The cost of roaming the fields

A new blog post at the Tolkien Society, “A reviewer’s complaint”

Thomas Honegger [in 2015, complained of Tolkien] scholars unaware of major and basic work in the areas they are covering. “How are we going to advance Tolkien studies if scholars in the field are ignorant of each others research?”

Well, I know how and why this happened. It’s the explosion in the size of our field.

I’d also suggest it’s the cost, and sometimes the difficulty, of obtaining the needed items. To obtain the “little opinion piece by Thomas Honegger”, for instance, I’d need to spend £20 plus postage for a print copy of a little-known German scholarly journal. Since I don’t need anything else that’s in the journal issue, and a quarter of the essays are in German anyway, £20 is not an enticing price.

Let’s say that one wishes to make a basic start in Tolkien scholarship. That’s a little less daunting than starting on someone comparable like H.P. Lovecraft, since Tolkien scholarship is not so saddled with rare book collectors. Even so, a basic small shelf for Tolkien is probably around £500. That’s less than the perhaps-£800 you’d need to make a start on Lovecraft and do proper fannish scholarship (not the risible slander which Lovecraft usually gets from fly-by university professors). But with Tolkien, the somewhat lower per-item costs are then balanced out by the larger range of items you’d need to see a clear outline of the field. There are also higher ongoing costs to keep up with the ongoing wash of Tolkien scholarship, compared to the relatively small trickle of annual Lovecraft scholarship (the valiant efforts of S.T. Joshi and co. aside) that’s worth reading. There is admittedly a very good survey in each annual issue of Tolkien Studies, but just acquiring the last four issues of Tolkien Studies would cost me $280.

Such startup costs would be no problem for an academic on a whopping £38,000+ a year, or even for an £18k funded PhD who has miraculously found a friendly librarian with ample funds for inter-library loans and book purchases. But even an initial £500 outlay would be daunting for most impoverished independent scholars. Especially as that initial £500 would soon need to be matched by another £500 for runs of paper journals, books and obscure out-of-print items. Even if one was very frugal, and also knew how and where to hunt items online, and how best to wrangle with Google Books etc, one could still end up having to spend at least £300 on ‘needed item’ print books. All in order to write a new book that may only sell 30 copies and get one review.

The other problem, in terms of Honegger’s complaint, may be the cost of getting a detailed pre-publication reader’s report from someone at the top of the field. Thus enabling one to sidestep the sort of small snags that so antagonise reviewers. Perhaps Tolkien studies now needs some kind of subsidised pre-publication peer review system, for substantial new books from outside the academy. Or one might publish the PDF online for free for 18 months, with a public “call for comments” and commenting system, then publish a revised and corrected final-version in print two years later.

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