Both Sides Now

Having received readers' reports on her manuscripts and contributed to those for others, Caroline Levine writes about why she imposed a rule on herself.

December 7, 2007

When I was a struggling junior faculty member, every publication mattered so much that rejection letters felt like physical blows. And it wasn’t only the brute fact of the rejections that caused pain: Readers’ reports on my manuscripts were often written in a tone of sharp annoyance. Touchy and ill-tempered, they seemed to see only the flaws. It was as if I’d somehow insulted these readers, breaking rules that I didn’t know existed. There’s no question that I’ve had much to learn about framing, pursuing, and clinching an argument. But I’ve certainly never had any intention of irritating my readers.

Now that I’m sometimes asked to write these reports myself, I begin to understand the source of the annoyance. When I'm asked to review a manuscript, the deadline often looms a few months in the future. Intrigued by the subject matter and flattered to be asked, I readily agree, and I imagine that three months hence -- when the semester's over, when my own article is written -- I will have ample time. But by the time the deadline arrives, I’m again weighed down with obligations, lagging behind schedule, feeling generally oppressed. The manuscript starts to feel like a burden before I’ve even troubled to open the first page. And then, how terrible if it is imperfect -- and especially if it seems sloppy or careless. I begin to feel resentment. I turn cantankerous. I look for ways that the manuscript falls short. Couldn't this writer go to a little more trouble to polish her sentences? Why on earth did she bury the most convincing evidence in the footnotes? Why is she forcing me to go hunt for her main claims, instead of stating them outright, clearly, at the outset? Why, in short, is this person wasting my extraordinarily precious time? Surely she knows better!

And yet, of course, writers often don’t know better. Sometimes they're novices, making their way in the field for the first time, unsure of the conventions of the profession. At other times they're working away in inhospitable environments, isolated from peers who can give them constructive feedback before they send their work out to be read. And sometimes their tastes are simply different from my own; their values and desires are unfamiliar but maybe ultimately invigorating -- out of the ordinary, perhaps, but hardly shoddy or intentionally distasteful.

From the writer’s perspective, it is strange to think of one’s work as an imposition, a theft of someone else’s time, a nuisance. To the writer who has undertaken the astonishingly difficult labor of articulating a new thought, writing has probably felt grueling and risky, while at times it has brought with it intense pleasures. The idea that it might appear merely inconvenient or tiresome to a reader comes as something of a shock.

I don't think it's hard to see the world from both sides. In fact, I tend to veer back and forth between these two perspectives. When I am occupying the position of the striving writer, I crave respect for my strenuous and serious effort. But when I am the harried peer reader, hurrying as quickly as I can through my piles of obligations, I am inclined to forget how wildly demanding writing is and to begrudge the tasks of reading that are heaped up before me.

If these two characters compete within my professional life, I’ve sometimes needed to remind myself that the writer's struggles came first, and hardest. In fact, it’s started to seem crucial to recognize that these two perspectives are not ethically equal. I believe deeply that the sheer acts of crafting, finishing, and circulating one’s work are immense and brave achievements. I believe, too, that most writers labor under tough circumstances, institutional, intellectual, and emotional. Meanwhile, peer readers wield a serious institutional power in the moment that they report on manuscripts. And most peer readers, protected by anonymity and typically tenured, look at the world from a position of security and authority. There’s always something ethically amiss, then, in a relationship that takes place between valiant, laboring writers and crabby, powerful readers.

Lately, I have struggled to find ways to counteract my own worst readerly frame of mind. I have taken to signing readers' reports, especially when I am recommending a rejection, to ensure that my tone is properly respectful and constructive, and to force myself to anticipate looking the writer in the face when I am done. I have also taken to imagining that every writer is a graduate student, not because I want to enforce my place in an academic hierarchy, but because I want to inhabit my own most teacherly persona, where I am wholly on the writer’s side and want more than anything to see her develop and succeed. What I struggle most to do, I think, is to try to identify with both writer and reader at the same time, rather than adopting one perspective at the expense of the other. This turns out to be harder than it might seem.

I wonder if the relationship between peer readers and academic writers is a little like the relationship between drivers and cyclists. Those who go to the trouble of cycling to work are doing us all a favor. But when one is driving a car, one sometimes feels a spark of impatience at the cyclist in the road who’s slowing traffic down, or veering into the street at just the wrong moment. Though most of us could occupy either position at any moment, and though we have to navigate the same narrow academic road, our perspectives are radically different, and sometimes feel opposed and hostile. Bumper stickers urge us to share the road, and that sounds reasonable enough. But it’s worth remembering that this charge is always aimed at drivers rather than cyclists. Only those powered by mechanical engines need reminding that the uphill climb is arduous and painful.


Caroline Levine is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.


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