Printer’s Devil: Screwtape and Wormwood Take on Academic Publishing

The golden era of social satire is… yeah, OK, kind of over. In this age of irony, its time may have come and gone. But satire once had its uses, primarily to hold up a funhouse mirror to human foibles in an otherwise earnest world. Ideally, this was hoped to bring about social change through shame—always a constructive method, as any dog owner knows, though maybe less effective in an time when Jon Stewart is one of the most trusted names in news. Still, it’s good to remember where—or at least what—satire got us over the years: Candide, Dr. Strangelove, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

That last one I haven’t read in years, but I remember enjoying it. Not so much for Lewis’ Christian message, which I also completely managed to miss in the Narnia books—I grew up much too Godless for that to make a dent—but for his epistolary portraits of the senior demon, Screwtape, and his hapless nephew Wormwood. I liked the idea of a devil for each shoulder, completely bypassing that pesky angel.

Now Bryn Geffert has a piece up on Inside Higher Ed taking off on The Screwtape Letters. This time Screwtape is holding forth on academic publishing, certainly a meaty topic for a senior demon to sink his pointed little teeth into. While scholarly publishing isn’t exactly a general interest topic, it’s a subject I’ve been giving some thought to, especially this semester. And I like to think it has enough bearing on the publishing world in general, and the ways in which the shift from print to digital has been uncomfortable and messy for nearly everyone involved, to be worth extrapolating from. The dilemma that academic journals, writers, and presses find themselves in right now is something of a microcosm of trade publishing. Or maybe a macrocosm. A cosm, anyway. And Geffert’s post spells it all out for you, in the spirit of all the best satire—you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but you’ll come away with a pretty comprehensive idea of the basic issues in play.

My Dear Wormwood,…

Who in their right mind still takes such nonsense seriously? Only the blathering idealists still running university presses. Only the luddites still committed to self-righteous clap-trap.

“We want to make scholarship widely available,” they say. “We believe research should be available even to those without deep pockets.” “The academy and its literature still have relevance for the taxpayers and donors who support it.” “Information serves a public good.”

Well lah-de-dah.

How’s that working for them?

And so forth. Subtle it may not be, but it’s informative, and this is a good issue for readers and writers everywhere to know their way around at least a little. I don’t know that there will be any kind of trickle-down from academia, or if there are even enough analogous points to imagine that happening, but I do think that these issues will get ironed out on campuses sooner than in the general marketplace. And when publishers, vendors, e-reader purveyors, and librarians do figure out a model they can all live by, they’ll have been looking over their shoulders to see how the world of scholarly communication worked it out.

In the meantime, I don’t know about you, but I’m envisioning Evil Wylie playing Screwtape in the movie version.

(The photo is of a carved printer’s devil above a print shop at No. 33 Stonegate, York, England, from Hong Yong Lim’s photostream.)

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