Facing My 'Anonymous' Nemesis

Brian Taylor

April 24, 2012

Although I expected that he would be at the conference, I hoped he wouldn't attend my presentation. He did. But even in my wildest imagination I never could have foreseen that over the next three days we would share each other's company over breakfasts, dinners, and drinks. It was as if my academic karma had gone grievously awry in a previous life.

This was, after all, the scholar who had trashed (with prejudice) my book during the peer-review process and thereby scotched any chance I had with my original publisher—the publisher who, after the first two reviews were in, let me know that all was going well, that this was all but a done deal. My wife brought me a martini to celebrate. It was spring. I would have my first book contract.

And then the third review arrived, two and a half single-spaced pages of barely concealed contempt, every sentence filled with scorn, leading to the final kicker: "I would recommend that the author rethink the project entirely." That line still rankles like the body's memory of a broken limb, healed, but flaring up when it rains.

The other reviewers liked the book. They offered suggestions for changes to a work they felt had significant merit. All that would be for naught, though, as the magnitude of the third scholar's revulsion trounced the other readers' praise. I suppose, from my publisher's point of view, it's difficult not to think of the elephant when someone tells you not to think of the elephant, and for him, a big ruthless elephant had entered the room.

After the writer A.J. Jacobs was humiliated by a spiteful Joe Queenan in The New York Times Book Review some years ago, Jacobs published a beautifully worded and poised retort, "I Am Not a Jackass," which I hope set things right for him—though I suspect it didn't. I wanted to tell that third reader (and my publisher) that I, too, am not a jackass, but I had no such option, of course, this being the standard peer-review process.

Or was it?

My soon-to-be erstwhile publisher sent me the readers' reports electronically, so after gorging on humble pie I did what virtually anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of MS Word would have. I clicked "file>properties>summary," and my critic's name appeared right on cue. The Chronicle did a story several years ago about the potential lack of anonymity in reviews that use MS Word (April 21, 2006: "Microsoft Word's Hidden Tags Reveal Once-Anonymous Peer Reviewers"), but I never thought that I would be the one investigating my reviewer. It seemed the perfect example of ill breeding.

As with most writers, I have had to deal with negative feedback—the occasional scathing reader's report, the predictably snarky responses to a published article. But my reviewer's reaction was on a different scale altogether, as if I were an academic wannabe and he the old silverback. That I was the dummkopf who recommended him to the publisher as a potential reader makes the affair all the more preposterous, and to this day I want to kick myself for it.

But what if the process had been different?

The digital-media scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues that our focus on finished products rather than the processes that get us there is one of the failures of an antiquated peer-review system. If, as writers and scholars, we want to engage fully in the production of knowledge we had better start adapting to new technologies that demand cooperation at the earliest stages of production. "The system of peer review as we know it today is flawed," she writes, as it is a "backchannel conversation taking place between editor and reviewer that too often excludes the author from its benefits, and that too often impedes rather than assists in the circulation of ideas."

Fitzpatrick's focus on the technologies that enhance cooperative ventures through new media clearly undermines many of the suppositions that we as scholars take for granted: the cultural investiture in individual authorship over interconnection; the conservative academic faith in how things have always been done (read: anonymity); a "fixation on the notion of originality" over hybridity. I suspect that under Fitzpatrick's model I wouldn't have felt that vague sense that I was stealing something (as well as the commensurate guilt) when I learned the identity of that third reviewer. Yet I also question whether or not his comments would have been couched in more helpful terms had he appended his name to the report.

And what if this had been a more collective project, one in which the peer reviewers, the publisher, and I worked together? Could my critic and I have played on the same team?

As the process went forward the publisher put an indefinite hold on the project while I worked on revising the manuscript. But it was never clear to what end. The third reviewer proposed that I might want to start again, from scratch, as if this were just my first attempt at baking a soufflé that had imploded. The publisher's new message to me strongly suggested what had appeared a fait accompli was no such thing. Relieved of my naïveté, I understood that our friendly tele-acquaintance had now succumbed to a Hollywood-style mob chestnut: "Hey, this is just business. It's nothing personal."

After the press rejected the revised manuscript, I grew weary of the subject, the process, and the constant sense of being at the mercy of other people who were (mostly) unknown to me. I wanted to give up. There's a cliché in here somewhere about sticking with it in the face of bad odds. After letting the manuscript sit for another year, I drew up a new proposal, made some revisions, and landed a supportive publisher.

I worked hard (if work this is), but I was lucky, too. The new anonymous readers' reports were mostly in line with the earlier positive reviews. That scholars working in my field could so fundamentally disagree with each other—as I sat on the sidelines awaiting their verdict—baffles me to this day. It's one thing, of course, to have differences of opinion, but when opinions diverge so radically, it does make one think that Fitzpatrick is right: There must be a better way.

Back at the conference, I was fairly certain that my peer-review nemesis knew that I knew who he was. And I knew that he knew that I knew. Having never met each other, we made eye contact in the auditorium when I was introduced before my talk. He looked at me sheepishly, grinned a bit. His attendance put me off my lunch, and it didn't do any wonders for my experimental presentation whereby I swore off reading another turgid piece of solipsism in order to engage my audience in a bravura multimedia event. Which it wasn't.

Which made it all the more tragic since this trip was supposed to be good times. It brought me back to the small town where I went to graduate school, where I made and cemented lifelong friendships—including where I met my wife—and where I hadn't been since I defended my dissertation many years before. My book had just been published. The stars were beautifully aligned.

And then arrives the one person who could screw it all up. I would be reviewed again.

For the next three days it seemed fated that we would be in each other's company. It's an unfortunate though entirely understandable part of conference-going that groups of people who know each other only through e-mail will come together, en masse, and parade down Main Street looking for just the right restaurant or bar, trying to satisfy some inner craving for a new experience in a new place, or angling to get the seat next to the renowned senior scholar. I was a reluctant satellite in such a group so that I could spend time with one of my closest friends who was part of its nucleus. I joined the procession even though I assumed that, in the mind of at least one of our number, I might not have been fit to encumber the same academic sidewalk.

But the man never took more than passing notice of me. I'm not sure what I was looking for, anyway. Would he make an overture of some kind? Tell me that he was just doing his job? I realize now that he may have been slightly embarrassed to have me around, or, at the very least, that my presence was awkward for him, too. If that's the case, it's too bad we didn't have some kind of rapprochement.

I decided that all things considered, he wasn't a bad guy at all. I counted on disliking him, but I could only muster an extremely attenuated aversion, such as I might have for overcooked vegetables, and even that was a challenge.

A colleague strongly suggested I send this article to the man before publication to get his reaction. He said that in the spirit of openness and collaboration—in the spirit of this paradigm shift, if that's what it is—it might not be a bad idea to let my reviewer know what's coming since he's probably going to see it anyway. I take his point, yet I can't take that leap. Time and distance have their place.

One of my friends was keeping an eye on me during the conference, knowing as he did how much of an ordeal the book project turned out to be, knowing my mixture of rage, disappointment, and resignation when the thing went south, when all the fears of whether you are good enough are no longer hidden but brought to the surface like proud flesh. At the end of the conference, he told me I had handled myself well.

But what was I going to do, thump the guy? I'm not Norman Mailer, after all. And he's not Gore Vidal.

William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford. His book, "Grounded Vision: New Agrarianism and the Academy," was published in 2011 by the University of Alabama Press.