Yesterday on Twitter, my friend and colleague Jeremy Citrome was shamed for having published a review (so far only on a listserv) that criticized a book for having almost entirely ignored his own highly related research. His book, The Surgeon in Medieval English Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), came out more than a decade before Julie Orlemanski's Symptomatic Subjects (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). In the day since Orlemanski went public on Twitter with her response to Citrome and The Medieval Review, her friends and colleagues in academia have joined her on social media to impugn his credibility. They have raised the stakes of the review by interpreting Citrome's claim of their books' "uncomfortably close parallels" (in his final paragraph) as an allegation of plagiarism.
To me, one of the most "uncomfortable" situations here is the situation of these professors and the cultural capital that they can leverage from their respective sites of power. Orlemanski is an Associate Professor in the English Department of the University of Chicago, a position of significant privilege and prestige. Citrome is a contractual faculty member in the Department of English at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, almost by definition a marginal position. Orlemanski's cursory acknowledgement of Citrome's book can be interpreted as a choice, conscious or unconscious, to make the smallest possible investment in an object that has little cultural capital, notwithstanding the good reputation of Palgrave Macmillan, his publisher. Orlemanski's politics seem to be above reproach; she stated on Twitter that she sympathized with the "largely junior and under-supported" (1 Dec. 2021) staff at the journal that published Citrome's review, but even that statement can seem to be a condescension and a deflection squarely into the hands of the person with the least power in the equation.
Two assistant professors, Jean-Thomas Tremblay and Jamie L. Jones, chimed in on Twitter with a reassurance of "solidarity" (1 Dec. 2021) with Orlemanski. As professors without tenure (yet), they actually have reason to be in solidarity with Citrome instead, because his precariousness in the academy is far more real than Orlemanski's. Citrome's review will probably not harm Orlemanski's career, but a judgment against a contractual faculty member in the court of public opinion could harm one's chances of contract renewal. Rather than wait to publish a rebuttal in the journal and possibly create a productive dialogue with Citrome himself, Orlemanski appears to be counting on social networks to cast stones. The Fordham University professor Jordan Alexander Stein's response to Orlemanski on Twitter—that Citrome is being "a shitty colleague" (1 Dec. 2021)—is simply mean, however witty he thought he was being. It's also simply ad hominem, which isn't a flaw of Citrome's own review. Even if you read it as primarily a charge of plagiarism, which it is not, the issue it raises is mainly in the publication and not the person.
Nevertheless, Orlemanski's colleague at Chicago, John Muse, spoke up on Twitter to call Citrome's review "maddeningly solipsistic" (1 Dec. 2021). Why should it not be, if indeed the framework for understanding this dynamic is a negotiation for cultural capital? In fact, I don't think the review is especially solipsistic. It devotes eight paragraphs exclusively to Orlemanski's book compared to four that consider her book in the context of his own, a ratio of 2:1. That's not solipsism. Solipsism is writing an entire book and giving barely a footnote to the pre-existing book with the most overlap. Citrome's review is rather generous; he calls Orlemanski's explanations "brilliant," "touching," and "positive." His review does not accuse Orlemanski of plagiarism, though that is predictably how the Twitterverse reframed the dispute. Leaping to similar conclusions, Stephanie DeGooyer assumes that Citrome was "volunteering to 'review' books" (1 Dec. 2021), but in fact the journal asked him to review it because of his expertise in the subject matter—expertise that is nuanced and authoritative, as the review itself suggests to me as a non-expert.
A few years ago, I published an essay that I later shared with a respected senior colleague at a more prestigious university who heard me mention it at a conference. Recently, that same senior colleague published an essay on many of the same keywords, if not exactly the same substance, and awarded my essay a single insubstantial footnote. I felt snubbed. When I see how Citrome is being publicly treated for his review, I can understand a little of how he might feel: much worse. Orlemanski's friends and colleagues are standing together behind a class line, making personal attacks in public to protect one of their own from legitimate scrutiny of her work. That's the shame.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Solidarity and Solipsism." Publicly Interested, 2 Dec. 2021, www.publiclyinterested.ca.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.