Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

James Baldwin: “No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine.”

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

We’ve written about James Baldwin before – here and here and here. LitHub recently republished his 1986 interview with David C. Estes. He begins with questions about James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which had just been published the year before. The book examines the Atlanta child murders that took place over a period of twenty-two months in 1979 and 1980. He says:

“No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine. You just have to trust it. I’ve not been able to read the book, but I remember some of the moments when I wrote this or that. So in some ways, it’s a kind of melancholy inventory, not so much about myself as a writer (I’m not melancholy about that), but I think that what I found hard to decipher is to what extent or in what way my ostensible subject has changed. Nothing in the book could be written that way today.”

Estes retraces his career. Another excerpt: 

Later, at Commentary, I had a marvelous relationship with one of the editors—Robert Warshow, my first real editor. He asked me to do an essay about the Harlem ghetto. When I turned it in, Robert said, “Do it over.” He didn’t say anything more. So I did. And then he said, “You know more than that.” I began to be aware of what he was doing. When he saw me come close to what I was afraid of, he circled it and said, “Tell me more about that.” What I was afraid of was the relationship between Negroes and Jews in Harlem—afraid on many levels. I’d never consciously thought about it before, but then it began to hit me on a profound and private level because many of my friends were Jews, although they had nothing to do with the Jewish landlords and pawnbrokers in the ghetto. So I had been blotting it out. It was with Robert that I began to be able to talk about it, and that was a kind of liberation for me. I’m in his debt forever because after that I was clear in my own mind. I suddenly realized that perhaps I had been afraid to talk about it because I was a closet anti-Semite myself. One always has that terror. And then I realized that I wasn’t. So something else was opened.

DCE: What major artistic problems have you had to confront in your nonfiction?

JB: I was a black kid and was expected to write from that perspective. Yet I had to realize the black perspective was dictated by the white imagination. Since I wouldn’t write from the perspective, essentially, of the victim, I had to find what my own perspective was and then use it. I couldn’t talk about “them” and “us.” So I had to use “we” and let the reader figure out who “we” is. That was the only possible choice of pronoun. It had to be “we.” And we had to figure out who “we” was, or who “we” is. That was very liberating for me.

I was going through a whole lot of shit in New York because I was black, because I was always in the wrong neighborhood, because I was small. It was dangerous, and I was in a difficult position because I couldn’t find a place to live. I was always being thrown out, fighting landlords. My best friend committed suicide when I was twenty-two, and I could see that I was with him on that road. I knew exactly what happened to him—everything that happened to me. The great battle was not to interiorize the world’s condemnation, not to see yourself as the world saw you, and also not to depend on your skill. I was very skillful—much more skillful than my friend, much more ruthless, too. In my own mind, I had my family to save. I could not go under; I could not afford to. Yet I knew that I was going under. And at the very same moment, I was writing myself up to a wall. I knew I couldn’t continue. It was too confining. I wrote my first two short stories, and then I split.

Read the whole thing here.

My interview on René Girard and Evolution of Desire: “If you don’t howl with the wolves, the wolves will howl for you.”

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

“…no possible compromise between killing and being killed.”

My interview with author Scott Beauchamp is up at Full-Stop, a tony literary venue Full-Stop, which focuses on debuts, works in translation, small press works, and the broader landscape of arts and ideas that need a champion more than ever. Scott’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Rolling Stone, and the Washington Post, among other places. The subject, as always, is Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardYou can read the whole interview here.

Meanwhile, an excerpt:

The basic idea animating Girard’s breakout book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, is, as you write, that “[w]e live derivative lives. We envy and imitate others obsessively, unendingly, often ridiculously…We wish to conceal our metaphysical emptiness from others, in any case, and from ourselves most of all.” As Girard himself explained, “All desire is a desire for being.” I think most people who have heard of Girard are familiar with this basic, simple, and profound insight.

It pegs the true source of desire. In a panel discussion of Evolution of Desire at the American Academy of Religion earlier last fall in Denver, one panelist described it as Girard’s koan. And it rather is.

Some have taken issue with it, since “being” has so much baggage in philosophical circles, but I think it has a valuable role in taking us away from those triangles of desire – instead of searching for objects and mediators, we must take a step back and ask instead “who do I worship?”

