Scholars and Journalists, Stop Fighting!

It was perhaps an unfortunate coincidence that on the day my Lenten Twitter break ended, a fight broke out on that platform between academics and journalists — two groups to which I could reasonably be said to belong. The inciting incident was published in Washington Post of an excerpt from the labor journalist Kim Kelly’s forthcoming book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. The excerpt described a work stoppage launched by Southern Black washerwomen in the mid-1800s. During the editing process, the post removed a quote from and a citation of the Princeton historian Tera Hunter, whose book To’Joy My Freedom had been Kelly’s main source for the episode described in the excerpt.

Hunter was understandably upset to see her research used without attribution. Academics rushed to her support from her. Some tweeted in anger at Kelly and at her publisher, Simon & Schuster; a few suggested that Kelly either alter or pull her book from her (which she publishes next week) or donate the “profits” to Hunter. Several journalists publicly defended Kelly, emphasizing her precarity as a freelance writer, the paltry earnings of most trade books, and her limited autonomy as a writer with a trade-book contract. Kelly apologized both publicly and privately to Hunter and got the post to reinstate her original in-text engagement with Hunter’s work.

This seemingly simple error touched off bigger discussions, including an important one about the racial politics of academe and trade publishing, two notoriously white industries. It also prompted participants to ask how and why a journalist like Kelly might use Hunter’s scholarship in a trade book—or why Kelly might write about labor history at all. Their questions dovetailed with an online discussion from the day prior, when an academic historian suggested that to new yorker staff writer didn’t have the requisite credentials to review, for the magazine, an academic book about the restitution of African art. Why not ask the experts — the academics — to write magazine articles and trade books on these topics? Shouldn’t critics and journalists do their own original research? And what qualifies someone to be a staff writer at The New Yorkerde todas formas?

These are fair questions, not least because trade publishing and legacy media are not the most transparent industries. (The social-media hashtag #PublishingPaidMe represents one effort to make the ins and outs of book deals more transparent.) I’ve given them a lot of thought — first when I started writing for magazines while pursuing a Ph.D. in English, then while writing a trade book that included original research but that also drew on the work of other scholars. They’re also questions I discuss with my journalism, creative-writing, and history graduate students at least once a week. (Yes, I’m an adjunct, hence the wide variety of courses.) And while I don’t claim to have any definitive answers — the definition of a “good critic” is as open to interpretation as that of a “good scholar ” — I can share some of the ways I’ve thought about these questions with my students and my friends and colleagues, both those in academe and those working for magazines.

IIn my courses, I always come back to three central ideas about writing, which will likely be familiar to anyone who’s taught first-year composition: genre, audience, and expertise. Let’s start with the first of these: genre. Any piece of writing — a personal essay, a novel, an op-ed, a scholarly article — operates within a particular genre. It follows established conventions that govern everything from prose style to argument to citation practices. While writers can play with or work against genre, the institution that publishes the writing (Simon & Schuster, The New Yorkeror the Journal of American History) will reinforce the writing’s generic type. Genres are distinct and different from each other, and genre determines both the ways a piece of writing is received and the ways it might be criticized.

These likely points seem obvious—of course an academic monograph is different from a trade book! — but they’re worth reinforcing, because it can be easy to forget that not every writer is playing by the same rules or looking to accomplish the same thing. An academic historian who publishes a monograph, or journal article, is participating in a conversation among specialists. She is expected to make an original argument, based on original research, and she is evaluated based on her relative success in doing so. Her purview of her is likely narrow: It’s common for scholars to ground their argument in one study, or one year, or one text.

