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The Faulkner Truthers
April 24, 2014 11:49 AM   Subscribe

"For good or ill, the public has been taught to believe that academics are held to a more rigorous standard even than journalists—the assumption being that a scholarly book is grilled within an inch of its life, with all potential inaccuracies headed off by the peer review process. That it may not always be the case is the most interesting, not to say alarming, aspect of the case of Ledgers of History: How many academic books are prepared and marketed with little attempt to corroborate their contents? And how easily might the claims of such an unsubstantiated book become accepted as 'fact'—and as 'history'?"
posted by enn (17 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
This piece slightly misconstrues the purpose of peer review. It's not at attempt to replicate the work done by the scholar or to reinvestigate the material they provide. Thus, if a scholar has been misled by a plausible charlatan, that's not, necessarily (unless the deception is gross) going to be something that gets revealed in the peer review process. Similarly, if a scientist falsifies their results (and, again, manages to do so in a way that does not produce manifest absurdities or contradictions) that won't get caught by peer review. The peer review has to operate on a broad assumption of good faith when it comes to the collection of data, and then asks if the arguments advanced on the basis of that data are sound, if the conclusions are novel and interesting etc.

This story may well be a "scandal" in the field of Faulkner studies, but it's not a scandal that reveals some sort of systemic failure in the peer-review process.
posted by yoink at 12:08 PM on April 24 [5 favorites]


I'd think peer review would include basic fact checking.
posted by echocollate at 12:10 PM on April 24


I'd think peer review would include basic fact checking.

Yeah, sure. But if you weren't in the lab with the scientist, you don't know if the experiment actually produced the results claimed or not, do you? And peer review is not replication: i.e., you don't run the experiment yourself to see if it holds up.

Similarly, here, the "basic facts" are the claims made and the documents provided by Edgar Wiggin Francisco III. It is no part of peer review to separately investigate those claims or to separately research the provenance of the documents.
posted by yoink at 12:15 PM on April 24


Or, rather, the "basic facts" are things like: "does she make any claims about Faulker's biography which previous research has shown to be untrue; does she make claims about generally held opinions in Faulkner scholarship which are tendentious or mischaracterizing"; "does she make historical claims which are uninformed" etc. etc. Those are the kinds of things that peer reviewers should catch and comment on. "Is the guy she's interviewing and basing her claims on a fraud?" That's something that would only be revealed in peer review if he made claims that were demonstrably impossible--and demonstrably impossible not on the basis of new research into the claims (which a peer reviewer is not expected to undertake) but demonstrably impossible based on already established research.
posted by yoink at 12:20 PM on April 24 [3 favorites]


Similarly, here, the "basic facts" are the claims made and the documents provided by Edgar Wiggin Francisco III. It is no part of peer review to separately investigate those claims or to separately research the provenance of the documents.

That seems very reasonable to me, although the original scholar and her reviewers are taking great pains to defend the veracity of Mr. Francisco. So this misinterpretation seems to be occurring not just by the audience, but by the reviewers themselves.
posted by Edgewise at 12:26 PM on April 24


While I have no opinion on the facts surrounding Francisco, I do think that the author at The Awl badly misunderstands the nature of stakes in literary scholarship. I don't know many humanities researchers who work on questions like the one suggested in the following quotes from the essay: "But nobody has yet succeeded in tracing the exact path by which his genius developed….To make or to find a key to the source of Faulkner's inspiration, then, would be a lifetime achievement for a literary scholar."

Bluntly, this is the sort of thinking that suggests the author does not do serious scholarship in the field of literature; it's what an utterly untrained person might imagine a literary scholar does or cares about, the standards of a human-interest journalist as applied to literature.

To imagine that this is a reasonable line of inquiry, we would have to presume that there is some definite path or process by which "genius" is developed. Further, we'd have to agree that "genius" has some stable, meaningful, and interesting definition; Faulkner may be a genius, whatever that implies, but surely "he's a genius" is the most superficial and unimportant comment one might make about him or his work. I'm also not sure why we would assume that Faulkner's literary merit is the result of inspiration, or that inspiration is easily sourced rather than residing in complex, perhaps serendipitous and sometimes entirely unrecorded or unwitting circumstances.

Literary scholars are, unsurprisingly, a lot less concerned with individual authorial "inspiration" than they are with the interactions between literary art and wider cultural, economic, and political trends. Most of them would argue that Faulkner, whatever else he and his work are, matter in terms of specific and definitionally irreproducible historical and social circumstances. The reasont hey look for precursor documents and models is less to say, "Ah, if you read all of this you create a Faulkner!" and more about arguing that, say, Faulkner's work reveals a logics of postbellum accounting that has some critical cultural importance or reveals the genealogy of 21st century capitalism or something of that nature.

