Fact is…

Years ago, when I was at Purdue University studying Anthropology, I was in one of those combined departments you get in a relatively unremunerative major. In this case, it was the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Sociology vastly outnumbered, outspent, and generally outdid us. We were like poor relations who were allowed to live with our betters because otherwise we would have been homeless, and that would not have reflected well on the family, would it?

I had a pet peeve, of course, and it was against the sociologists, of course. It seemed to me that they spent all their time studying either trivialities (e.g., why Freshman girls pledging sororities chose the ones they did) or the obvious (e.g., whether people generally prefer to socialize with others like themselves). God knows what conclusions were gleaned from the former, but the latter almost universally confirmed what was expected. Every once in a while, they would turn up something counterintuitive, but that was seldom, and when it did happen, more studies followed up, to see if the results could be replicated.

Of course, my perceptions of the kinds of research conducted by Purdue sociologists were severely biased, and almost certainly grossly exaggerated the percentage of pointless studies. All the same, there was one significant factor about the second variety, the studies of the obvious. When such studies confirmed expectations, they were almost never revisited. In the wisdom of my youth, I thought, good, they never should have been done in the first place.

Nowadays, it seems clear to me that there is good value in investigating “common sense,” since, as the old saw goes, it is often neither common nor sense. But here’s the rub: when such studies confirm general expectations, they’re still only rarely revisited for replication. In fact lack of attempts to replicate research has become an issue across the board; just google “replication in research,” and you’ll see what I mean.

Not revisiting studies of what seems obvious probably stems from a combination of confirmation bias and reluctance to waste time and money in short supply. But the extension to studies of any kind undoubtedly relates to mundane career decisions. There’s no glory in replicating someone else’s study. If you’re a junior scientist, or even a senior one, it is far better for your career to come up with something unique. Even then, you’d better get positive results, or your chances of publication are slim, and no publication means time wasted, career-wise.

And why, you’re asking yourself, does this matter? Two reasons: First, there are potentially many common-sensical hypotheses that are unsound, but are propped up by poorly designed studies, and thus become part of the scientific canon. Second, the pursuit of the trivial in an effort to avoid replication opens up science for ridicule by people with political agendas.

The remedy seems clear enough. Replication studies and negative results need to have the same status as original studies with positive results. Try convincing a journal editor or department chair of that, and good luck.

The bloggings will continue until morale improves

Is it possible that blogging hurts your chances of getting published elsewhere?  That depends.

The ordinary opinion piece, like this one you’re reading now, can only help, always assuming you write well.  Even if you only have 30 followers, that’s 30 more than would ordinarily see your ideas expressed so fully otherwise, and potential publishers can get a very good overview of your writing skill with a click of a mouse.  Since opinion pieces tend to be transient, there’s little danger of “using up” good ideas, so you’re not competing with yourself.

For more imaginative writing, however, it’s a different story.  That’s because most publishers consider your work, whether it’s fiction or poetry, to have already been published if you’ve posted it on your blog, and almost none are open to work that’s already published elsewhere.  Most writers would like to be published by someone else, if only to validate their work.  Although it’s true that self-publication has lost some of its stigma these days, there still remains the issue of whether anyone else whose opinion you might value thinks your work is worthwhile.

So, if a blog is considered a publication by the majority of editors, who want only unpublished material, where does that leave the poet or short story writer? You could simply consider your blog just another publication to which you submit your work. That’s fine, but you know it will get accepted there, because the editor is…um…you. As a result, you will tend to send what you consider your best work elsewhere, either by design or unconsciously. Your blog becomes a repository for second-rate work, stuff you have low confidence in, or that has been rejected elsewhere. In the best case, it will have experimental material that you feel will have little chance of exposure elsewhere. In this blog, I often post pieces which blur the boundary between fiction and essay, or which I think are simply too short to be considered by magazines and journals, although I have to admit, that seems to be all I write in the way of fiction anyway. Still, I don’t feel I’m competing with myself.

For me, the problem is with poetry, which I post on my other blog, Exile’s Child.  Lately, I find myself neglecting Exile’s Child, because if I write a poem I think very highly of, I tend to send it off to a journal.  Rather than posting just leavings on the blog, I have to sit down and write specifically for it, which leaves me questioning the wisdom of not sending the result elsewhere, or, if I don’t think it’s good enough, of posting it on the blog.  I like to think I have enough sense not to post second-rate material, but we are all very good at self-deception when it’s required, aren’t we?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, especially if you happen to be an editor.