The author of a nonfiction trade book, by contrast, is trying to tell a compelling story that introduces readers to the book’s subject or that reframes a familiar idea. To interest readers (and agents and publishers), that story must seem big, bold, and relevant; it will often have to sprawl beyond a single event, or state, or year. (Even books that seem to be exceptions will range more widely, in terms of narrative and argument, than an academic monograph would.) Original research — in the form of archival work or reporting — can help the writer tell the story, but it may not be necessary. Sometimes the most effective way to tell a story or to make an argument is to synthesize material — including academic scholarship — that’s been published previously. The work of synthesizing is important: It’s how readers get exposed to different ideas and arguments, and it can start a cultural conversation or keep one going. One of the most successful nonfiction books in American literary history, The Feminine Mystiquesynthesizes research in sociology and psychology to make an argument that, for many readers, was exciting and new.

That adjective “new” — or its synonyms “untold,” “secret,” or “groundbreaking” — can prompt a raised eyebrow: How can a story be “new” if it’s been told elsewhere? This is one place where thinking about the audience can be helpful. Audience is closely tied to genre: The genre’s conventions shape the reader’s expectations, and vice versa. An audience might be curious but uninformed, or distractable, or loyal. A scholar has a guaranteed audience, small as it may be. At the bare minimum, it will include peer reviewers; it will also likely include other scholars in the field, graduate students, and even some undergraduates, who will have to engage with that scholar’s work if they’re going to write on the same subject. By contrast, there’s absolutely no guarantee that anyone will pick up a trade book; there’s not even a guarantee that the book will be shelved in bookstores. This is why trade publishers and their hard-working publicity and marketing teams have all sorts of best practice for “getting books into readers’ hands” — including but not limited to persuading newspapers and magazines to publish excerpts. (It is perhaps worth saying that authors are not compensated for these excerpts, nor are they usually party to the editing process.)

But a title like “untold story” isn’t merely a marketing gimmick: It also reflects the existing knowledge and expectations of a book’s audience. Many readers outside the academy may be unacquainted with ideas that are considered well known in academic circles. While some of those readers might seek out scholarship on their own, many more of them will have their interest piqued by a trade book or a magazine article that refers to that scholarship. In some sense, then, journalists and critics are on the same team as academics: The former are helping spread the latter’s ideas beyond the academy’s walls.

yesSome have wondered why journalists and critics should be the ones disseminating scholarly work to a general audience. Surely academics themselves are the best people to present academic scholarship to a broad readership? This question brings us to the last and perhaps most vexed of our three writing principles: expertise. In academia, expertise usually means extensive knowledge of a particular field of study. Various credentialing processes — oral exams, dissertation defenses, peer review, tenure review — establish and reinforce a scholar’s expertise.

In trade publishing and magazine writing, the nature of expertise is much murkier — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. A writer might have a lot of reporting experience, or she might have acquired a knack for storytelling, or hold a graduate degree in journalism, or nonfiction writing, or cultural criticism. A journalist might even be a former academic who can elegantly translate scholarly writing into magazine prose. (Jo Livingstone, most recently of The New Republic, is an expert in this last sense.) Journalists working a particular beat, or critics who write again and again about certain topics, could be fairly said to be experts on a subject. Their skills, hard-won through study and experience, establish the writer as the best person to write in certain genres, for certain audiences.

To be sure, there are a number of academics — Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adam Tooze — who are experts in all senses: They publish rigorous scholarship as well as magazine articles and popular books. But this doesn’t mean that by virtue of having expertise in the academic sense, one automatically has it the journalistic sense. Many academics who moonlight as magazine writers have had to develop, over time, the skills necessary to write for a general audience. They’ve learned how to pitch, how to collaborate with editors, and how to write to deadline. They essentially have two career paths, although the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired in one career can certainly inform the other. As people who value expertise, academics would do well to remember that expertise can exist in other forms.

As far as career paths go, both academia and journalism are increasingly unstable. Professionals in these industries may be more insecure, and thus quicker to anger, than they once were. But rather than attacking each other, academics and journalists would be better off working to build solidarity across higher education and the culture industries. Their shared enemies — the avatars of anti-intellectualism, venture capitalism, and neoliberalism — are more powerful than any one professor or freelance writer. What might happen if some of our frustration and anger were directed upward? It’s worth finding out — and while we’re at it, closing out of Twitter.


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