September 5, 2019
Any graduate student seeking insight into the experience of scholarly publishing can learn a lot, I am sorry to say, from the first few chapters of Karl Marx’s Capital. When workers bring the products of their labor to the market, Marx tells us, these products become commodities. Similarly, when academics bring the products of their labor to the (job) market, these products become publications.
A text does not become a publication simply because it is published. This blog post—the blog post I am currently writing—will be published on the Diacritics website, but I would mislead my peers and mentors if I described it as my “latest publication.” When a graduate student speaks wistfully of “getting published,” or of finally landing their “first publication,” they are referring to something far more specific than a blog post or an essay. To my friends and family outside the academy, for instance, I write articles. But to the gatekeepers of the academic job market, I get publications.
In his courageously threnodic book, The Last Professors, Frank Donoghue writes that “publication is the profession’s only universally recognized marker of distinction.” What he means is this: you can be a model teacher, you can earn prestigious fellowships, you can have 10,000 Twitter followers, but you can never know in advance whether any of these CV-lines will sell on the job market. A good publication, by contrast, is always a wise investment. Like Mastercard or the American dollar, it is accepted everywhere.
And yet, most publications go virtually untouched. Ninety-eight percent are never cited, and as many as half are never even read. These discouraging figures have been repeated to me multiple times, and although the precise percentages are likely apocryphal, there is a reason they continue to circulate. These and other shock statistics aptly capture the contradiction at the heart of all publications. It is a contradiction, in some sense, between use and exchange value: between a publication’s extremely context-specific value as knowledge, and its “universally recognized” value in signaling professional distinction. One type of value eclipses the other, and scholars aggressively stockpile this universal academic currency until, as Donoghue writes, “the glut of publications renders the actual content of books and articles almost insignificant.” In a supply-side economy of knowledge production, most peer-reviewed scholarship is “the textual equivalent of a tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it.”
Why—amid dissertating and teaching and all our other pre-professionalizing obligations—do graduate students publish articles almost no one will read? We publish because we hope to reach those scattered scholars who can learn from, feel challenged by, or otherwise use our intellectual labor. And we publish because we want to cash in our publications for a job. Sometimes these two desires overlap, but sometimes they do not. The fact that they never need to overlap is the structural asymmetry that separates a publication from a mere essay, article, or any other piece of writing.
The process of securing my first scholarly publication went smoothly. It went so smoothly, in fact, that it left me with no amusing anecdotes or pearls of wisdom to pass down to as-of-yet unpublished graduate students. I will relate these events in the order they occurred: I wrote a first draft of “Optimizing Chess” in spring 2016 for a graduate seminar on postcolonial theory. At the time, I had boldly envisioned myself composing a sequel to the second chapter of Edward Said’s Orientalism, doing for postwar Artificial Intelligence research what Said had done for imperial philology. I spent one year revising this draft under the supervision of my dissertation director, and I submitted the final result to Diacritics in September 2017. I received an acceptance in April 2018, my first copyedits in November, and a physical copy of the article in February 2019. Throughout this nearly three-year process I encountered no “reviewer number two.” The managing editor of Diacritics made several editorial requests, but these requests were generative and entirely sensible. I have heard that publishing can be a frustrating and shameful endeavor, but this was not my experience.
Instead, my only publishing-related woes arrived after the publication process. I cannot say that I endured anything so extreme as shame or frustration, but rather a far more innocuous sense of, “what now?” After spending three years in collaboration with my advisor and the people at Diacritics I was thrilled to finally see the article in print, but now that it existed in the world, what was I supposed to do with it?
It turns out that there isn’t much one can actually do with a publication. You can’t peddle it. You can’t go around waving it in other scholars’ faces. You can’t order your colleagues to recite their favorite lines back to you. “I have my publication,” you might tell yourself, “and no one can ever take that away from me.” This is true: no one can, but our best statistics suggest that no one wants to, either. Your publication cannot become the imagined community you wrote it for. You can’t be in the room when your heroes read it, and you can’t even expect most scholars to understand it. In the end, the only sure thing you can do with a publication is take it to market and sell it.
A “publication” is what we call a text oriented towards the academic job market. But what happens when the job market for humanists is heavily diminished—or when, as Marc Bousquet argues, there is no humanities job market in any recognizable sense of the terms “job” or “market”? There is in fact already a genre of writing for this situation. It is called “quit lit.”
Quit lit, as the name suggests, centers upon the author’s personal and sometimes quite painful decision to leave their career. Part lament, part jeremiad, part celebration, the genre reads like final words uttered before throwing a drink into someone’s face. Or before leaping from a cliff. Like a publication, quit lit is written for a community of one’s professional peers, but since it is written against and never for the job market, it is the professional antithesis of a publication. Try to imagine, for instance, submitting your tortured farewell to academia as a writing sample for a tenure-track job.
It is a telling quirk of our particular profession that most academic quit lit is written by individuals who have no actual career to quit. Adjuncts, graduate students, and other precarious faculty cannot quit a profession they merely aspire to, so they quit their aspirations instead. They quit an idea, both of the profession and of their professional selves. This autoimmune breakdown of the profession’s ego-ideal has drawn polarized responses from academics. On the one hand it would appear that writers of quit lit—or “quitters,” as I will affectionately call them—are prophetic. As the waste products of the university job-system, quitters manifest in their writings a distinct class consciousness, more authentic and more universalizable than the dominant consciousness of the tenure-track bourgeoisie. When a quitter warns us that nobody outside academia cares about our research, or that the humanities are going extinct, they do so without the hope or the ironic distance that an academic appointment still affords. Quitters are the repressed trauma we guard ourselves against, and when they speak they tell the truths we try so hard not to hear.
On the other hand it appears that many quitters are themselves quite privileged. Quit lit, some would say, is the cry of a white male scholar confronting belatedly and ostentatiously what many queer, trans, disabled, and minority scholars have long had to confront as part of their day-to-day existence. While academia chases its marginalized faculty out the door, quitters fancy themselves martyrs, denied their hard-earned drink from the poisoned well.
Personally, I am ambivalent toward quit lit. Last year there were at least sixteen graduate students from my department on the job market, and as far as I am aware only three of them secured a tenure-track position. With these odds, I feel reflexive sympathy for anyone compelled to quit. I cannot help but imagine that that all quit lit is actually written about me—that the strangers’ misfortunes I read about are in fact my own. And yet, I find it difficult to identify with most quit lit. As an aspiring professor I look forward to writing, teaching, and conducting research, but I have never fantasized about joining the academic equivalent of a French salon. I do not want to become a don, to recruit acolytes, or to perform masterful readings of poetry. And I have never once gotten drunk and dressed up as Prufrock or Flannery O’Connor. Part of the emotional stake behind quit lit is that academia is not “just a job,” but “a way of life.” If this is the way of life I end up missing out on, however, I will not be writing any quit lit about it.
One thing I have learned from securing my first academic publication is that literature scholars have been thinking about quit lit all wrong. Today, too little space separates the twin poles of professional writing to sustain any serious thoughts of sublation. Let it be said—to borrow an expression from Clarence Major—that I am renaming quit lit here: that in a discipline where job listings have declined more than 50% over the past decade, and where undergraduate literature enrollments have “sharply lowered” over that same period; and in an institution where nearly 75% of faculty positions are non-tenure-track—a percentage that disproportionately afflicts women and people of color, on top of their unremunerated diversity labor—and where it is unlikely that anyone will read, much less cite your work—and even less likely, once again, if you happen to be a woman or a person of color—let it be said that anyone writing solely to become a professional in this discipline has already given up on something. All publications, including my own, are quit lit.