How to Survive in Oz as an Academic Part 2. The Power Dynamics in American Publishing and How To Navigate Them as a Freelance Writer.

This post was revised on May 7, 2022.

Last week I wrote about the three different types of book reviews an academic needs to know about if they venture outside the field of academic publishing. This week I will be talking about how to publish articles as a freelance writer, for the same reasons that I talked about book reviews last week: institutions of higher education in the United States keep churning out more graduates and post-graduates than they can employ, and because of that more academics publish work in both mainstream media and academic publications. But mainstream media and academic publishing are not the same; this is as true for book reviews as it is for articles.

Freelance writer

Most of the articles you read in a magazine, either print or online, are written by freelancers. A freelancer is a person who is hired by a publication to write a specific text. Freelancers are independent contractors and not part of the staff.

Being a freelancer is fun and exciting, but it is also hard and nerve-wracking. As academics we are taught how to submit articles to scientific journals. It is part of what we do as scholars, especially if we are on the tenure track.

When we submit articles to scientific journals, we submit them as finished pieces. If the journal is peer reviewed, the editor sends our article to other scholars to recommend it for publishing, or they will recommend that the journal not publish our piece. This process can take months, sometimes even years. When the results come back, we are either told that our article will be published as is, it will be published after revisions, or it will be rejected. Either way, we are always told whether or not our article will be published. We are also told the reasons why our article is either accepted or rejected.

Not so in mainstream media. When you want to publish an article in mainstream media, you pitch an idea. The turn around time on your pitch is quick. If you are rejected you will not be told why. Sometimes you are ghosted. You will be paid for your efforts.

But just like academic publishing, mainstream media publishing is built on power dynamics. If you are not aware of them, when you go from academic publishing into mainstream media, it might feel as if you are going from the fire into the frying pan.

American publishing is based on two types of power dynamics. The first power dynamic is that American publishing is built by and for white heterosexual men. This is a fact regardless of whether you write for magazines or newspapers, or if you write books. Anyone who is not part of that group, or whose writing doesn’t pander to that group, needs to work harder to get to where they want to go.

The second type of power dynamic is between editors (and agents, if you write a book) and writers. There are of course exceptions, but on a systemic level, the attitude in publishing is that writers exist for the benefit of the editors, that is to say, a writer is dependent on the goodwill of an editor because without them the writer wouldn’t be a writer. An editor (and an agent) can dictate the terms of the working relationship between them and a writer, even if those terms are based on something as flimsy as pet peeves.

But at closer scrutiny, the reverse is true. A writer doesn’t have to be published to be a writer. All a writer needs to do is write. Meanwhile, editors (and agents) wouldn’t have their jobs without writers. Crucial to remember when you start pitching your work is that the power lies with you, even when someone else is trying to make you believe that it does not.

Here are steps you can take to exercise your power as a freelancer when you pitch your work for publication.

Identify Your Deal Breakers.
It might sound counterintuitive that the first step is to decide on what will break a deal rather than make a deal. But this is important, because by setting boundaries for what you accept and don’t accept in a business transaction, you enter into the negotiations on your own terms.

The first step towards identifying your deal breakers is to think about your writing goals. Why do you write? Why do you want to be published? What kind of writing do you want to do? Do you want to make money off your writing?

The answers to this type of questions will determine what your deal breakers are. The answers can be vague at first and crystallize as you start pitching and publishing, and that is okay. The answers, and the questions, might change over time, and that is okay too. Whenever I am in a situation where I need to decide on making or breaking a deal, I ask myself the question: Will this take me where I want to go? If the answer to that question is no, I don’t make the deal.

The Pitch.
Setting your writing goals and identifying your deal breakers will determine what kind of publications you will send your pitches to. Do your research before you pitch so that you don’t waste anyone’s time.

A pitch is the email you send to an editor where you propose your idea for the text you want to write for their publication. Some publications, especially those who publish essays, may want you to send in a finished piece, but most newspapers and magazines want you to send them a pitch.

