A plea to publishers

Ansai 2

I’d like to discuss in-text citations—yeah, funky, I know. I guess this issue has been subject to debate over the years, but (like Brexit) nothing seems to be happening.

I’ve just been admiring an excellent, well-argued book on Chinese folk culture. Having resigned myself to leaping the constant hurdles of parenthetical references, I finally lost it when, right in the middle of a purple passage, I was confronted with an indigestible mouthful:

Ansai1

That’s not just an Olympic hurdle, it might defeat even a motorbike jumper.

Sure, such references may be useful—in the form of notes (and between footnotes and endnotes, the latter make for a more readable text). But please, I really don’t want to choke on Ansaixian Weiyuanhui Wenshi Ziliao Yanjiu Weiyuanhui 1989! When forced to adopt in-text citations I sometimes give abbreviations (in this case, perhaps ASX 1989; in my latest book I often cite the Yanggao xianzhi as YG, though a more pedantic publisher might expect me to pepper the text with a longer citation).

There’s endless guidance about in-text citations, and I’m not going to address house-style here. But even short in-text citations are irritating. I know we’re used to it; often we just get in the habit of skipping over the parenthesis. If you’re interested in following up, then look at the note, FFS. Often the reader won’t be, in which case a parenthesis is seriously tedious.

And while I’m about it, even if we really want to limit our audience to sinologists, Chinese characters in the text are another distraction. Again, it suggests, “Look at me! I’m a sinologist!” Characters are useful; but assuming one gives them on first appearance, then it’s too much to expect us to try and search back for the characters a couple of hundred pages later. The place for characters is in a combined Glossary–Index.

Most authors are happy enough to get their research in print with a reputable publisher. They are helpless victims. But it’s galling that all their hard work in making their text more reader-friendly than their PhDs should be cancelled out by this fusty academic convention. Meanwhile academic publishers don’t care, as long as they fulfil quotas.

Thing is, as technology improves constantly, there’s hardly an economic argument to be made. Such issues are solveable—as long as publishers care whether their authors’ texts can reach out to a wider audience. It suggests that they simply don’t care if all their authors’ hard work is readable (“Hey, no-one’s gonna read this book anyway”); or perhaps that the very hallmark of academic excellence is to be unreadable. Yet distinguished works of detailed research published outside the narrow ghetto of academia provide notes, not in-text citations; and—surprise surprise—such books sell very well.

Academics seem to be getting mixed messages: even amidst all the modern pressures to “outreach”, academic publishing remains a bastion of obscurity. Scholarly prose is quite impenetrable enough already without these further obstacles.

Meanwhile on a blog like this, apart from the luxury of including colour photos and maps, while I do include some notes (and even some in-text citations), it’s a great feeling to be able to provide online links—like the way that de Selby footnotes increasingly take over the text of The third policeman.

Discuss…

2 thoughts on “A plea to publishers

  1. Pingback: Feminine endings: Madonna and McClary | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Ritual studies mildly censored | Stephen Jones: a blog

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