October 10, 2021

Article at Steven on Authory

Some Recent Thoughts on BJOL

Sorry to have slacked off in my Authory articles lately, but I’ve been putting the time to good use completing a first draft of the novel I’ve been working on. I have had some stray thoughts on Bill’s remarking about my habitual rudeness (to him, presumably) that culminated in his edict that I had, in my comment on Tony LaRussa’s hypocrisy (and Bill’s), crossed the frontier of unforgivable rudeness.

What I remembered were the occasions in the past that I’d written edgy stuff and wondered, “Is Bill okay with this much edginess?” concluding, “There’s only one way to find out.” I published the edgy stuff, usually taking some position contrary to Bill’s, and heard nothing from him, so I decided that it must have been acceptably edgy, which is basically what Bill was looking for when he hired me in the first place, someone who promised to stir up controversy with his loopy ideas on baseball and other matters.

This week, though, I had occasion to look through my BJOL articles, and found one recent article that might explain that theory of what specifically set Bill off: it was the very long piece on expertise I wrote in early 2020, ostensibly on the “Car Talk” radio program https://www.billjamesonline.com/screwballs_and_experts%e2%80%94part_three__car_talk/

, but really using that theme as an illustration of Bill’s contrariness to the whole concept of “expertise” and what does and doesn’t make one an expert in a given field.

I wondered, when I wrote that article, if he might find it offensive: the position I was taking was utterly opposed to his conception of expertise. Basically, I’m a fan of expertise. I rely on it. There are so many subjects—mainly mathematical or scientific—that I just do not get, and likely never will get, but which are essential for operating in a mathematical and scientific culture. Unless I want to curl up and profess profound ignorance of modern culture, I must depend on authorities to explain (i.e., dumb down) most of these technical fields so that a dummy like me can grasp their essence.

Of course, I must choose which authorities can speak the most authoritatively, but I’ll bear that burden. I tend to prefer authorities with some academic standing, maybe because I’ve worked for decades inside academe and I have a certain amount of respect for the training most academics get, whether I agree with them or not. And of course, I can pick and choose among those with academic training to find the views that seem most congenial to me, and I can apply my own prejudices to that congeniality. (One of those prejudices deals with one area I have some standing in: that of “good writing.” If someone can write in a style that impresses me, I conclude, perhaps without warrant, that the writer is intelligent in other, broader ways. At the least, I know that he’s capable of excellence in the field I know best.)  The idea that someone can proclaim himself to be an expert, without the support of a large hierarchy of his peers, seems suspect to me, and academe provides that large hierarchy. You can be a fake and a fraud and a blowhard in academe, and there are many, but it’s much harder in academe than in almost any other arena. Academic frauds and fakes and blowhards are, at the least, very likely to be controversial figures who get called out by their communities as such.

Bill doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect for academics, and he seems to regard most of them (I should say “most of us”) skeptically. This could be a point of contention between us, and one that I perhaps take personally, as does he, for some reason.

This point of contention was illustrated a few years ago, when I tried to explain in the “Hey Bill” section (that really needs a comma, btw, as “Reader Posts” needs a possessive apostrophe) where he lost the thread expressing his beliefs about the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays. I have to reconstruct this exchange by memory (being banned from BJOL means that I can no longer access the “Hey Bill” archives) but, simply, Bill expressed strong sympathy for the conspiracy nuts who embrace the Oxfordian position.  (Or maybe he favors some other nutball position—I don’t really remember, because I dismiss the whole argument.) What I tried to explain was very practical: no academic I know of finds these conspiracies barely plausible, which I find to be proof itself of their lack of viability. If any of these alternative authors were barely plausible, then some ambitious academic, with scads of vetting and reading and training and examination that allows him to speak with authority, surely would have written up the most plausible explanation, and made a fine career for himself (or herself). The fact that no academic endorses such a theory, and that amateurs like Supreme Court Justices and independent scholars and people from all sorts of other fields (such as Bill) go hog-wild over these nutty theories just persuades me that they are, in fact, nutty theories. Every Shakespeare scholar that I’ve studied with, or read, or worked alongside of, has nothing but contempt for the notion that Shakespeare was written by anyone other than by the single man from Stratford-upon-Avon who went by the name of “William Shakespeare.”