A pitch consists of three parts. The first part is where you introduce your idea and get the editor hooked. The second part is where you explain to the editor why your idea is right for their publication. The third part is where you introduce yourself and include any links to previous work (bylines). If you don’t have any previously published bylines, this might seem like a Catch 22, but it’s not. Just like in any other kind of business, we work our way up. Now, if you want to pitch the New Yorker right off the bat, I’m not going to tell you not to do it. After all, that’s how Anthony Bourdain got discovered, right? But wait, wasn’t he a…? Yup.

Oh, and one more thing. Look at the publication’s masthead to find the name of the editor you need to contact. Sometimes it’s confusing as to who does what, and sometimes there is only a generic email address. You need to work your best guess here, or lead with the name of the publication, because a pitch that starts with “To Whoever It May Concern” or “Dear Editors” will go nowhere.

Contracts, Rights, and Fees.
So, you have identified your writing goals and your deal breakers, and you have sent out your pitch. You check your inbox and the editor likes your idea. Yay! This is when you need to make the tough decisions because this is when you need to talk about the messy stuff like contracts, copyright, and money. And remember: The power lies with you. As soon as you feel that something is off or you come up against one of your deal breakers: WALK AWAY. There is always another publication that will treat you better.

Before you send in any text to the editor, you need to agree on the following: payment, kill fee, and copyright. The payment is the fee you will be paid for your work. You negotiate this with the editor. Some publications don’t pay or pay minimally. If you are okay with this, you can continue the discussion. If you are not okay with this, WALK AWAY. The rule I go by is that I only work for free when I work for me. If you want me to work for you, you need to pay me. The kill fee is the fee paid if your article for some reason doesn’t make it to publication. Copyright is determined by the clauses in the contract.

Most of the time you will need to ask for the contract. The editor will say that they are surprised that you ask for one. This is not them necessarily playing games. Because of the power dynamic where writers are led to believe that they are the weaker party, few writers ask for contracts. When a publication says they will not send you a contract or they will not commit to an agreement in writing, even in an email: WALK AWAY.

Read through the contract. Contracts are important because regardless of whether an editor accepts a pitch from you, or if an editor reaches out with the intention of hiring you, they are commissioning work from you. Depending on what your contract says that work can be considered a work for hire, which means that your text, once published, does not belong to you.

The contract needs to contain clauses on who owns the work and who has the right to use it, where, how, and for how long. Most standard clauses say that the publication owns all rights in perpetuity throughout the universe in publication forms existing and not yet invented. If you are okay with that, sign the contract. If not, negotiate. Again, don’t be surprised if this catches the editor off guard; most writers don’t negotiate the contracts, and editors tend not to know the contents of their contracts at the top of their heads. If the editor doesn’t want to negotiate: WALK AWAY.

The contract also needs to contain how their payment to you will be made; what will happen if they don’t pay on time; and the kill fee if you don’t deliver or the publication decides they don’t want your work for whatever reason, which happens more often than you might think. If the publication does not pay you on time, you have the right to send them a reminder. Depending on what your contract says, you might be allowed to send a reminder and add a late fee. However, I know of writers who have been blacklisted by publications for doing this, so proceed with caution. Because you can’t trust when a payment will be made, make sure to have another more stable source of income until you are established enough to have money in the bank and a credit line that can take on added expenses.

When it comes to the fee you will be paid, you decide what is equitable for you, and don’t let anyone shame you for it. Fee shaming is a tactic used in publishing where better paid and more established writers shame less established writers for taking lower-paying writing jobs. Fee shaming is often used by white writers against writers of color as a tactic to push writers of color out of writer networking groups and publishing altogether. Fee shaming is classist and racist. It is gatekeeping and violence.

At the same time, don’t let an editor low ball you. As I said at the top, publishing is based on a power dynamic with white men on top. In second place are white women. This means, that if you are not white, the system is set up to discriminate against you. Because the power dynamic is also in favor of the editors, few writers discuss the fees they are paid. One good place to get an idea of how much different publications pay is the anonymous crowdsourced website Who Pays Writers.

Choose Your Battles.
When things get weird, we need to choose what battles to fight. Once you send in a text to an editor, you make yourself available for edits. And the editor will edit your text, whether you like it or not. That is part of the deal, and it is their job. The editor is a professional who works with texts all the time. The editor is the expert on what works for their publication. Some editors are very hands on; others make light changes; others make no changes at all. Either way, you need to be open for edits.

