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A MIXED REPUTATION PLAGUES pmla, the 115-year-old flagship journal of the Modern Language Association (MLA): prestigious but deadly dull. While assistant professors dog-ear their copies of Critical Inquiry and Representations, PMLA tends to pile up on bookshelves for future reference. And though heavyweight scholars gild PMLA’s editorial board, few disciplinary stars actually submit articles to the journal. Filling its pages instead are dense papers by midtier scholars and even graduate students.

Such may be the ineluctable fate of any general-interest humanities journal in a hyperspecialized world. Once the bible for graduate students, it’s now just one of hundreds of alternatives in a crowded scholarly market.

Despite the MLA’s reputation as an elephantine bureaucracy, Martha Banta, professor emerita at UCLA and PMLA’s editor since 1997, is determined to energize the journal–the goal, she declared a year ago, being to keep it from devolving into the "Kmart of the profession" while avoiding the opacity of the most narrow boutique journals.

First on her agenda was an aesthetic overhaul. The journal’s appearance was infamous: "I have always found PMLA graphically ugly and the mid-80s redesign didn’t help," wrote British literary scholar Terry Castle in a typical assessment in 1995. "It remains incorrigibly schoolmarmish in looks and format." No longer. The January PMLA sports a lush, three-color cover design, as well as catchy cover lines like "The negative force of ‘crash aesthetics’" advertising the content. The overhaul comes courtesy of Toni Ellis, who is responsible for the dapper look of Signs.


On a more substantive level, Banta has also solicited opinions from foreign scholars on how well PMLA serves them. Some respondents in the October 1998 issue were euphoric as only literature professors can be: PMLA is "the metonymic displacement or synecdochic condensation of the wish-dream," gushed one Korean scholar. Others fumed: One French professor likened the articles he had read to "mass-buried stillborns," while a scholar in the Philippines explained that intellectuals in his country are too busy with "armed political struggle" to read something as frivolous as PMLA.

More likely to provoke controversy, however, is PMLA’s decision to reconsider its famous–or infamous–blind-review process. The system was established in 1980 after a rancorous fight in which minority and female scholars complained that they were shut out of the journal by an old-boy network. Certain names atop an article virtually guaranteed acceptance, the argument went, and those names belonged almost invariably to white males. As a result, elaborate mechanisms to guarantee authorial anonymity were instituted. Today numerical codes are given to articles at the MLA’s New York City offices before they are sent out for review. Writers must also avoid self-citations and giveaway references in their manuscripts. Two scholars read each submission, offering detailed comments. They can then reject it, send it along to the editorial board, or, in borderline cases, refer it to a third reviewer. It can take up to a year and a half from the time a manuscript is dropped in the mail to its appearance in print (in contrast to the mere months it takes to get commissioned essays into print in other journals). "Overall, of course, there are some wonderful articles," says Carol Thomas Neely, a recent editorial board member. "But why, given this rigorous review process, and all the rewriting, aren’t more of them better?"

In fact, PMLA’s current editorial board decided, all the rigor and rewriting may be part of the problem. "Once you are established as a scholar, there is not a lot of motivation to go through what can be a brutal editorial process," says David Rodowick, a professor of English and visual studies at the University of Rochester and an editorial board member. Rodowick confesses he has never submitted an article. Concluding that the journal’s blind review was an obstacle to attracting top scholars to its pages, Banta’s editorial board wants to eliminate blind review altogether. Now it’s up to the MLA executive council to approve the change.


In the original, late-1970s brouhaha over blind review, Stanley Fish made the most memorable argument against it. In a notorious essay titled "No Bias, No Merit," he argued that trying to divorce "pure merit" from "extraneous circumstances" was a quixotic and theoretically naive quest where literary criticism was concerned. An article by a well-known scholar, he postulated, was literally a "different paper" from the exact same text written by an unknown. In dismissing books XI and XII of Paradise Lost as an "untranslatable lump of futurity," for example, C.S. Lewis set the terms of discussion of those texts for decades–precisely because he was C.S. Lewis. On a more pragmatic note, Fish wrote: "I have paid my dues and earned the benefit of the doubt I now enjoy, and don’t see why others shouldn’t labor in the vineyards as I did."

Fish now says he will wait to hear PMLA’s arguments before taking sides, but junior scholars may detect echoes of his hauteur in the new campaign against blind review, despite the milder locutions of the current MLA officers. "I do have a commitment to graduate students, and I want them to continue to get essays published in PMLA," says Carol Thomas Neely. "We would hope to get the same range of submissions, but to get more well-known people willing to submit articles." There is plenty of middle ground in the debate, she insists. For example, coordinators of special-topic issues and forums could be allowed to solicit some articles from academics whose work has defined the subject under consideration. Moves in this direction are already in the works.

The ultimate arbiter, the seventeen-member MLA executive council, appears divided on the issue. "I, for one, oppose ending the anonymous submission policy for PMLA essays," says CUNY professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a council member. "I oppose it for exactly the same reasons–concerning access, democratization of the profession, et cetera–as those for which the policy was instituted in the first place."

One would think that the greatest resistance to abolishing the blind-review process would come from those who stand to benefit from it most: graduate students. But given that they’ve been weaned in an academic culture where having the right connections can push one far ahead, some students may not realize just how PMLA is different. "I was really surprised that I could submit something anonymously to PMLA," says David Sedley, a comparative literature grad student at Princeton whose essay "Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne" appeared in the October issue. "I don’t know anyone over there." Sedley’s colleagues may not know what a good thing they had until it’s too late.


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