dithering, girly hot air. Maybe being a girl Arabist isn’t such a bad thing in the end if it means getting to stick it to the guys who read carelessly because they can or because they fail to recognize a problem that doesn’t affect them.

There's no need for condescension; and it might even be worth giving authors the benefit of the doubt that they are, in fact, identifying a real problem. Seems to me that asking for clarification is preferable to dismissing the suggestion out of hand and more in keeping with the scholarly mission of the endeavor.

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