That is not to say that you need to accept all edits that are made. Here you need to go back to your deal breakers. If you accept the edits, will it change the meaning of your text? If yes, are you okay with that? If you are okay with that, go ahead and make the changes. If you are not okay with that, WALK AWAY. Again, these situations are why kill fees are important.

An editor I once worked with expressed surprise when I, in an article about the Viking Age, stated that white supremacist groups have appropriated viking culture. Here, I had a choice to make whether or not I should fight for this particular part of the text. Instead of making a big deal about it, I decided to delete that part. Why? Because the focus of the article was Viking Age women, not American white supremacy groups, and I had already published an article about that topic elsewhere. And even if I hadn’t already written about it, I knew I could pitch it as a second article to another publication.

You also need to remember that depending on the publication, you have limited say in your article’s headline and the images that illustrate your article.

Turning and Not Turning the Other Cheek
Editors can be the most wonderful people in the world, they can also be jerks, and some might even be racists. Because the power dynamics are set up in favor of the editors, the editor can kill your work at any time as they see fit (once again, this is why kill fees are important). If an editor treats you badly for whatever reason, always remain professional, even when they are not. If an editor puts you in a bad situation: WALK AWAY. If you decide to see the situation through, never pitch them again. If their behavior is particularly egregious and you feel safe to say that directly to the editor, speak up. If you want to spread the word about the behavior of a particular publication, do so in whatever way works best for you. Either way, it’s the editor and the publication that end up losing.

How to Be Hired Again
The easiest way to be hired again is not to roll over and accept everything the editor does to you. To be hired again, what matter the most is that you keep the word count and the deadline. The word count is set by the editor and is non-negotiable. The length of the texts is how a magazine or newspaper creates its own profile; flash prose, book reviews, essays, longreads, or longform reporting, to name a few.

The deadline is something you agree on together, but once set, you can’t break it unless under extreme circumstances. The times I have broken a deadline were when a hurricane destroyed my neighborhood and when a family member died. If you need to break a deadline, contact the editor and give them the heads up. Never put yourself in a situation where the editor needs to ask for the text.

Word counts and deadlines are crucial because each text that is published is part of a larger whole. If a text exceeds the word count or if a deadline is broken, there will be a domino effect that ripples through all aspects of either bringing an issue to print or updating the contents on the website.

And remember…
Each situation is a negotiation between you and the editor, and also between you and yourself. You will need to weigh your options at several points during the time you are working on a text with an editor. And after a while, you will find the editors who work well with you, and you will develop a relationship with them. But always remember that no matter what anyone will have you believe, the power lies with you.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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How to Survive in Oz as an Academic. The 3 Kinds of Book Reviews and Why You Need to Know the Difference.

Book critic.

Over the past week, the purpose of book reviews has once again been a topic for debate. If this comes as news to you, don’t worry. The debate happened within a limited group of academics and academia-adjacent people on Twitter. But even though those involved were few, the debate did raise some general questions about book reviews, what they are for, for whom they are written, and why that matters in the larger scheme of things.

There are three different types of book reviews: the online review, the media review, and the academic review. Each type of review has its own purpose, its own intended audience, and its own requirements of what it needs to contain.

The book review is an important part of any literate society’s intellectual life. Students write book reviews to practice critical thinking. Critics write book reviews to tell magazine and newspaper readers about books they should pay attention to. Academics write book reviews to further the production of knowledge.

Book reviews are an important part of a book’s publicity plan. Book reviews help spread the word that a specific type of book exists, which, hopefully, will help boost sales. The algorithms on Amazon.com, for example, are geared to boost books that get good reviews and make them more visible on the site. Though the sections for literary criticism in newspapers has shrunk over the years, having their book reviewed in a major newspaper is a status marker for authors. If The New York Times reviews your book, it means that you have arrived.

In academia, book reviews are very important. Mainly published in academic journals, book reviews are a way to inform scholars of what is happening in their field. At American universities, they are among the publications a scholar needs to have published to qualify for tenure.

Important to keep in mind here is that these three types of reviews–the online review, the media review, and the academic review–are not the same. Reviews on Amazon are written by general readers. Reviews in newspapers and magazines are written by critics. Reviews in academic journals are written by experts.

