It was suggested to me recently that it might be worth while, though I find it rather boring, to say a little something about the nuts and bolts of this blog, the book project I imposed upon it, despite its “limited” manga purview, and how my career as a scholar and on again off again academic has been affected by it, so instead of taking my usual week off before writing the next “intermissive” of [Comics] as Reading, I thought I might take this opportunity to note what has gone well, what has gone not so well, and what has genuinely surprised me over the past few years.
About two and half weeks ago (June 4), The Comics Grid twitter posted their pageviews for May and noted a problem I have identified over the years sometimes in subtle and often in not so subtle ways: “[w]e still need to work harder at being read by folk outside the usual countries,” meaning Anglophone countries, the US and UK having been overwhelmingly represented in their pageviews. At the time, I joked that I seem to have precisely the opposite problem, that I have quite a hard time getting my work read by the usual suspects, and though the image at left is by no means indicative of my daily pageviews, it is also not at all an anomaly. What surprised me most about the difference between my analytics and The Comics Grid’s was not the “inversion” but how theirs seem to drop off so dramatically once it came to IP addresses in those countries where English is not a primary language. In truth, over the entire history of What is Manga?, the US is at the top of the pageview count, but the numbers also don’t fall off a cliff when you come to countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. What is more, there have been months, particularly in the last year, where no Anglophone country was on top.
I normally pay little attention to my analytics, but The Comics Grid’s accidental spur got me thinking about what impact my work has had over the years. I have tried as best I can, given my aversion to the hectic daily grind of generating content on and for social media, to diversify my modes of scholarly communication: conferences, peer-reviewed publications, talks at fan conventions, personal correspondence, and, of course, this blog. Moreover, I have tried to treat each outlet as seriously as any other, which perhaps accounts for the occasionally odd tone of my peer reviewed work, and I know it’s odd because reviewers regularly complain about it. The personal correspondence has been the most enjoyable, in part, because it matches the occasional oddness of my analytics. Though serious people might object to my scholarly demeanor, I like the fact that over the past few years, a variety of people, academics as often as casual fans, from a variety of countries have felt comfortable communicating with me directly and have not been turned off by my propensity for responding to what must seem like simple questions with a thousand word wall of text.
I cannot say why the articles on The Comics Grid find a predominantly Anglophone readership, since I don’t know the intimate details of how and where they promote what they do, but I know that in my own work I have endeavored to be not merely attentive to the concerns of interested non-specialists but also to do decent comparative work that I felt was not always well represented. My own scholarship has not been strictly limited to manga, as the book project, I hope, has made clear, and it has been key to my own understanding to draw from disparate critical discourses and see how they might speak to or even against one another. Whether I have been successful in that regard is for others to decide.
The most popular post over the years has been this one on the historical gendering of the shōnen demographic, and, though I’d like to think it has everything to do with the brilliance of my argument, it achieved that status largely as a result of having been shared on Kotaku. You might read this as a happy accident, but I think it also speaks to that fact that we–and I do include myself in that “we scholars”–quite often fail to recognize just how broadly our work might be disseminated, all the while speaking to the same old constituencies, even as we lament how we cannot seem to break free of them. We might do better to model ourselves on the work of European, Latin American, and, increasingly of late, East Asian scholars, whose theoretical work, be it formalist or focused on ideology, is far more comfortable with examining broad swaths of texts from various language groups as well as their critical discourses. What Groensteen has to say about shōjo manga in Comics and Narration may make my eyes roll, nevertheless, it exemplifies the kind of engagement even non-specialists ought to partake of.
I have become increasingly intolerant, then, of an all too common argument, that manga and especially its attendant critical discourse in Japanese are just too arcane and that it is incumbent on any critic who tries to bridge the Anglophone and Japanese speaking critical spheres to do most of the heavy lifting by “explaining Japan.” Ignoring for the moment how such Japansplaining can easy cross over into good old fashioned Orientalism, to my mind this attitude betrays an unwillingness to engage with that discourse and instead casually use it for largely ad hoc purposes. In less sinister terms, it means non-Japanese readers are far more likely to simply accept what Japanese critics say about manga as given, even where the Japanese language discourse is quite often far more parochial than its Euro-American counterparts. Non-specialist critics may fear a verbal thrashing from a loud crank, such as yours truly, but that fear alone cannot dissuade one from doing what is ultimately better for comics studies as a whole.
