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The decline of published scholarship 
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PITA Bred
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Post The decline of published scholarship
Much of my reading these days is histories and biographies from well-known authors considered expert and accomplished in their field. One of the pleasures of reading these writers is a sense of being able to rely on what they're telling you - that you can just read their work and trust that they are not misleading or misinforming you.

Which is why I find it saddening and surprising to find egregious failures in some of the newer books in this vein. In particular, I'm reading Douglas Brinkley's new Cronkite, a comprehensive biography of Walter Cronkite. Now, Brinkley is a first-rank historian/writer with a dozen lauded titles to his name; professor of history at Rice; and not incidentally David Brinkley's son. So I would have only the highest expectations for a biography of his father's contemporary and colleague/competitor.

I am just over halfway through and waiting to see if Brinkley balances the oddly harsh treatment of Cronkite - sort of Panshin-like, in that he never says any one thing that is negative but every chapter leaves you more disconcerted with WC's image. But that's kind of the purpose of the book, and he has upset many people by not regarding Cronkite as an untouchable ghod.

It's the errors that are driving me crazy. So many trivial errors of fact and usage... which makes me wonder about the accuracy of the things I have no real background or basis for independent judgment on. For example, no fewer than three times in the first hundred pages, the word "flare" is misused for "flair" - "Cronkite showed a real flare for real time news reporting" etc. There aren't many such out and out typoes, but nearly ever page contains a questionable word usage - "Patton, who was mortally wounded in a car accident in 1945" sort of things; "wounded" is awkward and tin-eared in that sentence over "injured."

And then the errors... things that the most trivial copy edit should have caught. Referring to Herb Caen - a friend of Cronkite's and thus worth some special attention - as a "famous San Francisco Examiner columnist," for example. (Caen was famously famous as an SF Chronicle columnist, despite his short sojourn with the "other paper" during an era contract dispute. It's like saying Willie Mays was a famous Met. [Mays played the last of 22 years with NY, old and utterly broken down.])

Mentioning an early visit to Vietnam by Cronkite and seeing the planes in their sandbagged parking slots; Brinkley includes F-106s in the list. The 106, again rather famously, was never deployed to Vietnam.

These are not subtle, tricky errors. These are first-draft, not-sure, flag-that-for-checking errors. It looks as if this book, a high-profile, major American biography from a major and established biographer/historian whose field and family history demanded a little extra on this job, from a top-drawer publisher... never saw an editor in between submit-manuscript and roll-presses. Even a FAST pass by any editor in the stable would have polished off most of these rough spots.

Are we seeing the devolution of scholarship, poisoned by the Scottish Wiki to the point where even the best of the best are failing to bother with professional standards?

Brinkley responded politely, if boilerplately, to my comment about "flare/flair" - but as I suspect the book's next major iteration (trade paper) is already in print, such acknowledgements of error are meaningless. I wonder what he would think of a point-by-point error check, as I did with Stover's book...

*sigh*

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Mon Jul 02, 2012 3:14 pm
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
That sort of thing drives me nuts too. I think it's not that common; I read ~5 books a week and I do not often encounter that level of carelessness.

The traditional publishers have cut back their traditional functions to the point that it's fair to ask whether they're still doing anything at all. They expect the author to do all the functions that an editor once did (including, apparently, most or all of the proofreading), they expect the author to do the marketing and promotion, I think the only thing they haven't delegated is their three-martini lunches. Most of the time they won't even look at your book until you've sold 10,000 copies through self-publishing. At which point the question becomes "... and why do you want me to give up 80% of my profit?"


Mon Jul 02, 2012 5:08 pm
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
Why do you think I formed a publishing house to handle RAHARC? Nuf sed.

Found more really irritating draggy language in Brinkley's book:

"They found out, vis-a-vis a security check, that [Morley] Safer was Canadian." (via)

Can't bring up specific quote, but he uses "golden rule" where he means just "rule." (He also uses "golden rule" several times more appropriately.)

I am so close to brusting this book, something very rare for nonfic. I wish I had tossed the last bio of Eisenhower - wretched, ill-written drivel - and maybe I should learn my lesson. There is something of the fascination of a car wreck going on here, though.


Tue Jul 03, 2012 7:10 am
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
Oh, cut him some slack. You worked hard on RAH:ARC, yet you found this to be necessary. Bill worked equally hard on the biography (with help from you, Robert James, and others), and still this thread runs on and on. In both cases, I'm sure some of the errors make you and Bill both go "Doh!" It's hard to put 10,000 thoughts, 100,000 words, a million letters in a row and get them all correct, and not to have done so doesn't invalidate everything else.