Nor is their intended audience the same. Reviews on Amazon are intended for anyone interested in buying a specific book. Newspaper and magazine reviews are intended for the readers of that specific publication. Academic reviews are intended for the experts’ colleagues.

But even though these three types of book reviews differ in audience and purpose, they need to contain the same things: a summary of the contents, an evaluation of the contents, and discussion about the topic and the author. The purpose of a book review is then to weigh the merits and demerits of a book and reach a conclusion of whether or not the book is worth your time.

But here the three categories diverge again, because depending on who you write the review for, each section of the book review needs to summarize, discuss, and evaluate in different ways. And this is where the book reviewer gets into trouble if they are unaware of the different expectations of the different publication venues.

An academic review needs to discuss the merits as well as the demerits of a book. I would say there is an unwritten expectation that an academic book review needs to focus on the demerits because that is how the scholar demonstrates their skills at critical thinking. A favorable academic review is seen as a biased review. Even if the reviewer pans the book, the review will be published for the sake of science.

A review in the media also needs to discuss the merits as well as the demerits, but emphasis lies on the merits. The purpose of these reviews is to inform readers of books that might interest them. Here, a negative review fills no purpose. If a reviewer destroys a book in their review, chances are the review will never see publication. It is up to the discretion of each individual publication how much of a negative discussion they will allow in the reviews they publish.

An academic review needs to reference other books. Again, this is how the reviewer demonstrates their chops at critical analysis and moving the scientific conversation forward. By referencing other books, the reviewer demonstrates that they are up to date with the state of the art of research while at the same time demonstrating where in the scientific conversation the reviewed book belongs. The compare-and-contrast nature of this part of the review is crucial to moving the production of knowledge forward.

A review in the media should not reference other books. The reason is simple: the publication decides which books to feature based on the profile of their publication and the demographics of their readership. They also decide which books to feature based on a relationship with the publisher (less discerning publications also decide which books to feature based on who their friends are, which is what sparked the debate during this past week, but that’s another story). A media publication would never publish a review that discuss other books than the one being reviewed.

An academic review needs to contain academic jargon, and by academic jargon I mean the analytical terms, phrases, and type of prose that qualifies as academic. Again, this is how the reviewer demonstrates that they are part of the field.

A media review should not contain academic jargon. The point of academic jargon is to establish a language that will serve as short hand for scholars engaged in the same type of research. For anyone outside of that field (and this includes other scholars), that jargon is gobbledigook. I remember being confused by a discussion on the history of Swedish coal miners because they kept talking about how coal miners “penetrated” each other. Turns out “penetration” was academic jargon for the economic reform of coal miner collectives. (Don’t ask…) A review that contains academic jargon will be killed by the editor.

A media review needs to be straight forward and to the point. An academic review needs to take its time and be circumspect. A media review needs to be short. An academic review can go on for pages. A media review is written in the active voice. An academic review can use the passive voice. A media review can be written in the first person. An academic review is always written in the third person.

Academics get into trouble when writing media reviews because we are taught that, as the avant-garde of knowledge production, our way of writing book reviews is the correct way. Because we mainly publish in academic publications, we never need to consider our audience because the audience is always the same, and they play by the same rules as we do. But as soon as we step into the world of media, we are no longer in Kansas. Instead of playing the role of expert, we now become critics.

It is becoming increasingly important for scholars to know the difference between academic publishing and media publications as the erosion of higher education continues and scholars turn to mainstream culture to support themselves.

Thanks to social media, more scholars than ever have a public voice. With a public voice comes name recognition. With name recognition comes opportunities. For us to capitalize on those opportunities, we need to learn the rules of the world we have stepped into. Similar to academia, the rules of that world are harsh, they are discriminatory, they are humiliating, and they do not provide everyone with a level playing field. But, like Dorothy who learned the rules of Oz so that she could pull the curtain on the Emperor when she arrived in Emerald City, for us to change those rules, we first need to learn to play by them.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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The Age that Never Existed. How Museum Bureaucrats Created the Viking Age.

As Robert Egger’s epic The Northman hits the movie screens today, the eternally intriguing Viking Age is once again in the spotlight. Based on a story from Gesta Danorum by Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (1160–1220), The Northman follows a man named Amleth on his journey for vengeance after his uncle murdered his father and married his mother.