Interviewer Scott Beauchamp

“All desire is a desire for being” is a single line mentioned in passing during the long conversation that is When These Things Begin, a book-length Q&A with Michel Treguer. Far from being overly familiar, in fact I plucked it out of the book and now it seems to be contagious – in a good way! I expect to see it on tote bags and t-shirts soon.

But something that you take pains to explain in your book is that Girard didn’t consider all mimetic desire a necessarily bad thing, right?

Of course it isn’t. Imitation is not only inevitable, it’s how we learn language, or how to tell a joke, or how to run a business, or anything else. It’s how we learn to navigate human exchanges, how to give and receive affection, how to nurture friendships.

Ultimately, imitation has another dimension altogether. Virgil speaks of it in Purgatorio, and it’s worth repeating: “And the more souls there are who love on high, the more there is to love, the more of loving, for like a mirror each returns it to the other.” That is the evolution of desire, its final destination.

Girard built on the notion of mimetic desire in his subsequent books. Violence and the Sacred, which was in many ways a more radical book than its predecessor, explores the meaning of sacrifice and the scapegoat – the complicated ways in which we assign guilt and perpetuate violence. I was struck by the refreshingly pre- or even para-political reasoning at work. It seems to elevate itself above the Manichean moral dead ends of an “us vs. them” mentality and instead implicates everyone. Where do you most sense the need for this sort of analysis in contemporary American society?

Everywhere. Increasingly our public discourse is descending into two warring tribes, who resemble each other more and more the longer they fight. Are you a Democrat or Republican? Did you vote for Trump or Clinton? Left-left, or center-left, or left behind. Independent thinkers are hectored and threatened into falling in line. The mob requires unanimity. If you are not part of it they turn against you, and you are, if you are lucky, driven from the flock. We’ve seen reputations destroyed, jobs lost, fortunes demolished, but that’s not the worst. Look at what the murderous mob tried to do to Asia Bibi in Pakistan. Now she and her family must live in under a new name at an undisclosed location in faraway Canada.

It’s serious stuff, and is dangerous. If you don’t howl with the wolves, the wolves will howl for you. As René wrote: “…we must see that there is no possible compromise between killing and being killed. … For all violence to be destroyed, it would be sufficient for all mankind to decide to abide by this rule. If all mankind offered the other cheek, no cheek would be struck. … If all men loved their enemies, there would be no more enemies. But if they drop away at the decisive moment, what is going to happen to the one person who does not drop away? For him the word of life will be changed into the word of death.”

“It is absolute fidelity to the principle defined in his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no other cause for his death than the love of one’s neighbour lived to the very end, with an infinitely intelligent grasp of the constraints it imposes.”

Read the rest here.

Did Marcus Aurelius feel too little – or too much? Hmmmm…

Monday, May 13th, 2019

“Keep calm and carry on.” He invented it.

Last month, on the 26th, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius celebrated his 1,898th birthday somewhere. I know, I know… you forgot to send a card to the stoic author of the Meditations. But it’s not too late to think about him. I do, regularly, when I need to keep my emotions in check, when I am frustrated  by what I cannot change, or going crazy with impatience on something that needs time to work out, or ready to abandon hope on a knotty situation.

Did he feel too little, as is generally supposed – or too much? Over at the iai website, author Massimo Pigliucci, argues the latter (and thanks, as always, to our friends at 3quarksdaily for the heads-up.) An excerpt:

‘When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of mucus.’ (VI.13)

These don’t exactly sound like the musings of someone who delights in gourmet food or drinks (Falernian was the best wine an ancient Roman could buy), not to mention someone with a romantic bent. But Marcus was deploying a technique that modern psychologists call ‘reframing,’ and a good case can be made that he wrote the above precisely in order to help himself temper his own far too emotional attachment to things that are best seen in a slightly cooler light. Do not get so overexcited about your dinner courses — he tells himself — remember that food is for nutrition, and that one doesn’t need exotic fauna to enjoy a savoury meal. When you get too cocky about being the emperor, just bring back to mind that the purple of which you are so proud is derived from crustacean blood. And try not to go overboard with this sex thing; after all, you’ve already had 14 children!

