Publish and be damned with faint praise

A FEW weeks ago, I reviewed a production of Educating Rita by Amateur Players of Sherborne. The play – and subsequent film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine – is the story of Rita, a hairdresser who has enrolled for an Open University course in European literature. She wants to “improve” her mind – and change her life.

Frank, the jaded university lecturer who spends more time with a whisky bottle than he does with his students, recognises something special in Rita, a quality of natural intelligence, instinctive honesty and an inquiring mind which he fears will be blighted by the formulaic requirements of academic essays. He fails to dissuade her from taking the course and over the next two years finds himself learning about life from Rita. Meanwhile, she discovers not only the excitement, joy, mystery and depths of Shakespeare, Chekhov, WB Yeats and TS Eliot, but also other ways of living that cannot be found in books.

A journalist friend who has recently completed an OU degree encountered this problem head on. Trained, as we all were, to aim for clarity, to inform, entertain, and engage the reader’s interest and sustain it over a reasonable length of report or feature, we are used to writing fairly short paragraphs. What our friend’s tutors wanted were lengthy paragraphs – up to 1,000 words – with a beginning and an argument sustained through to a clear finish. This may achieve high marks from the academic, but it tends to produce indigestible and even impenetrable text.

The world of academic writing and publishing is a closed circle – read the literary pages and book reviews in many leading newspapers and magazines and you find the same names cropping up repeatedly – authors and academics reviewing each other’s work. You might expect some hint of envy, one-upmanship or even spite. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Getting published is an important aspect of academic life – in fact it is so important that if you look a little deeper into the phenomenon you find this phrase cropping up: “Publish or perish.” The message, which you could reasonably describe as a threat, is that if you don’t publish (original research) you risk not only damaging your reputation but jeopardising your status or even losing a professorship.

The phrase “publish or perish” apparently dates back 80 years, to 1942, when a sociologist named Logan Wilson used it in a book studying academia as a career. He described the “publish or perish” credo as a “prevailing pragmatism forced upon the academic group.” It is probably safe to say that for many in universities and scientific research centres, this “pragmatism” creates a stressful lifestyle.

Academics publish research to remain relevant, but at many universities publication is a key performance indicator (a management phrase that strikes dread into any thinking person’s heart). How many papers or books you have published may determine your “value” to the university, but even more significantly can influence whether or not you will be granted tenure. So the pressure to publish is high and the need for your paper or book to be reviewed by your peers can only add to the stress.

There are consequently an enormous number of books published every year that get reviewed, not only in learned journals but also on the book pages of the weekend newspapers and in publications like the Times Literary Supplement. Many of these books will never make the front tables at Waterstones or the windows of independent bookshops. In fact, chances are that many disappear without trace.

The reason, of course, is that they are usually quite unreadable. There are a small number of academics who have made parallel careers as successful writers or broadcasters. Mary Beard is the most obvious. But the majority of best-selling non fiction authors are professional writers or historians who have a way with words – Simon Schama, Tom Holland, Alison Weir, David Olusoga, Tracy Borman …

When it comes to fiction, there are a number of successful authors who can be certain their books will be reviewed in all the right places (Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Lionel Shriver). They used also to glide effortlessly onto the awards lists. Now, with a much greater attempt at diversity, the short-lists are likely to include novels by authors who do not come from a mainstream (ie white, predominantly male, largely public school and/or university educated) background. It is about time that the brilliance of writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Bernardine Evaristo was recognised.

But these are all “serious, literary fiction.” Novels that are entertaining page-turners, aimed at a general readership, can struggle to get a prominent review, even to be taken seriously. When, for instance, did you see a Val McDermid thriller or one of Donna Leon’s addictive Venetian novels reviewed, other than in a “latest crime fiction” round-up? And who that finds their reading material from review sections had heard of Julia Quinn before Netflix screened the first of her multi-million-selling Bridgerton series.

Then there are non-fiction books that focus on a specific theme or subject, written by an expert with an engaging style, not intended for an academic readership, but to inform and entertain. One such is Cider Country, the latest book by the West Country historian, cider-maker and poet James Crowden. He takes the reader on a rollicking journey from the ancient mountain forests of Kazakhstan via Greek myths, Roman colonists, medieval monks and cider lovers through the centuries to today’s revival of artisan farmhouse cider and its apogee, Somerset Cider Brandy.

Acclaimed by BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme presenter Dan Saladino, Cider Country is both a serious history of a fascinating subject and a delightful, funny book that meanders through time and space, packed with quirky asides and anecdotes that are by turns hilarious, informative or shocking. It will illuminate and enhance your enjoyment of cider if you are already a devotee and introduce you to the mysteries and delights if you are a cider novice. It wears its learning lightly.

So it was a real disappointment to read a disparaging review in the TLS. Written by an expert in 18th century culture, the article begins as it means to go on. James Crowden, writes Prof Judith Hawley, “purports to offer an ambitious and substantial investigation into the culture and origins of cider in Britain.” It is the word “purports” that sets the tone.

What matters is that the people for whom a book or article is intended enjoy reading it, learn from it, are entertained by it, even recommend it to others. This may be your university tutor giving you a good grade, a fellow academic acknowledging the value of your research or thousands of readers loving and appreciating your book.

Publish and be damned may be good advice for a revolutionary. Publish or perish may be a reality for academics. But publish and be read seems to me to be the best advice.