Dubbed by its publicity campaign as the most accurate Viking movie ever made, The Northman shows the Viking North in all its cold, damp, dark, and messy glory. It taps into the strong sense of honor and vengeance-based vendettas that make stories like Njal’s Saga such a compelling read.

Scandinavia of the Viking Age was a fascinating world and a vibrant high culture. A sophisticated oral-based legal system, technically-advanced poetry made up on the spot, beautiful craftsmanship, state-of-the-art ship building, worldwide travels, rune stones where art and literacy (or perhaps better said, runacy) meet, and a religion that straddled the natural and supernatural and bent gender roles out of shape.

The Vikings attract such attention because we can project onto them our own anxieties and beliefs. Apart from the brief messages left behind on the runestones that litter the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish countrysides, the Vikings left no writings behind. Everything we know comes from people who met them, or people who wrote about them centuries after they were gone. Because the Vikings do not have a historical voice of their own, we can make them say and do whatever we want them to.

The most striking example of molding the Vikings into an image in which we can reflect ourselves are the Vikings themselves. Why? Because the Vikings never existed. And the Viking Age never happened.

Historical time periods are at the foundation of all history writing. Historical time periods are the sine qua non of history. The historical time periods of western history are based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, invented in Rome and medieval Europe, respectively. Based on how these calendars divide up time, intellectuals and historians across the centuries have identified what they believed were important historical events, and from these events, they organized the past into historical time periods. For example, the Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because during the Renaissance they were in the middle of the time of the Renaissance writers and Antiquity, and by Antiquity these writers meant Rome. The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because the one thousand years they lasted were considered to be of lesser value and interest than what came before and after.

A time period begins and ends with turning points. Scholars decide what those turning points are. This is not to say that all time periods are made up out of the blue and have no connection to events in the past, but a time period begins and ends depending on what scholars deem to be important.

In traditional history writing, the turning points were precise. The Roman Empire in the west ended in 476 CE when chieftain Odoacer deposed the western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus and declared himself king instead of emperor. The Middle Ages ended in 1492 when Christopher Columbus reached present-day Bahamas. Or in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittemberg. Or in the fourteenth-century when Petrarc discovered the letters of Roman consul Cicero. Wait… I’m confused…

Today, scholars have mostly abandoned the idea that time periods begin and end on a dime. Instead, we acknowledge that there are transition periods when one type of society morphs into another. This is why different scholars can study Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages and still talk about the same time period. It all depends on what questions the scholars want answered.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

History is considered to have begun in a region of Europe when Latin literacy is introduced. For Scandinavia this happened around the eleventh century. The combination of the introduction of Latin literacy, the introduction of Christianity, and the early formation of kingdoms rather than chieftancies is enough of a convergence of turning points to say that the eleventh century is when Scandinavian history, and also the Middle Ages began.

Before the Middle Ages in Scandinavia was the Iron Age. The Iron Age is not a historical time period; it belongs to archaeology. The Iron Age is the final stage of the prehistoric time periods known as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Iron Age in Scandinavia lasted between 500 BCE and 1050 CE. The Scandinavian Iron Age can be divided into subperiods: the Early Iron Age, which consists of the pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age, and the Later Iron Age, which consists of the Vendel Age and the Viking Age.

In the nineteenth century, when archaeology and history became professionalized and museums were invented, bureaucrats needed to label and categorize all the artifacts that became part of the collections housed in these new museums. At the same time, during the course of the nineteenth century, a change in the masculine ideal took place in Scandinavia.

As demonstrated by Anna Lihammer and Ted Hesselbom in their book Vikingen. En historia om 1800-talets manlighet (Historiska Media, 2021), in moving away from the emotionally oriented masculinity of the eighteenth century with its wigs, powdered faces, and high heels, a new type of masculinity was found in the Icelandic and Norse sagas, one of physical strength, honor, and endurance. This new type of ideal man was given the name “Viking,” after the part-time job of raiding and trading that some men participated in during the later years of the Iron Age. In the 1870s, when museums began cataloguing the archaeological finds dated to the late Iron Age, what they saw were artifacts from a high culture that stood out. They named this time period after the new type of ideal man. Thus, the Viking Age was born with a life span from 800 to 1050 CE.

