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“Literary License” in the New Yorker

You would think I’d have better, or at least more pressing, things to do than write letters to the editor. And I do. But I found myself feeling quite disgusted after reading a feature in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago about a battle over copyright and the James Joyce estate, and because I was mentioned in the article I found myself one evening composing a brief note, which appeared this week:

As the former assistant to Valerie Eliot mentioned in D. T. Max’s article, who wrote in the Guardian about Valerie Eliot’s dislike of the Ph.D. industry, I am hard-pressed to say who is least attractive in the story of the Joyce estate: the heir, Stephen Joyce, or the academics now suing him. Literacy scholarship today seems often to include unappreciated female genius and a suspicion of incest, as is the case of the book by Professor Carol Schoss about Lucia Joyce. Similar claims have been made about Eliot’s first wife, Vivien, for what I suspect are similar reasons: academic fashion, political correctness, and marketing strategy. And Lawrence Lessig, the lawyer bravely taking on the Joyce estate, is quoted as saying, “It’s in the DNA of lawyers not to be intimidated,” which strikes me as rather immaterial. Lessig engages in his many battles from the most secure job on the face of the earth, that of a tenured professor.
Karen Christensen
Great Barrington, Massachusetts

The only line missing is, “Some of my best friends are academics.” And that’s entirely true. I spend my life working with scholars and I admire them enormously. I will be speaking soon at the Wikipedia conference (where Professor Lessig is, I notice, the keynote speaker) and my point there will be that the guesses of a crowd cannot provide the same quality of knowledge as years devoted to study and research. (I’m baffled about how anyone can believe in the wisdom of crowds after reading surveys that show how blazingly ignorant most Americans, and others, are of basic facts of history and geography and technology.

I’ve had the privilege of spending time with people like William H. McNeill, the world historian, and many others in different fields. I know first hand what top-notch scholars are like, and how much we can learn from them. What bothers me–and probably a lot of people who contribute to Wikipedia–is that too many so-called experts, in the academy and outside it, don’t have a lot more knowledge or insight than an intelligent, untenured layperson. And they can be arrogant to boot.

More about my Guardian article.

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