So the most famous philosopher-king in history was not attempting to suppress emotions (which the Stoics, good psychologists that they were, recognised is both impossible and undesirable), but rather to question them when they take a disruptive form. In fact, one overall goal of Stoic training was to shift out emotional spectrum, so to speak, from negative ‘passions’ like fear, anger and hatred to positive ones, like love, joy and a sense of justice.

Read the rest here.

Werner Herzog’s short talk about a long walk from Munich to Paris

Thursday, May 9th, 2019


Legendary film director Werner Herzog during an earlier visit to Stanford. (Photo: L.A. Cicero).

Filmmaker Werner Herzog came to Stanford on Tuesday, to discuss his book, Of Walking in Iceduring a Q&A with Amir Eshel, Robert Harrison, and a small invited audience at the Stanford Humanities Center. The discussion was characteristically iconoclastic. Martian colonies? “The idea is obscene,” he said. “The universe is not harmony of the spheres, but chaotic and murderous and it’s not a good place out there.”

The 20th century saw the demise of political utopias, he observed – the Communist, the Nazi dreams were dashed to pieces. The 21st century will see the “bankruptcy of technological utopias,” he continued. “It is baloney – we’ll see in this century.”

“My consolation, my anchor,” he said, is the Psalms and the Book of Job. And he reiterated, as he did on a former visit, that it was for his books, not his films, that he will be remembered.

Before we adjourned for dinner at a restaurant in Menlo Park, he took about a dozen questions about his book. Of Walking in Ice is the publication of his diaries describing his three-week journey on foot from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974. He believed his wild trek would throw a lifeline to his dying friend and mentor, Lotte Eisner. And it worked. An excerpt:

No, not a soul, intimidating stillness. Uncannily, though, in the midst of all this, a fire is blazing, lit, in fact with petrol. It’s flickering, a ghostly fire, wind. On the orange-colored plain below I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. A train races through the land and penetrates the mountain range. Its wheels are glowing. One car erupts in flames. The train stops, men try to extinguish it, but the car can no longer be extinguished. They decide to move on, to hasten to race. The train moves, it moves into fathomless space, unwavering. In the pitch-blackness of the universe the wheels are glowing, the lone car is glowing. Unimaginable stellar catastrophes take place, entire worlds collapse into a single point. Light can no longer escape, even the profoundest blackness would seem like light and the silence would seem like thunder. The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void. Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into Un-stars. Utter blissfulness is spreading, and out of utter blissfulness now springs the Absurdity. This is the situation.

And a sampling of his conversation, during an earlier visit to Stanford for the Another Look book club, is below:

Robert Harrison’s “Entitled Opinions”: philosophy without borders

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

Over at the blog for the American Philosophical Association, I have a guest post describing my work with Robert Pogue Harrison‘s brainchild, the intellectual talk show Entitled Opinions, available as a radio show and podcasts. The piece been adapted from a longer essay that will appear in Literary Criticism as Public Scholarship (edited by Rachel Arteaga and Rosemary Johnsen), under contract with Amherst College Press. An excerpt from the blogpost:

I teamed with Harrison to plan for a bigger future for Entitled Opinions a few years agoA generous donation from former Stanford President John Hennessy helped fund a website redesign, with easily searchable programming and a home of its own that was not in a hard-to-find corner of the French and Italian Department website.

I argued that there was nothing on either the new or old website to indicate what a listener would hear in the particular podcast – a powerful disincentive for anyone thinking to invest an hour. Not everyone will gamble an hour of their precious time that way. Jazz scholar Ted Gioia, a master of the social media, had counseled me that the missing component in our modern cyber-edifice is this: while there is much transferring text to visual images, tweets, audio, and so on, there is comparatively little transfer going in the opposite direction – that is, turning audio and visual content into text. A few synoptic paragraphs with quotations from the episode would entice as well as inform potential listeners.

We forged a partnership with the Los Angeles Review of Books, establishing a podcast channel for Entitled Opinions that would bring more visibility to the program and draw new audiences. We also struggled to get a presence on social media – no small thing either, as Harrison was at first resistant to Facebook, Twitter, and the rest. He cherished the cult status of Entitled Opinion, and emphasized the whole message of Entitled Opinions was for long thoughts over short ones, through the medium of intensive hour-long conversations. I was sympathetic. But in today’s world, to get the word out without using social media is to try to get the word out without getting the word out.

