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XX. An Academic, Writing: Are We Writing for Our Critics?

Apr 19, 2013 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

In my last post, Thinking About Audience Expectations and Reception, I discussed one of the two chapters in my book that deal primarily with audience expectations and critical reactions to Dany Laferrière’s work. In fact, Laferrière stopped writing largely because he was tired of how he was portrayed and understood by critics.

One of the biggest anxieties I have while I’m writing this book is wondering whether my work will be good enough for the peer-reviewers, the first set of “critics” to read this work once it is complete. Many of us have experienced the terrible anticipation of waiting to receive the results of a peer review for publication. Will the feedback indicate the draft is nearly ready for publication or do you need to completely change the focus and purpose of what you are writing? Then, of course, there are also the rejections that come with virtually no feedback whatsoever, leaving you with little guidance as to how to improve the work. Fortunately, I’ve had the fabulous luck of working with great editors who have helped me to rework and refine my vision and my arguments to at once fit into the collection, but also to just generally improve my writing. I still struggle with my anxiety, because I never know if the editors that I will be working with will be good ones.

I wonder sometimes if we write for our critics (or peer reviewers) more than we write for ourselves and our intended audience (which is much larger than the two or three people who tend to make up peer-review panels). I also wonder about the anonymity of peer review. My experience has shown me that transparency is useful and even productive when the reviewer or reviewers are willing to work with an author as a person, rather than just as a hypothetical. The academic culture of peer-review certainly shapes how we, as academics write, often not for the better, as we begin to write for them, rather than for ourselves or our target audience of scholarly peers.

We can’t control what parts of our writing will resonate with readers or our critical public. Nor can we chart how over time the reception of a work might change or evolve, based on popular tastes or trends. But, we also need to sell our work, both intellectually (to get it published to begin with) and commercially (if the book doesn’t sell, then what was the point?). Again, it would seem to come down to a question of writing the book we want to write versus the book we think people will publish, buy, and read.
 

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