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Tuesday 17 April 2018

Essay: Hobbyists, Writers, Academics, Journalists

Hilary Mantel is annoyed by those who ask silly questions at literary festivals – perhaps the problem is simply that intelligent question at a literary festival is an oxymoron – but, anyway, she is annoyed enough by the inane question Do you write every day? to want to snarl back, Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist? I saw a chance when I read that in The Guardian, 16th April 2016.

As academics got themselves properly organised in the twentieth century they marked their territory in two important ways. They invented ways of expressing themselves which form what is now the superordinate genre of academic writing, its presence most obviously signalled by the literature review and by footnotes and Harvard-system bibliographies and bad writing. In doing this, they successfully marginalised the superordinate genre of belles lettres which had hitherto allowed anyone with the right social background and half an education to put pen to paper and tell you what they thought about, well, anything really but most obviously, the future of civilisation -  unarguably a topic about which we are all entitled to an opinion. T S Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) can serve as a familiar-enough example of such belles lettrism though when you look closely at it, it’s really rather clichéd and I have criticised it on this Blog [ 12 November 2012] for that and other reasons.

But academics did a second thing. Enabled by institutions which provided them secure livings with salaries and pensions, they were able to see off not only the belles lettristes but also the hobbyists who had pursued knowledge as a pastime which might or might not result in the occasional publication which might, occasionally, be a very good publication. But for hobbyists, their salaries and pensions were elsewhere and pursuit of those might occupy a good deal of time, certainly enough to inhibit daily writing. For me, the stand-out but already anachronistic hobbyist of the twentieth century is the Reverend W. Keble Martin, author and illustrator of The Concise British Flora in Colour. This is what Wikipedia says:

The Concise British Flora was published in May 1965 when the author was 88. The book was the result of 60 years' meticulous fieldwork and exquisite painting skills, and became an immediate best-seller. He completed over 1,400 paintings in colour and many black-and-white drawings before the book was finally published.

Nowadays, for any academic who allowed themself to think that they could be that late-flowering then a Research Assessment Exercise would prove a grim reaper. Ah, yes, Reverend, still working on that Flora are we? Perhaps you would be interested in our restructuring plan. Have you thought about early retirement? You’d have more time and we’d be shot of you.

Academics, as they have invented themselves and been invented by their hosts, are not only pushed into productivity but into gregariousness. They are more or less obliged to put themselves about, though when I look at online CVs I find it hard to believe that the obligations are quite so ferociously extensive. Believe the CVs, and it seems that academics are pedalling furiously simply to keep the aviation business airborne. As for all these editorial boards or the journals which enable them, some must surely be no more than Potemkin fronts designed to impress a passing benefactor; they surely can’t all be for real.

More importantly, I suspect this kind of gregariousness, made possible by the co-operation of others like you but combined into the competitive context of academic research, also leads to the kind of group-think which makes some university departments fairly indistinguishable from theological seminaries and political groupuscules, both completely sectarian in their thinking. True, it was only in the twentieth century that universities really sought to distinguish themselves from seminaries, hoisting the flag for the pursuit of truth in a context of tolerance, but there are many signs that they have become half-hearted about that pursuit and are now reverting to an older type of institution, one which valued conformity and distrusted difference and which doled out livings only to those who subscribed to the right articles of religion.

Some hobbyists are gregarious, but not all. Some are recluses and eccentrics and simply disappear from view into the bottomless pit of research they have selected: Who was Jack the Ripper? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Who did Queen Victoria actually sleep with? But this is actually one of the reasons why hobbyists can be important. They don’t have any economic dependence which might push them towards conformity with any prevailing orthodoxy, they can decide for themselves what is important, and they can find their way into whatever research methodology they find comfortable.

Some journalists are able to free themselves up in the same kind of way and, even inadvertently, produce original work which stands up very well to academic scrutiny. So Svetlana Alexeivich who won the Nobel Prize for Literature isn’t in any obvious sense a hobbyist, but she is a single-minded journalist who has picked her own topics and invented her own methodology. She’s under no group pressure to conform, though she has often been under direct political pressure to mind what she does. A superficial assessment might conclude that she is simply an oral historian and that, of course, oral history is accepted and practised in the academic world. No need to make a fuss. But she isn’t just another oral historian. It is not only that she has sought out those who have hitherto had no voice – most obviously in The Unwomanly Face of War, a best-seller when originally published in a first, censored, version in 1985; the uncensored version appeared in English in 2017 and I reviewed it here on 5 September 2017 . It is also that she has a distinctive methodology, of her own invention. First, she sits and waits and listens patiently, just as a psychoanalyst might. Second, she won’t always take No for an answer. She’s respectful but not deferential – she has a job to do.  She’s not making polite tick-box enquiries. Third, if they cry she often cries too. She can’t help it. It’s why she’s doing the research in the first place. But it certainly helps along the research because those she interviews feel they can trust her. She cries too.

You might argue that, well, she could have done all that as a Professor at Minsk University. But that’s not true. She would not have had the same ideas and, even if she had, she would not have been permitted to pursue them in the conditions prevailing in the then USSR. The Unwomanly Face of War was completed in 1983, after years of research. It was turned down flat for publication because it undermined official narratives. Perestroika made it briefly acceptable, with some of the sex and violence taken out, but with the turning back of the clock in the former USSR, it is now once again not acceptable. Yet, you might say, all it does is to interview at length Soviet women (and girls – many falsified their ages to join up) who fought at the front in the Second World War. The Soviet academics of the 1970s? They weren’t interested. Alexeivich was an eccentric or a trouble-maker.

