I was thinking in class on Wednesday about something Knight mentioned near the beginning of Small-Scale Research, about the novelist and the researcher being more similar than we might think.
When I was an undergrad, I read a novel for a twentieth century britlit class called Regeneration, for which the author had obviously done a lot of research, and which took real people, in a real place, and imagined their interactions. One of the characters, a psychiatrist named William Rivers, used psychiatric jargon, worked at a hospital that treated people in ways historically employed during the First World War, and made reference to ethnographic studies that he, William Rivers, had actually carried out. Seigfreed Sassoon also popped up with drafts of his poems, which, as the author, Pat Barker, mentions in the acknowledgements, are taken unedited from Sassoon’s manuscripts.
The thing is, the author’s research methods are opaque. We can imagine that she looked at historic documents, read biographical materials, consulted experts (Pat Barker’s husband was a neurologist who was, according to wikipedia, familiar with William Rivers) and historians, and structured the novel from that research. From the thank yous in the acknowledgement section, that’s probably exactly what she did. But as a novel it’s also imagined and improvised. We’d treat a reading of Regeneration differently from an academic journal article on Sassoon or on Rivers. It doesn’t have the legitimizing strategies that scholarly articles employ: methods aren’t explained, there’s no esoteric jargon, no citations, no double-blind peer review. Possible biases or sources of error aren’t announced.
Reading Regeneration, I have no doubt the material events didn’t happen as the novel describes them. But reading most journal articles, I have the same impression. It’s not that the researchers’ subjectivity contaminates the results; that’s not what I’m getting at. Academic journal articles seem more “true” than fiction. They seem more “objective”, to give more pertinent, real information, than fiction might. And it has nothing to do with the validity of the information itself (Professor Cherry talked a little bit about the crazy stuff that does get published in academic journals), but the legitimizing conventions journals employ. They’re taken as more “true” because of the way they are structured and reviewed, the listing of methods, previous studies, circumvention or acknowledgement of sources of error or uncertainty etc, more so than the actual research.
What I think is making me cranky about journals is that I’m reading The Four-Gated City and in the back of my head, a voice is saying, “If you ever wanted to do research about about the surveillance of communist sympathizers, or about the unification and dissolution of communist-sympathizer groups, or something like that, you could never talk about The Four-Gated City, because it’s not ‘true’ in the sense a journal article about those things would be.” I mean, a person can only take so much empiricism.