Saturday, February 22, 2014

All's Well that Ends Well

I wrote late last year about a journal article of mine that was rejected by theJewish Quarterly Review after a really grueling revise-and-resubmit. It was frustrating — and I took it really hard and really personally — because it seemed to me like the work was rejected on the basis of a report from a reviewer who essentially hadn’t read carefully. He misconstrued  the general argument I was making and also criticized me for not addressing several details that I had, in fact, addressed. It also seemed like he wasn’t really thinking about the audience for the journal, which includes people who work in all periods of Jewish history and in a variety of academic fields and disciplines, and not just Hebrew poetry from medieval Spain. And it was really distressing that the editor took at face value what, to me, seemed so clearly a spurious, superfluous, set of complaints about the article. But I’ve already said all of that herehere, and here.
I am, in equal measures, pleased and relieved that the article has been accepted, pending my making some small changes, by the journal Cultural History; and assuming that I get my act together and get it back to the editor on time, it looks like it’ll appear in print by the end of the year. The review from JQR was so harsh and so dismissive that, even though I knew that my work was good, it really fostered some serious doubt about whether anybody except for me and the three people I regularly talk to about literature and Hebrew poetry would see the value in my analysis of a poem in light of economic documents from the same time and place.
One of those three people had said to me, in so many words: “You’ve made sense of a poem that has not made sense until now.” But officially, her opinion doesn’t count for anything, because she knows me and therefore cannot be trusted to render an impartial judgment. And that was part of what bothered me so much: the indictment that blind peer review seems to make of good scholars who are honest people but suddenly cannot be trusted to do anything but nepotistically let through the work of the folks they like. I had smart people telling me that my work was good; but instead of assuming that because they’re on my side in this world they wouldn’t want to see me put out something stupid or erroneous or underdeveloped, the process seems to assume that they’d put aside their scruples and their judgment and let me slide. Instead, the only judgment that counted was the one of the grand-daddy of the field, a master technician but incredibly conservative in his thinking (and, with such a distinctive authorial voice, not at all anonymous despite anyone’s best efforts).
Suffice it to say, I still don’t have a lot of faith in certain aspects of blind peer review in the abstract.
But I was pleased with how it seems to have worked on CH’s side — and not just because of the outcome. When I spoke with one of the editors initially about CH as a venue for this piece, he told me that he obviously couldn’t guarantee an outcome but would guarantee the work got a fair hearing. And I think that happened. Whereas the initial reviewers for JQR in effect asked why I didn’t write a completely different article about the poem (yes, my analysis of the text might be nice as part of a broader study of epithalmia but my small grey cat might also be nice as a rhinoceros and neither of those things is going to be effected) or why I was treating “Arab and Jewish poets as one and the same thing [when] this is clearly not the case” or what the value of interpreting poetry was in the first place, the CH reviewers commented on the work that was in front of them and from a point of reference that assumed a positive relationship between text and context and between the Jews of medieval Spain and the Arabophone, Islamicate culture in which they lived and participated. I had to make my argument, but I didn’t  have to convince anyone that my foundation, my first principles were valid.
I also found that the CH editors chose reviewers who were more aware of/attuned to the nature of the journal’s readership while still being firmly grounded in the material I was dealing with. One of my concerns had been that by sending my article to a more general history journal, it might skate by on the basis of opinions of people who didn’t quite know what to do with it, but it was obvious from the level of engagement with the scholarship and material that the journal sought out reviewers who work in Hebrew poetry, which, on the author’s side, is really reassuring. The journal is doing its job; and even people who don’t know me and do know the field think this is good!
On the flip side, the readership side, one really funny thing that emerged was that one of the CH reviewers actually asked me to put back (or put in, since s/he wouldn’t have known it was there initially) some of the material that the deciding reviewer from JQR asked me to remove from my initial draft, the one that got sent back to me for revisions-and-resubmission. Specifically, this was the discussion of the biblical material that is quoted in the medieval poem and the ways in which that enhances the self-portrayal of the female voice. According to the JQR reviewer, I didn’t need to say anything about the medieval poet writing in the voice of the biblical Shulamite because everybody knows that. The CH reviewer, on the other hand, asked me to round out my argument a bit by discussing the biblical background of the poem. The seventeen people in the world who know this poem (including amongst them both the JQR and the CH reviewers) are well aware that it quotes extensively from Song of Songs; but both journals have much bigger and much more intellectually diverse readerships than that. And in this way, CH is  being fairer both to its authors, who might want to communicate with a wide scholarly audience, and to its readers, who, faced with articles that give a solid grounding and introduction, can orient themselves in scholarship in  somewhat unfamiliar periods or language traditions or methodologies.
And I must say that just getting nice feedback about one’s work goes a really long way to assuaging what had been a very badly battered ego. I might possibly have even printed out the introductory comments from one of the reports to tape up on the bookshelf above my desk in my office. Possibly. Ahem.
BhBg4WJIEAEsq7B(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)
(Oh, heck. It’s so nice that I’ll just transcribe the comment here:)
This is an excellent article: it is clearly written and a pleasure to read. Moreover, it provides an original and interesting approach to the field of medieval Hebrew poetry and Genizah studies. This approach enriches the reading of such poetry by considering its imagery against the cultural and economic backdrop in which the poem was written. One of the resonant phrases in this paper is the idea of reading the poetry “for history” rather than “as history.”  I look forward to seeing this paper in print!

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