This is practical reasoning, not scholarly, because it depends on the selfishness of human nature, and not on notions requiring academic training. My academic field, literature, is highly competitive. Most people with Ph.D.s in literature have trouble landing jobs, even after five or ten years of graduate study at the best institutions, and even more trouble getting tenure. Someone who could construct even a barely plausible argument that someone other than “William Shakespeare, 1564-1616” wrote the plays and poems would have a sinecure for life. Even anti-conspiracists like me (which is to say, every academic I’ve ever heard of) would have to concede, “Well, he does present a rational case that accounts for most traditional counter-arguments” and probably “This is brilliant work that makes me re-think my own prejudices” by at least a large minority of academics. (And as I told myself in the lean years I was on the job market, “You need to find only one person who thinks you’re brilliant to get hired somewhere.”) If there were a small chance that such an argument could be made respectably, I probably would have taken my Ph.D. in Shakespearean Studies just because of the cachet that my first book would have earned for me. That’s the Holy Grail for Ph. D. candidates, and young academics everywhere, to turn academe on its head with a brilliant, believable thesis. No one has done that.

But my argument with Bill was not the validity of this line of reasoning. Bill didn’t question its validity. He simply said that he didn’t understand what I was trying to say.

I didn’t know how to respond to this, but before I could try, someone else interjected a response explaining my reasoning in terms that weren’t very far from my original argument. Bill didn’t take up this response, and we quickly moved on to other subjects.

I don’t think I annoyed Bill with my abstruseness, or my rudeness in challenging him here, but I do think he was way out of his comfort zone here, and way into mine, though he was no less assertive in promoting his own opinions and dismissing mine than he does in other zones. Simply put, he bristles when his authority is challenged, and he enjoys asserting his opinions over other authorities, whom he mocks as “experts” (in quotation marks, meaning “not experts at all.”)

It happens that the novel I’m writing has its climax at the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and I’m alluding to a theory that Bill first brought to my attention, that of the book Mortal Error. I mention this not to assert any sort of expertise in the matter, though I have studied it as closely and for as long as it’s possible for someone not well-versed in ballistics or forensics to study an assassination, but because in taking notes, I jotted down a link to “Hey Bill” that discussed the book a few years ago. I was thinking that of course I would have access to the “Hey Bill” when I got up to my novel’s climax, but of course, now that I’m there, I don’t have access. So I asked one of my friends who has a current BJOL subscription if he could send me a few pages from the link, and now I have the (marginally useful) stuff I need.

On that page from 2011, there happened to be a brief exchange between Bill and me that illustrates a little of the defensiveness and hostility that I find in Bill over the years:


At the risk of asking a stupid question (again), what exactly does your new power score measure? It looks like your non-sarcastic answer might be "The extent to which a pitcher controls the game, as compared to his fielders" but I'm not sure it is right. I know it's less funny than your stock sarcastic answer, which is "Power, dummy."

Asked by: Steven Goldleaf

Answered: 6/24/2011

I've never given a sarcastic answer to any question or any questioner. I've certainly never called anybody a dummy.   You're reading things into answers that just simply are not there. 

Now, this might be technically correct, that he has never used the word “dummy” to address a reader, though his responses in “Hey Bill” usually convey the questioner’s intellectual inferiority about half the time. He’s certainly been deliberately insulting to me, personally, at least a dozen times over the years, and I accept that as part of Bill James’ charm: he can be abrasively funny in mocking people, and I often laugh when he mocks someone I think deserves mockery. But as to not giving a sarcastic answer, that’s pretty funny in itself. Again, he’s often sarcastic, savagely so, and that’s a good chunk of his brand. It’s extremely lacking in self-awareness for him not to accept sarcasm (nor to the occasional epithet) as a tool he uses routinely.

Fans of Bill’s either like this quality or at least tolerate it as an essential part of his personality. Though many ex-subscribers to BJOL, with whom I’ve kept in sporadic touch over the years, have cited their irritation with Bill’s insulting tone as a reason they no longer see fit to pay him three dollars per month for the privilege of being on the receiving end of Bill’s regular assessment of their intelligence or their ability to articulate their thoughts clearly.

One of these ex-subscribers holds a Ph.D. in Geology, I believe (he went under the username of “flyingfish”) and I met him when he had occasion to visit my town in South Florida a few years ago. He’d already quit BJOL, but I enjoyed his contributions to “Reader Posts” and to “Hey Bill” and so I kept in touch with him. We discussed how sad it was that readers who spoke with authority on some subject or other often got dismissed by Bill in a manner that flyingfish and I were deeply unaccustomed to. As I recall, flyingfish tried to engage Bill in discussions about climate change which, as a geologist he had some serious acquaintanceship with, but Bill was having none of it. The more patiently flyingfish tried to show him where he was misstating facts, the more contemptuous Bill got, and finally flyingfish had to conclude that his office hours were over, and he wouldn’t renew his subscription.