Now we are taking the next step: we are creating lightly edited transcripts and pitching them to the international media to spread the word about Entitled Opinions. Harrison’s interview with German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk ran in translation in Die WeltThe original English transcript is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books. The first of a two-part interview with French thinker René Girard ran in England’s Standpointthe second is scheduled for Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which has also run a translation of Harrison’s interview with American philosopher Richard RortyThe Chronicle of Higher Education has published part of a transcript of a conversation with “metahistorian” Hayden White.  More are on the way. (Both the Girard interviews will be published in my forthcoming Conversations with René Girard, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.)

Read the whole thing here.

Yet more praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “gorgeously written … a scintillating and atmospheric read.”

Monday, May 6th, 2019

You may have noticed we have been unusually silent in recent weeks about Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard and its progress through the world. Let us make amends. We received an lovely email from someone more familiar to us in our Twitter incarnation: Aashish Kaul, assistant professor in English at SUNY, Albany.

He wrote: “With an incredibly busy semester winding down, I have allowed myself the luxury of reading your marvel of a book on Girard. I am halfway through Evolution of Desire, and it is gorgeously written. The conjoining of balance, poise, and erudition makes this a scintillating and atmospheric read. Loving every moment of it. My congratulations!”

A second letter arrived the following day. 

Andrew Thompson of New York wrote us:  “I’m about halfway through your biography and am thoroughly enjoying it as an accessible introduction to Girard’s thought. I’ve just finished your chapter on the symposium with Derrida et al. and found it to be both the most lucid overviews of how post-structuralism found its way into the minds and tongues of American academics that I’ve found, and also one of the most succinct critiques of how those ideas filter down into memes that spread as intellectual vogue.”

Grateful thanks to both! And look what appeared last month in the New York Review of Books:

“Not ordinary speech, but extraordinary speech”: Robert Pinsky on John Milton and the American imagination

Saturday, May 4th, 2019

Milton’s man in America

“Great art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.” So writes Stanford poet (and friend) Robert Pinsky, in “The American John Milton,”  a 2008 article I just discovered in Slate.  Milton’s ideal “is not a poetry based on ordinary speech—which has been one Modernist slogan—but extraordinary speech.”

Two excerpts from the former U.S. poet laureate’s article:

Here is an interesting, continuing conflict in American writing and culture: the natural versus the expressionistic, or simplicity versus eccentricity, or plainness versus difficulty. American artists as different as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams belong more or less in the “ordinary speech” category. On the other, “Miltonic” side of that division about word order in the mother tongue, consider the expressive eccentric Emily Dickinson, who in her magnificent poem 1068 (“Further in Summer Than the Birds”) writes this quatrain about the sounds of invisible insects in the summer fields:

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

In these lines, the natural and the mysterious become one, an effect arising not just from the words (“Canticle”) but also from their order.


In the days when the Fourth of July was celebrated on town greens, the occasion was marked by fireworks, band music, and speeches—speeches that almost invariably quoted John Milton, the anti-Royalist and Protestant poet. Anna Beer, in the preface to her useful new biography Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, points out Milton’s considerable influence on the Founding Fathers. English writer Peter Ackroyd published, in the ‘90s, a novel called Milton in America, imagining the poet’s actual immigration—an outgrowth, in a way, of the more remarkable, actual story of Milton’s work in the American imagination.

I once heard the great American poet and iconoclast Allen Ginsberg recite Milton’s poem “Lycidas” by heart. Nearly every page of John Hollander’s indispensable anthology Nineteenth Century American Poetry bears traces of that same poem. In Ginsberg’s published journals from the mid-’50s, he assigns himself the metrical task of writing blank verse (and succeeds with subject matter including his lover Peter Orlovsky’s ass: “Let cockcrow crown the buttocks of my Pete,” another perfect pentameter).

By the way, Derek Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – so Ginsberg wasn’t alone. Read Robert Pinsky’s article in its entirety here.  

“The fuel for my books is a 50/50 mix of dark roast java and printer toner”: jazz scholar Ted Gioia on writing.

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

I didn’t know that I had quite so much in common with jazz scholar and friend Ted Gioia until I read  “Award-Winning Historian and Bestselling Author Ted Gioia On The Keys To Productive Research and The Most Important Rule Of Writing” over at the Writing Routines website.