The writer as commodity

When I was a young pup, many, many years ago, I wanted to be a writer.  I didn’t particularly want to write in any disciplined way, mind you.  What I was after was the identity of the fierce intellectual, scowling over my Smith-Corona, dimly visible through the clouds of pipe smoke curling around my august head.  I couldn’t pinpoint it, but somewhere along the line I came to the realization that I had not only to pound away at my typewriter to become the man of my dreams, but write well and often enough so that people would want to read my stuff enough to pay money for it.  Crass, but there it was:  I had to work, and I had to sell.

In spite of being a card-carrying old fart, I am reasonably cyber-literate, having worked with and on computers since about 1964 (not a typo).  I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in the blogo-twittersphere: the writer as commodity; it comes with a cute bit of jargon as well: crowdfunding.  Its done sometimes through websites like SellaBand or Kickstarter, but as often as an independent project.  This typically involves a blog page with a link where you can send contributions; almost never is any actual piece of writing offered in exchange.  Throw in a twitter account where you can point to the page, and keep everybody abreast of how the donations are going, and Bob’s your uncle.

I am very skeptical of this development, which strikes me as just this side of holding out a cup on the street corner with a sign saying “Will write, but not for you.”

I am well aware of the long tradition of patronage in the arts.  It usually involved, however, wealthy members of the aristocracy, and was the norm mainly before copywrite laws and royalties.  Indeed, the word “royalties” derives from the practice of royal courts to patronize writers and other artists. But such arrangements almost always involved the commissioning of specific works, which had to meet the criteria of the patron.  If you held such a position, you had better write something pleasing to your angel, or you would soon find yourself on the street:

…writing for a patron typically meant avoiding the expression of ideas that would upset the established political order, on which the patron built his wealth and power.  —Gennady Stolyarov II

Today’s writers would be affronted by the very notion of such limits on their production, but they forget, or never knew, that this commitment to artistic integrity is a very modern thing, dating to the fairly recent phenomenon that writers could actually make money directly from the sale of their work.  You can have patronage, or you can have integrity; you can’t expect to have both.

Of course, it’s possible to get people to donate to your enterprise with no qualifications, on the basis of some romantic notion.  Gullible people are everywhere.  But do you want a living on those terms?  I’m asking; if you’re comfortable with it, none of my business, I suppose.

The long and short of it:  If you want integrity, sell what you write.  Go ahead and advertise online, include a donation link if you like, but give something in return, beyond your mere existence as a writer.

Publish, perish

“I really like your blog.  You should publish that stuff sometime.”

Ever hear that? It’s an interesting point, this question of what counts as publishing. Certainly, when you press the “Publish” button and send off your work to the ether, it is made public in a way that anyone can access. But is it publishing?

Put another way, would Walt Whitman, famous self-publisher, have been content to be a blogger?

Self publishing, except possibly for Walt, carries an onus to start with; that’s why vanity presses are called what they are. As if convincing a paying publisher somewhere of the value of your work removes vanity from the picture. Ultimately, WordPress, Blogspot, Tumblr, and even Facebook and Twitter are vanity presses, well within the usual meaning of the term. Walt would undoubtedly have been all over them.

So, what do people mean when they say you ought to publish your blogs? Two things, I think. First, there is a long standing distinction between publishing in a serial medium, such as a newspaper, magazine, or, yes, blog, and publishing a book. Dickens, Conan Doyle, Mitchener, all followed serial publication with book publication of essentially the same material. The distinction even allows, perhaps invites, revision. Serial publications are akin to drafts, in a sense.

The other thing people mean, however, goes to the heart of vanity vs. commercial publication: It’s not “real” unless you’ve convinced someone else that it’s worth an investment of time and money. The implication is that anything published commercially is better than anything self-published. A trip to any bookstore (if you can find one!) should disabuse you of that notion, but there it is. Commercial publication is still regarded as proof of value.

It’s not enough to have the heart of a poet; you need the soul of a salesman to really arrive. I wonder, though, how much of all this is changing, and how fast.