This review:
Many of the names Wolff-King locates were those of slaves, not the white plantation gentry who bear them in Faulkner's fiction. Wolff-King speculates that this may suggest Faulkner's inclination to rescue sympathetically the lives of slaves from obscurity, but it's hard to credit that if no one could possibly recognize them as such in the fiction.

seems to me to be closer to what I would expect from a "find" of this nature; notice how little of it is about "where Faulkner got his ideas" and how much is about "how Faulkner responded to the history of the South." If the find is phony, the it undermines the argument, but the argument is certainly not about "where Faulkner's genius came from."
posted by kewb at 12:31 PM on April 24 [6 favorites]


I am looking through a scholarly book right now that is, at least for the specific 19th century social issue I'm researching, very inaccurate. This is not unusual.
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:51 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


It is no part of peer review to separately investigate those claims or to separately research the provenance of the documents.

I get that as it applies to scientific research but this is a scholarly work in the humanities printed by a university press. If it's not the peer reviewer's job to corroborate new factual claims with what's known/verified, and it's not LSU Press's editor's job, then with whom does the responsibility lie?
posted by echocollate at 1:07 PM on April 24


If it's not the peer reviewer's job to corroborate new factual claims with what's known/verified, and it's not LSU Press's editor's job, then with whom does the responsibility lie?

With the original scholar. "New factual claims" are the equivalent of new experimental results. It's not the responsibility of the peer reviewer to hook the researchers up to lie-detectors to see if they're being truthful in their claims. It's their responsibility to see that the researcher(s) give an internally coherent and consistent account of how they came to make those claims and that they make defensible arguments about the significance of those claims for the field as a whole.

I have, for example, published scholarly papers in which I make interpretive arguments based on MS letters held in scholarly archives. Those letters exist solely in those original copies and their content is unverifiable except by direct examination of the originals or by paying the library a large sum of money for a photographic reproduction. No one expects the person reviewing my papers to make an expensive voyage to the archive in question or to pay for reproductions of the MSS. If I misread the letters or fraudulently falsified their content, that's on me--and ripe ground for some future scholar's corrective work--it's not remotely on the peer-reviewer.
posted by yoink at 1:27 PM on April 24 [2 favorites]


Basically, echocollate, if you go far enough, there's nothing standing between you and the abyss.

(Or in the above case, standing between the scholar and a cratered career.)
posted by notyou at 2:06 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss offers you a tenure-track position.
posted by Bromius at 2:21 PM on April 24


And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss offers you a tenure-track position.

Meh. None of this, really, is a story that legitimates this kind of "oh my god, it's all a fraud" response. Scholars are looking into her claims, they're publishing their findings, eventually we'll move nearer to the truth. That's just normal scholarly progress. Peer review is not meant to be a guarantee that work is unassailable and will stand for all eternity. It's a guarantee that it's worth admitting to the conversation--possibly in order for it to be refuted.
posted by yoink at 2:31 PM on April 24 [6 favorites]


If Elliot's work is solid, it casts doubt on Wolff-King's thoroughness. I'm not saying she's a fraud or Francisco as her source is a scammer, but "the book on which these claims are based was never in the possession of the person who supposedly had it when Faulkner supposedly read it" seems like something that Wolff-King might have already looked into.

Settling the literary question is one thing, but it seems like we're close enough to Faulkner in time even now, and should have enough documentary evidence, to be able to test some of the claims that are necessary to make Wolff-King's argument. So it looks less to me like fraud than a question of academic (hyper?) specialization and the border between historical and literary scholarship.
posted by immlass at 5:20 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


If it's not the peer reviewer's job to corroborate new factual claims with what's known/verified, and it's not LSU Press's editor's job, then with whom does the responsibility lie?

Another scholar can come along, read the paper, say, "Let's see if this holds up," and then do his own paper based on that premise.

A peer reviewer is chosen based on his familiarity with the existing research in the topic area rather than his detective skills.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:47 PM on April 24


Based on the title and the first couple of paragraphs, I assumed that the article would be about some people who were claiming, a la the Anti-Stratfordians, that someone else had written Faulkner's stories. So there was one book based on the testimony of one guy who may have exaggerated (or even completely made up) his acquaintanceship with Faulkner? Well, bless his heart.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:25 PM on April 24


I think the biggest scandal in the story is that some people were banned from a listserv for questioning the credibility of Francisco and, by association, of Wolff-King for telling his story.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:10 AM on April 25


I find errors in scholarly history books all the time, usually when trying to fact-check articles. I do my own research and often find that my online sources are far better than whatever the original, often pre- or early-Internet writer was able to turn up. In five minutes of searching online I can frequently find sources that handily overturn their conjectures or even their stated facts.
posted by limeonaire at 11:43 PM on April 25


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