Unlike Ted, however, I left pad and pencil behind at my first newspaper job, as a 17-year-old cub reporter at the Pontiac Press. I was writing, literally writing, a story when an editor brushed by me and said, “Here, we compose on the typewriter.” And so I did. (That’s right – typewriter. Remember those?)

Other than that, we differ only in the brand of coffee. Mine at right. Brew it strong enough and you can stand a spoon up in it.

An excerpt from the Q&A:

When and where do you like to write? Are you the same-thing-every-day kind of writer or can you write anytime, anywhere?

Over the years, I have tried every possible writing routine. My first book was written longhand while sitting at a desk in a library—and I had to hire a typist to turn my scribblings into a publishable manuscript. By the time, I wrote my second book, I had purchased one of the very first Apple computers, but adapting to the digital age was challenging. The floppy disk containing two chapters of that book somehow got damaged, and I had to recreate the text from various notes and earlier drafts. But I persisted with digital technology, and now can’t imagine working without it.

Writer’s block? Ha! (Photo D, Shafer)

Today I write in a quiet home office with two computers, and my large personal library near at hand for consultation.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits before you sit down to write?

Probably the only essential pre-writing ritual is a cup of coffee—preferably Major Dickason’s Blend from Peet’s. Other pre-writing rituals can easily become distractions, so I avoid them. But the coffee is essential. The fuel for my books is a 50/50 mix of dark roast java and printer toner.

What do you do when the writing doesn’t come easy? Do you struggle at all with that dreaded enemy of writing: writer’s block? Do you think such a thing exists?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. If I waited for inspiration before I began writing, I would never get anything finished, or even started, for that matter. I set aside time every day to write. When I sit down and start, I am prepared—because I have spent much of my life in preparation for the writing projects I undertake.

Read the rest here

Australian poet Les Murray is dead at 80: “The deadliest inertia is to conform with your times” – and he didn’t.

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

With the Russian poet Regina Derieva in Stockholm, 2007 (Photo: Tomas Oneborg)

The Nobel evaded him, and now he shall never get it, though he was considered among the greatest poets of our era. The Australian poet Les Murray died peacefully yesterday at 80. In 2012, the National Trust of Australia classified Murray as one of Australia’s 100 living treasures, but he was much more than that, from the beginning.

David Mason – a new Australian

David Mason, writing in today’s First Things: “Murray grew up in dire poverty on a farm with no electricity or running water, and always felt exiled from the privileged classes. Largely self-educated, at university he was so poor he ate the scraps he found on plates in the cafeteria. Profoundly asocial, he once called himself ‘a bit of a stranger to the human race.’ He also suffered at times from debilitating depression, and was bullied in school for being bookish and fat. Yet he transformed his sense of personal injury to a poetic voice of rigor and flexibility, humor and empathy, and enormous formal range. He was a generous anthologist and editor as well as an essayist, poet, and verse novelist. ‘It was a very great epiphany for me,’ he once said, ‘to realize that poetry is inexhaustible, that I would never get to the end of its reserves.’”

We had mutual friends, among them Alexander Deriev, whose wife was the late Russian poet Regina Derieva, and the poet Dave Mason himself, who is now an Australian poet by choice rather than birth. He had corresponded with Murray, who published some of his poems (presumably in the Australian Quadrant, where Murray was poetry editor) but they never met face to face.

Here’s another treat: if you want to know something about him, you might go to this soundcloud 1985 PEN recording of Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Richard Howard in conversation with Murray. I’m still listening to it…

“The body of work that he’s left is just one of the great glories of Australian writing,”said his agent of three decades, Margaret Connolly. “The thought that there will be no more poems and no more essays and no more thoughts from Les – it’s very sad and a great loss.”

David Mason, writes: “Murray deserves to be ranked among the best devotional poets—from Donne and Herbert to Eliot and Auden—but his work has an earthiness and irreverence of its own, a tragic sense of human life and a Whitmanesque sympathy for the lives of animals. His wordscapes and landscapes were local, Australian, with everything that distinction signifies—including the transported convict’s sense of justice and the nation’s thoroughly multicultural heritage. His art wasn’t bound by pieties, political or otherwise, because he understood the position of poetry—and of language itself—in relation to reality.”

Faced with the theological question “Why does God not spare the innocent?,” Murray replied in a quatrain that is perhaps one of his best known poems, perhaps because of, rather than despite, its economy of words:

The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it.