Helmet excavated at Vendel, Sweden. Source: Wikipedia.

The Viking Age as a distinct time period ran into problems pretty quickly. In 1881, elaborate and rich graves were discovered in the village of Vendel, near Uppsala north of Stockholm in Sweden. What the archaeologists found at Vendel were massive ships graves with swords, helmets, shields, horses, drinking vessels, and board games, to name a few of the many fantastic artifacts.

However, the graves at Vendel were dated to between 550 and 800 CE, that is to say, they predated the Viking Age. But since the Viking Age already existed and instead of extending the Viking Age further into the past, yet another time period was invented: the Vendel Age.

Because of the similarities between the two, there is reason to argue that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age could have been consolidated into one and the same time period.

Here you might say that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age should be different time periods because the Vikings had ships with sails and they used those ships to go abroad and loot, trade, and be hired as mercenaries. Just look at what happened in England!

Yes, but, there is evidence in Scandinavia of close connections with the European continent and the British Isles well before either the Vendel Age or the Viking Age. Artifacts have shown that men from Scandinavia enlisted with the Roman army as early as the 4th century CE. Archaeological similarities show connections between early medieval England and Vendel Age Sweden. And then there is the eternal puzzle of Beowulf, considered the quintessential Old English poem but which takes place in Sweden and Denmark of the Vendel Age (also known as the Late Germanic Iron Age in Danish archaeology). Excavations at Uppåkra, today in southern Sweden but during the Vendel and Viking Ages part of the Danish realm, further reinforce the Vendel Age as a high culture with extensive international contacts.

If the beginning of the Viking Age is in flux, so is the end. In their teaching materials for grade schools, the Swedish National Museum dates the end of the Viking Age to c. 1100, thus pushing the transition to the Middle Ages another 50 years into the future. What we see here is how definitive dates have been replaced by transition periods. There is even a case to be made that the Viking Age ended in the thirteenth century when Iceland became part of the kingdom of Norway and the Icelandic Free State came to an end.

To further demonstrate how the Viking Age never existed, in European and North American history writing the Viking Age is considered part of the Middle Ages. This makes sense from the European point of view because the Vikings appear in the historical sources of medieval Byzantium, England, France, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. Interpreting the Vikings within a medieval context makes sense when you study how these societies reacted to the Scandinavian presence. But to say that the Viking Age in Scandinavia was medieval and that it lasted between 793 (the raid on Lindisfarne in England) and 1066 (the battle of Hastings, also in England) is to apply an interpretation and periodization to a region where none of this has any relevance.

So what about the Vikings themselves? What time period would they say they lived in? Well, they wouldn’t have said that they lived during the Viking Age, that is for sure. They didn’t live during the Middle Ages, either. And they wouldn’t have called themselves Vikings. To be a “viking” is to travel abroad to raid and trade and come back with riches and a reputation that precedes you. For the people who lived in Iron Age Scandinavia, the word “viking” was a job description, and not the name of a people nor the name of an ideal type of masculinity.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Additional sources:
Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm. A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020).
Cat Jarman, River Kings. A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavian to the Silk Roads (Pegasus Books, 2022).

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How to Extract a Cactus Needle from Your Skin, Or On the Mental Health Benefits of Keeping a Diary.

When the world shut down in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to start keeping a diary. I wanted to chronicle what was happening because it felt as if we were living through a historic moment.

As a historian, I am hesitant to declare anything happening in the now to be of historic importance. After all, history is what we decide it to be, and that decision isn’t made until decades after the fact when we can tell how the repercussions of an event played out (or didn’t play out, which means that the event will not be part of history).

Moleskin diary with a Ballograf mechanical pencil 0.5 and an eraser. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Well aware of the fact that I am not a person whose diary will be read and written about generations from now, I still felt a need to document my view of events for posterity, and also for myself. Little did I know that not only would I go on to chronicle events that took the entire world on a roller coaster ride seldom experienced, but keeping a diary has proved beneficial to my mental health.

I titled my diary “Corona Journal” (Coronadagbok) because my original intention was to chronicle the COVID-19 pandemic. The first couple of months are focused almost entirely on that.

