In late December I wrote about having struck up an email correspondence with Jim, an old pal from high school I’d not heard from since forever ago. An environmental historian, Jim has long focused his research on African agriculture. As I worked my way through his book on the introduction and spread of maize, a New World plant, across the African continent, I learned quite a lot about something I didn’t even realize was a thing. At the same time I got a refresher course in how academic scholarship takes shape: incrementally, collaboratively, cumulatively, the work spanning vast swaths of space and time.
Typically the new ongoing work first appears in scholarly journal articles, researched and written by specialists, vetted and reviewed by specialists, read and interpreted by specialists, integrated by specialists into subsequent investigations. Audiences are sparse but intensely focused. The grand integrating narrative comes later, its author fully acknowledging that God and the devil are in the details. In the Acknowledgments section that follows his extensive End Notes and Bibliography, my friend Jim writes:
The historian’s task is the telling of a story that explains why and how, but the process is one that involves, in addition to inspiration, a great many people, institutions… This book had its genesis in farmers’ fields in Ethiopia, in research laboratories, around grain silos, in seminars, in libraries, and in dusty archives. Many people from all those settings — certainly even more than the few that I can mention here — deserve heartfelt thanks and acknowledgment.
The realm of academic scholarship spans the universe (that’s why they call it a university), an abstract N-dimensional matrix supporting thousands of disciplines and subdisciplines interacting and drifting apart in intermittent oscillations, scattered widely across an ever-expanding intellectual cosmos.
I’m not sure how literary magazines fit into that universe. Like a scholarly journal, a litmag aggregates into a single issue multiple short texts written by different authors. I get the sense that these magazines are read mostly by other writers, just as scholarly journals are read mostly by other scholars. A short story or poem, like a journal article, shines a narrow beam of illumination on a small fragment of the universe — or multiverse in the case of writers whose explorations aren’t bound by the parameters of the actually existing universe.
If you read a bunch of journal articles about the history of African farming — single-tine plowing in Kenya, sorghum harvesting in Tanzania, soil acidity in cleared tropical rainforests, the dispersion of maize varietals along the hajj routes, the impact of global warming on growing seasons and drought, the relationship between maize farming and malaria — you’d be able to assemble the architecture for a preliminary knowledge base, incomplete and tentatively held but cumulatively extensible, about the topic.
Does an assemblage of short stories written by a variety of authors allow the reader to assemble incrementally a tentative and incomplete yet extensible understanding of the multiverse in which those stories unfold? Arguably it does, but building the integrative constructs linking multiple fictional texts together is a task typically outsourced to the scholarly academy, the literary critics and cultural theorists for whom literary texts comprise a data set for their investigations. The novelists and short story writers aren’t regarded as interpretive experts for their own and one another’s work; instead the authors are subjected to the same sorts of outside scholarly analysis as are their fictional texts.
Theorists specializing in, say, the fictional oeuvre of J.G. Ballard might cluster together into a coherent interest group, reading and critiquing and building on one another’s work, organizing conferences and journal issues devoted to Ballardian studies. Fiction writers influenced by Ballard, not just stylistically but in the fictional worlds they explore, tend not to gravitate toward one another. Presumably the mandate to “find your voice” keeps authors ensconced in their splendid isolation. After all, they don’t want to be slotted as Ballard fan fiction writers, do they? Meanwhile these unique snowflakes tacitly cede to the theorists the task of — and the intellectual credit for — aggregating their fictional works together into an abstract neo-Ballardian category.
Intermittently over the years I’ve run across the “Ballardian” blog, hosted and mostly written by a guy who “explores tropes and motifs found in the work of J.G. Ballard.” A theory blog, in other words. Maybe not though — here’s an excerpt from the blog’s “About” page:
The site seeks to bind together a community of writers and artists who have been similarly inspired by the man and his writing. A key component of this project is to contextualise Ballard’s work, to analyse his sphere of influence beyond the stifling constraints of the literary realm and into the more expansive realms of music, film, visual art, fashion, cultural theory, architecture, even pornography.
Now I see that Simon Sellars, the guy responsible for this blog, has written a book — Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. From the book description on the website:
Plagued by obsessive fears, defeated by the tedium of academia, yet still certain that everything connects to Ballard, his academic thesis collapses into a series of delirious travelogues, deranged speculations and tormented meditations on time, memory, and loss. Abandoning literary interpretation and renouncing all scholarly distance, he finally accepts the deep assignment that has run throughout his entire life, and embarks on a rogue fieldwork project: Applied Ballardianism, a new discipline and a new ideal for living. Only the darkest impulses, the most morbid obsessions, and the most apocalyptic paranoia, can uncover the technological mutations of inner space.
A novel, evidently; autofiction, most likely. Does the book exemplify what the website attempted, or in fictionalizing the concept is the author acknowledging the impossibility of applied Ballardianism? I’m going to try tracking down this book via interlibrary loan.