Les Murray, Daniel Weissbort and Alexander Deriev having meal after the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival. Stockholm, 2004.

David notes that the poem, called “The Knockdown Question,” is a minor epigram in the Murray oeuvre, “but it partakes of the same theological experience as Eliot’s Four Quartets. Murray was not always so blunt.”

David Malouf told the ABC that Murray was “utterly unorthodox” and described his work as “undoubtedly the best poems anybody has produced in Australia.”

“He knew that he could be difficult — nobody pretends that he wasn’t — but he was always difficult in an interesting way.”

He told the Paris Review:  I’m a dissident author; the deadliest inertia is to conform with your times.”

Is Stanford University Press doomed? “This is a reprehensible moment for one of the richest universities.”

Sunday, April 28th, 2019

Alan Harvey directs Stanford U’s press. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Prof. Peter Stansky opened his annual “A Company of Authors” event on Saturday with a somber comment: “Those in the Stanford community who are interested in books may be interested to know that the provost of the University has decided, it appears, to terminate significant financial support of the Stanford University Press which will result in the downgrading of the press, making it unworthy of this University. In fact the University should increase its support and pursue a search of an endowment for the Press that would make it, as is the university of which it is a part, a press as strong as those at its peer institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.  It is peculiar thinking that the Press, unlike the rest of the University, should be self-supporting.” 

I didn’t realized the story had already appeared the day before in The Chronicle of Higher Education: The article began this way: 

“Stanford has the world’s third-largest university endowment, valued in 2018 at $26.5 billion. Yet it is crying poverty to explain why it can no longer provide yearly $1.7-million subsidies to its acclaimed press. The announced cut, which became public in a Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday, has confounded and outraged faculty members and other press supporters, and is seen by many as a backhanded way of closing the scholarly publisher.

“‘This is a reprehensible moment for one of the richest universities in the world and a diminution of intellectual inquiry. It really boggles the mind,’ said Woody Powell, a Stanford sociology professor, a former member of the press’s editorial board, and a current adviser to it.”

Read the rest here.

Hundreds of signatures have already been collected on a petition (below). Anyone with a Stanford affiliation is urged to sign the online petition here. People not affiliated with Stanford, but support academic presses, sign here.

A University Press is a Vital Part of Stanford’s Identity as a University.

It is Not Meant to Be a Profit-Making Entity.

To President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell:

A letter from members of the Stanford academic community has been circulating in support of Stanford University Press. We are members of the larger academic community who rely on the Press for our own work. We want to add our voices to those of your own scholars at Stanford. The intellectual value of Stanford University Press extends far beyond your campus.

You have announced the elimination of the modest annual subsidy (~$1.7 million) to Stanford University Press, a move that will be severely damaging and likely fatal to the Press. Academic presses are vital to the life of the university and to the world of learning. They are the means by which we communicate the results of our research, and the entire university mission of teaching and scholarship relies upon them. Stanford University Press is the oldest press in the western United States, with a long tradition of publishing major works in many areas of inquiry. It provides a vital public service that Stanford should be proud of.

If we use a purely financial metric to assess the value of academic books, the scholarly mission of the academy will be lost. Presses will publish only profitable books, graduate students will write only profitable dissertations, and tenure will be awarded based on scholarship that is profitable. This will skew research and publication in exactly the wrong direction, away from the mission and purpose of a university, which is pursuit of knowledge and truth, and toward marketability The proposed elimination of Stanford University Press’s subsidy is an attack on academic freedom and free inquiry.

While of course a university needs enough money to continue functioning, no single unit need be “self-sustaining,” much less profitable, when viewed in isolation. We note that, according to Stanford Daily, the “net annual cost [of the athletic department at Stanford] is … around $67 million.” The Stanford Athletic Department thus appears not to be “self-sustaining.” Why have you chosen to single out the University Press for this application of supposed “business models” when other units on campus similarly do not turn a profit? The point of a University Press, or any academic department, is not profit. Nor, obviously, is this the mission of a major (non-profit) research university.

We urge you to rethink your approach to the Press and to recommit Stanford to its long tradition of fostering new knowledge, path-breaking intellectual work, and free inquiry. The Press forms part of the core mission of the great university that Stanford is and that, we hope, it will remain.