One of the subjects I’ve disagreed with Bill about is the field of publishing. Bill’s credentials in this area are, in a certain sense, much stronger than mine. I’ve never published a best-seller in my life (I think my books have topped out in the low four-figure range) and Bill has published several so he can certainly claim to be an expert of a sort on “publishing.” On the other hand, I’ve actually worked in publishing (as opposed to being an author), and taught in a Masters-level publishing program, and edited a press that published (mostly academic) books and journals, so I have a few insights into the editorial and production processes that Bill doesn’t have.

I’ve already devoted a few BJOL columns and some “Hey Bill”s and some more “Reader Posts” to attempts to explain to Bill the services his publishers’ copyeditors were trying to provide for him (and which he contemptuously rejected), so no need to rehash.

His contempt for copyeditors (which I characterized in my review of Benjamin Dreyer’s inexplicably popular Dreyer’s English) chiefly concerns their imposition of all sorts of unrequested rules and editorial standards on his prose, which is of a piece with his unbridled hostility towards the concept of any sort of formal standards of grammar, usage, orthography, punctuation or even any agreed-upon definition of English words. He seems to think that authors (certainly of books, less so of magazine articles, a distinction I will get to in a minute) are the divine kings of prose: what they write is what should appear in print, unedited and un-monkeyed with, especially by the rude simian tribes employed by publishers.

He thinks so because for him, this is the case, ever since his first wildly successful Baseball Abstract in 1982. He might have had to eat a spoonful, or a peck, of dirt served up to him by the rude monkey who copyedited that first one but ever since he’s had the kind of clout that comes only to sure-shot moneymakers whom the publishers need desperately to hang onto. The vast majority of authors who get into protracted hassles with copyeditors, and who insist on having the final word on all editorial disputes, take up way too much of the copyeditor’s time and eat into the tiny (often non-existent) profit the publisher hopes to make on the book. In other words, beyond a point well short of Bill’s belief that he knows all there is to know about publishing standards while the publisher’s hairy minions know almost nothing, and all of that wrong, most publishers will simply tell authors, “Sorry, we do it THIS way” and do it, or offer to rescind the book’s contract (which incidentally states that the publisher’s version is the one that will prevail in all disputes—the author’s input into this back-and-forth is partly a courtesy, and partly a chance for the author to explain his reasons for the peculiar quirks of his prose, reasons that may on occasion be convincing.)

The house style of a publisher may allow for flexibility, especially on judgment calls or personal style (use of “ain’t”, for example, or even of all contractions) but there are cases where that house style will be rigid. I once published an academic journal with an article by a British author who insisted that our spelling of “colour” and “labour” was barbaric and offensive, and held him up to ridicule in the British Isles if words appeared without that vital “u” in print. You would not believe the hours I had to spend reading and responding to his letters on this point, to which my ultimate response was simply that we could resolve this by omitting his entire article from the (American) journal I headed.

By the end, my letters were actually rather short and snippy, of the “Sorry, we do it THIS way” variety but I have gotten into such disputes with many such authors who mistake their own authority for the final word. This is all to suggest that Bill’s opinion on editorial matters is coloured heavily by his clout with his publisher—the other 99% of authors are far more selective and far less insistent than Bill professes to be. (“Professes” because maybe it’s an act Bill performs for our benefit, blustering about the guff he will not take from some pissant copyeditor while secretly adopting a more meek and compliant attitude? We’ll never know.) I said that I didn’t want to rehash the discussion, so I won’t hash it out any further, but I’ve noticed in recent weeks that Bill has only gotten more and more disputatious with anyone who challenges his supreme authority. Some poor slob wrote into “Hey Bill” a few weeks back (I can still read the latest 15 “Hey Bill”s, and I do) the adjective “bizarre” to describe Bill’s bizarre position on something or other, and Bill’s response was to threaten to ban his inquisitor from the site entirely. This assured me, if I needed assurance, that it was only a matter of time until I ruffled Bill’s feathers, and that lasting for six years as a writer on his site, given my contrary nature and Bill’s sensitivity to perceived insults, was something of a minor miracle.

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