As far as stylistic faults, while the choices Brinkley made may not be mine, I can understand some of them. Despite the fact that one would expect an "injury" rather than a "wound" from an automobile accident, "mortally wounded" is so much more common a phrase than "mortally injured" that when I see the latter in print, I get a mental hiccup. (If you search the ProQuest NYTimes full text archive, you get 4689 articles returned for "mortally wounded," vs. 1661 for the latter phrase. Googling the two phrases gives 2,000,000 to 100,000, although their search is so fuzzy that it is useless for quantitative counts. I'd expect other corpora to show similar lopsided results.)

"Golden rule" is misused on p 353: "Unlike his NASA boosterism, as a golden rule, Cronkite never glamorized war in a broadcast." That one should have been corrected.


Tue Jul 03, 2012 11:41 am
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
BillMullins wrote:
Oh, cut him some slack.

I cut any and all writers slack on fine points or understandable errors. What I'm finding here is way beyond both - it's clumsy, inept bits of writing and errors of fact that the author himself should have caught in a single editing pass, and if not, the most junior copy editor should have polished off. Brinkley is one of the world's most accomplished historical writers and should both be able to hold a higher standard AND be held up to that standard by his publishing house. That both failed is wholly inexplicable to me.

Any book can have errors, yes, but finding errors and cloddish writing of this degree in a book of this level - boggling. A little frightening, as in, see subject line.

Quote:
As far as stylistic faults, while the choices Brinkley made may not be mine, I can understand some of them. Despite the fact that one would expect an "injury" rather than a "wound" from an automobile accident, "mortally wounded" is so much more common a phrase than "mortally injured" that when I see the latter in print, I get a mental hiccup. (If you search the ProQuest NYTimes full text archive, you get 4689 articles returned for "mortally wounded," vs. 1661 for the latter phrase. Googling the two phrases gives 2,000,000 to 100,000, although their search is so fuzzy that it is useless for quantitative counts. I'd expect other corpora to show similar lopsided results.)

This example isn't a popularity contest; the two phrases do not mean the same thing. Find me any significant number of examples among those 4689/1661 where the common meanings of "injured" vs. "wounded" are reversed, and we'll talk further. One can be "injured" on a battlefield, but if it's from enemy fire, it's far more common to say "wounded." (My judgment is that "injured" would be reserved for indirect trauma, not enemy fire.) However, I can't think of a single situation where "wounded" is the correct term for an accidental injury. "Wounded" implies there is a weapon involved, not a car or power saw. Any reasonably authoritative and contemporary cites to the contrary welcomed.

Quote:
"Golden rule" is misused on p 353: "Unlike his NASA boosterism, as a golden rule, Cronkite never glamorized war in a broadcast." That one should have been corrected.

Thanks for the detail; I had the page note at hand but not the book, which was up two flights of stairs. This is exactly what I mean by inept writing that a junior copy editor should have caught - and there are far, far too many examples to simply give Brinkley a pass on.

I think, bottom line, the problem is that this book went from his laptop to the presses with no editing whatsoever. And that's a frightening trend; only a lousy writer hates his editor. RAHARC has as short a list of errata as it does because five or six people carefully proofed it and not only found errors, but most of my own inept writing and poor usages. I followed their corrections in all but a few places where I wanted a particular, if perhaps slightly peculiar usage.

I have read MANY books on the parallel shelf without spotting so much as a typo, much less a clumsy sentence or a basic factual error. So Brinkley has a standard to live up to - and this time, he didn't.


Tue Jul 03, 2012 12:42 pm
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
Another one, particularly egregious given that the writer is an established academic at a first-rank university; he should know better, in his bones, no conscious thought or fact-checking required:

p540: "...Cronkite earned an honorary Ph.D. from Harvard."

One does many things for an honorary degree, but earned pointedly has nothing to do with it.


Mon Jul 09, 2012 9:37 am
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
A pet peeve of mine, of similar kind, is that so-and-so "won the Congressional Medal of Honor" (or some other military citation of bravery). You may be awarded the Medal, but you don't win it.


Mon Jul 09, 2012 10:11 am
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
And it's just the "Medal of Honor." Congress gets no credit whatsoever for that one! :)

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Mon Jul 09, 2012 2:53 pm
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
Indeed. I believe that it is awarded (not "won") at the sole discretion of the President of the United States, not Congress. But I'm not sure about that.

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Mon Jul 09, 2012 4:08 pm
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Post Re: The decline of published scholarship
Ahem. Don't dismiss the Congressional aspect quite so quickly. Even the Scottish Wiki gets it right:
Quote:
The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. It is bestowed by the President in the name of Congress, and is conferred only upon members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States." Due to the nature of its selection criteria, it is often awarded posthumously, with more than half of all awards since 1941 given to individuals who were deceased. As the award citation includes the phrase "in the name of Congress", it is sometimes erroneously called the "Congressional Medal of Honor". The official title, however, is simply the "Medal of Honor"


Tue Jul 10, 2012 5:06 am
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