But she is morally serious, producing work which is polyphonic and  inter-textual with major cultural and political issues, and that may be typical for a journalist but not for a hobbyist. Hobbyists are often trying to get away from that kind of seriousness, interesting themselves in things on which the fate of civilisation most definitely does not hang – things which are exotic and obscure and, at least apparently, pointless. In contrast, it might be argued, even when it looks pointless, academic work at least tends to fit into some larger, over-arching and morally serious project.

I am not sure this argument will stand up. It doesn’t take long if you riffle through the Fellows of Oxbridge colleges or Fellows of the British Academy to find those who are pursuing pleasant hobbyist research into the pointless, but for the fact that they are salaried and the hobbies are hallowed by long tradition. Yet there are only so many Fragments of the Ancient World which can be regarded as significant, or so much seriousness of purpose which you can strain from a study of Virginia Woolf’s breakfast.

Twenty years ago, I took early retirement from university teaching and at the same time decided that I would supplement my income by becoming a stamp dealer. Though I don’t present myself as a particularly up-market one – I don’t have headed notepaper – I do now possess a fund of exotic, obscure and pointless hobbyist knowledge. If, for example, you should want to know whether an Armenian stamp from the period 1920 to 1923 is genuine, or the overprint genuine, or the postmark genuine – well, then I am one of the three or four go-to people in the world who will give you a reliable answer, often with a narrative attached – the postmaster at Basargechar was an idle fellow who never cleaned his canceller and so, yes, this dirty smudged postmark you are showing me is most likely genuine because that is how they all look. In contrast, if you had shown me a cancellation of Novo-Bayazet, I would expect it to be crisp and clear – conscientious chap there.

But just as you could put Virginia Woolf’s breakfasts into a wider context, so I could set my pointless knowledge into a wider context which would, for example, point to the renewal of postal activity in 1922 – 23 as evidence for some success on the part of the Bolsheviks in turning around the country from the low point to which it had descended in the period 1918 – 21. I could also point to the evidence of ideological change which meant that for 1922 – 23 you can no longer find stamps cancelled as a favour for collectors and dealers, whereas in 1920, that is pretty much all you can find. The Bolsheviks chased the speculators from the post offices, if they had not already fled the country.

But a difference remains. You can get a Ph D for setting Virginia Woolf’s breakfast into a larger context; it is not clear that you could get one for expanding on the tale in the previous paragraph. The former is High knowledge, the latter too Low. And if there is one thing which surely separates academics from hobbyists, it is snobbery – snobbery of similar kind to that which has Hilary Mantel dismissing the non-professional writer who doesn’t write every day.

The modern forms of snobbery are quite varied and include the self-righteousness of young academics who think they are radical or subversive or cutting-edge and consequently will only to reply to emails from people whose names and affiliations they recognise. They know who their Facebook Friends are and that’s what really matters.

But I have my own snobberies. I can’t quite take seriously my knowledge of Armenian postal history because much of it – not all of it - is second-hand. I haven’t done the archival research, both collateral and essential, for the obvious reason that I don’t read Armenian. I have to rely on the work of the late Professor Christopher Zakiyan who was a Soviet-era musicologist in his day job and a philatelist in his hobby-time. He researched the Armenian archives in Yerevan – no mean feat – and found many documents which cast a great deal of light on the work of the Armenian post office in the years after World War One and he published his work in Russian and some of it in English.

But the fact that I couldn’t make sense of the archives consigns me to being a researcher of the second-rank, except in those areas which do not require knowledge of the Armenian language. For example, I have re-constructed the printing history of one series of Armenian stamps purely forensically: you don’t need the archives to study the sheet formats, the paper, the gum, and so on. You need the stamps in front of you.

But universities are also full of researchers of the second-rank. A few years ago, I advertised to employ someone as an assistant on editing some of my earlier academic work for re-publication. I did not hesitate to interview someone who had completed a Ph D on a French post-structuralist thinker, only to discover during the interview that they did not read French. Well, I thought, surely that’s essential if you are writing about a living thinker who writes in French, not least because without that ability you have no access to the untranslated secondary literature in French. However good the translations of your subject may be, you are still limited in what you can achieve and in a Ph D there should be such a  prior constraint on the limits of your achievement.

That thought might get a Hear! Hear! from academics who are adepts at working in the original languages. But I am willing to qualify my snobbery. The original language matters less if you are, for example, a philosopher trying to engage with an argument which can be fairly well expressed in translation and which has already been fairly extensively discussed in languages other than the original. So if someone wanted to write a Ph D on Frege’s theory of Numbers in relation to his theory of language, I would not absolutely insist that they learnt German first - though I would say that they really had to look seriously into the nuances of meaning of Sinn and Bedeutung in German as well as in their English translations as Sense and Reference, and I would do that because I had somewhere read (in English) that this was probably going to be relevant.

But in arguing along these lines, I do incidentally weaken the snobbish belief that academics do it better. There will be hobbyists who outsmart them for purely chance reasons: they grew up bi-lingual, for example, or they travelled with a circus so have a head start in understanding circus life.

Ah, but what about Methodology? Isn’t the real problem with hobbyists that they are methodologically naïve? Well, I am sure many are – just as are many academics, those for example who still conduct banal and pointless psychology experiments. I’ll agree that many hobbyists are heavily into making lists, accumulating facts, and not doing much more than assembling a cabinet of curiosities even if they title a work A History of Victorian Lamp Posts ( I hope there isn’t one; I don’t want to upset anyone). But it’s not inevitable and it is not a distinguishing mark which leaves all academics comfortably on the other side of the line. For some academics, methodological sophistication does not rise above playing safe with the routines of academic writing.

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