The first entry of the diary is on March 13, 2020. It reads:

“On March 10, Broward County issued a state of emergency. On March 13, the city of Deerfield Beach and President Trump did the same. Lectures at FIU cancelled from March 12 to April 4. I am now teaching the online content available on Canvas. Spent the afternoon at Publix, Target, and Latinos to bunker for at least ten days of social distancing. New cases and deaths are reported every day. At least 15 known cases in Broward. The spread is increasing quickly. Reliable public information is hard to find.”

I started the diary on the blank pages at the back of my Passion Planner. The first few weeks are written spaciously. The writing is large, the spacing between the lines generous. On May 27 I ran out of pages, and I moved on to the large-size Moleskine notebooks I have used ever since. On the last page of the Passion Planner, the writing is small, cramped. I can tell that the pressure on the pen is heavier here than in March. When I finished for that day, I had spilled over onto the fly leaf.

From the first day of keeping my diary, I made it into a nightly routine to sit down and write before I go to bed. I still maintain that routine, and it has changed my life.

Whenever writers get together, sooner or later we end up asking each other, why do we write? Why do we do what we do? More writers than you can imagine answer with a simple sentence: Because we have to.

What that sentence means is that we have no choice in the matter. There are words and thoughts inside us that need to come out. If someone will ever read what we write is beside the point; we write anyway.

Photo by Z Crowe on Pexels.com

If I don’t write I feel a physical discomfort. Until very recently, I thought I was alone in feeling this way. Then I read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera where she says that not writing makes her physically ill and compares it to a cactus needle getting caught in her skin: It bothers you until you poke at it enough to make it come out. Then you feel relief. Until the next needle gets caught.

Sitting down with my diary every night is me plucking the cactus needle of the day from my skin. Because not only do I write because I have to, I am also one of those people whose self-esteem is connected to my achievements. When I write down what happened during the day, I see on the page that even on a day when it feels as if I achieved nothing, I always achieved something.

Writing a diary every night for the past two years has decreased my stress, my anxiety, and the physical discomfort I get from not writing. And, it has decreased my need to express myself on social media, which in turns leads to even less stress and anxiety. Instead of searching for a release on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, I make sense of my thoughts and the world in my diary.

I started my diary with the intention of chronicling the pandemic. My original idea was to stop writing when the pandemic ended. Last night, my diary entry began as it always does nowadays, with recording the daily deaths and cases of COVID-19 as reported by Johns Hopkins, and then I went on to talk about my day.

Contrary to what we are told, the pandemic is not over, but I already know that once it subsides, I will continue writing in my diary every night. Because I have to.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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The Invention of the Clash of Civilizations. A review of Nancy Bisaha’s CREATING EAST AND WEST

On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481), also known as Mehmed the Conqueror. Even though the relationship between Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity (today known as Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox Church, respectively) had been complicated since their messy break up in the middle of the 11th century, the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks came as a shock to the rest of Europe. Secure in their conviction that the fortified capital of the Byzantine Empire could withstand a long-term siege, allies had been slow to muster forces and send aid. And now, it was too late. The last bastion of the Roman Empire was no more.

In traditional history writing, the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE marks the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Behind this narrative lies the idea that Rome was the pinnacle of human civilization, and nothing has been the same since. After the light of Rome was extinguished, darkness fell on the world until light was kindled once more with the rebirth of Roman culture in fourteenth-century Italy.

We find evidence of this view of history in the Dark Ages, an outdated name for the time period otherwise known as the Middle Ages, which, incidentally, is also a pejorative name for the time period between the end of Rome and Rome born again. And, we find this view in the name of the time period that in Italy followed the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth.”

This simplistic narrative hides several complicated truths. For one, Rome didn’t suddenly collapse and leave the world in darkness. Nor was it the end of the entire Roman Empire. What happened was that to save the Empire from collapsing, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) divided the massive realm into two halves along a north-south axis, which created a Latin-dominated western half and a Greek-dominated eastern half, ruled by an emperor in the east and a co-emperor in the west. As it turned out, the eastern half dominated over the western half, most notably after Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) founded a new imperial capital where the Mediterranean meets the Black Sea. He named this city after himself–Constantinople.

