Fighting talk on tabloid scholars

April 25, 1997

The war of words over university publishing is hotting up. Denouncing what he calls the "tabloid scholarship" of the university presses, an English professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey, has promised to launch his own press for scholarly titles.

In a lengthy article in this month's issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, William Dowling takes aim at "trend-driven" editors who commission books on action films and consumer culture rather than serious academic works.

The Glastonbury Project - named after the monasteries which stood as "solitary outposts of learning in the dark ages" - will publish scholarly books on a limited print run, keeping costs to as little as $13 a copy, he claims.

It is a gauntlet laid down to university presses, whose editors now frequently complain of the prohibitive cost of publishing obscure works in small print runs, feeding talk of a "monograph crisis".

Critics, however, have attacked what they see as editing decisions driven by market demand for popular academic titles.

Professor Dowling says his outrage boiled over when he picked up a copy of Barbie's Queer Accessories, published by Duke University Press.

The book, which won favourable reviews, dwells with frank language and some wit on the Barbie doll's role in lesbian and popular culture.

But it is an example of the "abdication of intellectual responsibility that has brought university presses to so ruinously low a level in recent years", he said in an interview conducted by email.

He also cites "cultural studies" titles dealing with everything from scandalous skater Tonya Harding to film hero, action man Jean-Claude Van Damme.

The Glastonbury Project will be a way for the "community of scholars to take back an all-important authority of oversight and evaluation that, under present trend-driven conditions, has increasingly been abandoned," he said.

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