Publish or perish

In 1942, the American sociologist Logan Wilson published a book titled ‘The Academic Man: A study in the Sociology of a Profession’. In it, Wilson identified the pressure to publish academic work faced by those who want to succeed in an academic career. He noted that academics have the choice to publish or perish. This academic Damocles sword still hangs today, and the publish-or-perish alliteration Wilson coined is the distress call of many contemporary academics.

Publish or perish recognises that writing doesn’t come naturally – that there is a basic anti-writing tendency, a human entropic bent towards leaving the page blank, the document at 0KB. Just as you eat to stay alive, you have to publish to stay academically alive.

What if things were different? The Roman satirist Juvenal noted that many of his generation suffered from an ‘itch to publish’, cacoethes scribendi, literally a disease (cacoethes is a medical term) of writing. He may have been describing the behavioural condition known as hypergraphia or compulsive writing. What if you can’t stop writing, and write more than the publishers can keep up with?

The Italian poet Petrarch may have suffered from hypergraphia, but he was in creative self-denial. In his allegorical book ‘Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul’, Reason complains to Joy that ‘everybody is busy writing books’, to which Joy confesses that ‘the urge to write is enormously strong’. Reason goes on: ‘One hears of innumerable kinds of melancholy (i.e. mental issues). Some throw stones, others write books. For one, writing is the beginning of madness; for another, it is the end.’ The Italian poet and scholar may be using Joy as the proverbial friend: ‘Doctor, I have a friend who….’.

Petrarch’s chief concern in the Remedies dialogue was fame, which writing brought about in the emerging age of humanism. For a scholar, late-medieval fame also had to do with a successful academic career.

Publish, perish or become mad. Your choice.

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