As the eastern half of the Empire flourished, the western half struggled to stay together. In 476 CE, Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Ostrogothic king Odoacer and the Roman Empire in the west is considered to have come to an end. The debate on why the Roman Empire disintegrated in the west is a lively one, but suffice it to say, that when the Roman Empire went away in the west, it continued to exist in the east. We call that Rome the Byzantine Empire. Its capital remained Constantinople.

Whereas it can be debated whether or not the Renaissance is a time period of its own or if it is a cultural, political, and artistic movement among the elites of a fractured Italian peninsula that spread its influences over Europe for the next three centuries, the fact remains that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, new ideas flourished with inspiration from the Ancient world. These ideas built on their medieval predecessors, but as Nancy Bisaha argues in her excellent book Creating East and West. Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks, they were distinguished enough to warrant the label “new.” And, as Bisaha goes on to prove, one of the main catalysts for these new ideas was the Ottoman Turks taking Constantinople for themselves.

Whereas the relationship between Latin Christendom and the Muslim world at times was contentious during the Middle Ages, it is in the work of the Italian Renaissance humanists that Bisaha traces the invention of a clash of civilizations. People of the medieval world harbored prejudices and cultivated stereotypes about those who were not Christians, but the chauvinism, superiority, and vitriol that can be found in the writings of the Italian Renaissance humanists is of a different kind. The dichotomy between civilizations is more clearly drawn; the Othering of initially the Turks, but later all Muslims, is more marked; and the identity of Europe as something distinct and superior to the rest of the (Muslim) world is in the process of being formed.

By delving deep into a very large corpus of primary sources from Renaissance Italy, Bisaha convincingly demonstrates that these attitudes were not expressed by a chosen few of the Italian Renaissance humanists, but that they were widespread, and that the intellectuals who participated in the debate, which the fall of Constantinople sparked, were many.

Suffice it to say, Creating East and West is an excellent book. The research is extensive and meticulous. The writing craft is exemplary. The historical analysis is on the highest level.

If I were to criticize this book for anything it would be how it positions itself in the existing research at the time of its publication in 2004. As a scholar who has worked in different European countries and in the United States, I am well aware of how difficult it is to obtain books from abroad. I am also well aware that much has changed as to what was available in 2004 compared to today when libraries and book publishing is increasingly digitized.

All that being said, I still need to point out that the majority of the books and articles referenced by Bisaha are Anglo-American publications. A handful are European, even fewer are Italian. Of the Italian publications, two are from 1999 and 2002, respectively. The rest are older, some significantly so.

Moreover, in the book’s otherwise impeccable introduction chapter, the historians whose works that Bisaha discusses as the most relevant research that the book is positioning itself against are all either British or American (and they are all men). Publishing this type of book is an important step in the recruiting process towards tenure at an institution of higher education in the United States. Therefore, positioning yourself within the field where you intend to have your career is crucial.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a book on Italian and European history that does not position itself against the work of Italian and European historians. This would be the same as if an Italian historian would write about the American Revolution and then only position their work against that of other Italians.

This is not to criticize Bisaha or her credentials as a historian; it is merely an observation about a systemic issue within academia.

However, this observation does beg the somewhat uncomfortable question: how relevant are Bisaha’s findings in the larger context of European history and historical research? The Italian Renaissance is not my field of expertise, and because of that I am unable to determine whether something of importance did take place in Italian humanist thought following the fall of Constantinople, or whether the writings of the humanists come across as important because they look important in the primary sources.

Or, perhaps the geriatric publications in Bisaha’s references are evidence of the fact that what Bisaha highlights in her book is under-researched among Italian historians, and her findings are something that shakes life into a research field that has stagnated?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, because the book doesn’t tell me.

These reservations aside, Bisaha’s results do demonstrate that a shift did take place among Italian Renaissance humanists after 1453, and these new thoughts that developed are of significance because of Italy’s cultural influence over the rest of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. They are also of significance because we are still living with them today. The roots of Islamophobia and the Othering of people in what used to be the eastern half of the Roman Empire can be found here, in the impressive amounts of centuries-old texts that Bisaha has dedicated herself to.

If you are curious about the roots of the ideas of the clash of civilizations, Western exceptionalism and chauvinism, Creating East and West is the book for you.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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