Fear in the face of potential critique does no one any good (except the public relations industry), and my occasionally caustic demeanor and ardent polemic have been one way of saying, “I can give as good as I get.” Be aware, though, dear reader, that this particular mode of public address is not without real drawbacks. If this post on my trip to OSU likely won me no friends, even though by my standards the criticism was rather tame (and about a larger concern), I would not be surprised if this little tirade, more in keeping with my typical modus operandi, has rendered me a persona non grata. Nevertheless, this critical attitude has meant that I can be relied upon to say what I mean and mean what I say, and, perhaps despite my honesty or maybe even because of it, I am not, in fact, all that hard to work with.
Moreover, that OSU post also produced a very fruitful interchange, almost by accident, between myself and John Overholt, a curator at Harvard’s Houghton Library. In the post, I had noted in passing that research on the kind of materials I wanted to look at is rendered doubly difficult by their scarcity in North America and Europe, even those materials that, in Japan, would be quite common, and so my choices for where to go were limited to Harvard (the Yenching Library specifically) and OSU (i.e. the Billy Ireland). Overholt, who I believe genuinely wants Special Collections at Harvard to be accessible, was dismayed by my characterization of Harvard’s libraries, with regard to their stated policies, as explicitly excluding a potential public. The reason for this, I think, is that it’s hard to see how institutional practices read from without, how bringing up academic credentials (when it may never have occurred to a patron that such credentials might ever be necessary) or having to fill out reams of paperwork before handing over your driver’s license or sitting inside a glass box where you may not even be allowed to touch the text you’re looking at–how these and many other practices common to special collections and archives might genuinely turn interested patrons away from so-called public institutions.
This sort of exchange works the other way as well. When Ron Stewart, who certainly possesses more in depth knowledge of Rakuten’s work than I do, critiqued the last of my four part series on kindai manga, it helped focus precisely what it was I was trying to say. Even though, in the end, I wavered very little in my critical opinion, when it came time to address a similar concern in chapter two of [Comics] as Reading, Ron’s criticism not only made clear to me how I ought to frame my argument but also what sorts of things I needed to show and explicate, so as to drive the point home rather than make weakly backed claims. One approach to criticism from without is to batten down the hatches, placate donors and administrators, and generally pretend the criticism has no merit. Another approach, the one I favor, is to take such criticisms to heart, even if they make you want to crawl inside a bottle, and remain vigilant to how even unreasonable criticism or simply arguments with which you passionately disagree might still have some value.
Strangely, though originally I had little interest in this bout of introspection, it occurred to me as I was putting this post together that much of my weird history in and out of academia can be explained by this tendency I have to see myself as coming “from without,” that even when I have been, properly speaking, “on the inside”–note the resemblance to how one speaks of being in prison–I quite often behave in such a way that I get pushed, if not out, then to the furthest periphery. When I was a visiting assistant professor in Japanese at Iowa, I regularly complained about how slipshod and ad hoc things were, no doubt the result of a program that, through enmity and turnover, had fallen substantially from its former glory, so much so that when it came time to turn my position into a permanent one, I imagine the search committee relished the opportunity to be rid of me. Later, as a research fellow in the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, I did myself the favor of not going to meetings or casually hanging out with the people who had recently deemed me unworthy of doing my own job.
Which brings me to a present in which the tensions between being “within” and “without” are a daily struggle with what I have come to regard as my “professional schizophrenia.” By day, I am a not-so-mild-mannered graduate student in an English Ph.D. program, ever mindful of the Game of Appearances, since, whenever the subjects of my already having a Ph.D. in a closely related discipline (i.e. Comparative Literature) or of my personal history as a faculty member come up, the conversation typically stops dead in its tracks, for I have somehow slipped the surly bonds of easy categorization. By night (and weekend), I continue much as before in my scholarly endeavors, though now with a heavy sigh every time I am asked to write a chapter for this, consult on that, introduce someone to so-and-so, or review the work of some up-and-coming critical voice–a heavy sigh for how poorly I have translated one form of success into another.
That said, this fit of introspection, which I hope not to repeat any time soon, has shown me that intellectual satisfaction in doing good work, even if that work has yet to find its ideal audience, matters far more than professional success. I distrust institutions, which far too often have solely their own interests at heart rather than a public they presume to serve, which is, perhaps, why a stable academic position has eluded me over the years, but that does not mean we cannot get along in the end.
As always, dear reader, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter (which I do sporadically check) @uahsenaa.