Friday, November 22, 2013

Anatomy of a Revise-and-Resubmit, parts II and III: Questions of Audience

Part II: Discipline and Disagreement

I used three of the four reviews of my original manuscript to greater and lesser degrees in revising it. I believe I know the identities of reviewers A and B because their writing has such a strong sense of voice about it and because the concerns expressed in their reviews were so specific to their own research. Reviewer B is the closest to the material and to the discipline, and so it is not surprising that reviewers A and C had some more basic questions about how I was reading the imagery in the poem. (The crotchety Reviewer C, who called my discussion about Dunash's wife and Deobrah "so much hot air" went as far as to say, in his perfected condescending tone, that he couldn't tell whether I was trying to write history or literary criticism, and essentially asked me to justify the value in interpreting poetry; it's possible that that's a valuable conversation to have, but at the same time, I think it's fair that an article that is a reading of a poem — even a thick-descriptive, New Historicist reading — should be able to assume as a first principle that need not be justified before getting started.) To try to address their concerns, I added a methodologies section that offers a basic overview of the concrete and metaphorical ways in which Arabic poetics uses jewelry and personal adornment imagery, like the imagery in Dunash's wife's poem.

In the end, Reviewer B was the only one who read the revised manuscript; and naturally, it was his considered opinion that the methodologies section "adds nothing" to the discussion. I'll be horrible and quote myself in an earlier post here when I say that "on the one hand, he was right. [And to be perfectly frank, I resented having to write an introductory overview of Arabic poetics for a research article, especially to placate a reader who wasn't necessarily prepared to be charitable about the value of reading and interpreting literary texts, but I also understand the value of contextualizing material for a more general academic audience and so I just did it.] But the other hand, working on the assumption that the readership of the journal would be as as disciplinarily varied as the cross-section of the reviewers, he's wrong. But either way, it was up to the editor to have made this clear" and not to have left me shooting at a moving target or writing for a shifting (or overly specialized) audience.

Part III: Expertise

In the introductory section of the article, I drew a comparison between how the secondary literature treats the Jewish, female poet writing in Hebrew who was the wife of a famous male poet and whose work was the focus of my research and how it treats a Jewish, female poet writing in Arabic who was the daughter of a famous male poet.

The mysterious fourth reviewer responded to this comparison with the admonition that "one must never speak of Jewish and Arab poets as though they are one and the same. This is clearly not the case."

I didn't even have to look at the review to quote from it; this comment is seared into my mind.

What, exactly, then, would this reviewer like me to do about the fact that Qasmuna was Jewish poet writing in Arabic? Or that Judah al-Harizi (a Jew, in case his name wasn't a dead giveaway) wrote poetry in Arabic? Or the three treatises I can think of quickly off the top of my head in which the authors explicitly write about the Arabic poetic meters they are using in their Hebrew poetry?

During this period in the Iberian Peninsula, there is no difference between Jewish and Arab poets; it is a false contrast that attempts to equate religion with language in a way that no poet and no reader from this period would recognize and that no modern reader can recognize if he or she reads the material honestly and without some modern Middle Eastern political agenda infused in his view of the Middle Ages. That Arabic and Judaism (or Christianity, for that matter) could be mutually exclusive is a mistake I do not allow my undergraduates to make without penalty.

This review betrayed an approach to the relationship between religious identity and language choice what was so quite frankly wrong — although I called it "different from mine" in my covering letter to the editor when I resubmitted my revised manuscript — that I have to wonder how and why he was allowed to review my work. I think, to her credit, the editor disregarded that review; although in light of the fact that the article was ultimately rejected and that one of the aspects that she cited in sort of justifying her decision was that the readers reacted strongly to it, I'll always wonder a little.

This was an audience I was never going to be able to please.

1 comment:

  1. "... that I have to wonder how and why he was allowed to review my work". You are not the only one. That comment of his (?) also seared into my natural-born naiveté that leans to think reviewers must be experts in their fields. I happen to share my home (all my homes) with a specialist in Derrida; she and I keep thinking how on earth this piece: was let in.