Jokes in heavy circulation among Russians

This is my final post on the ULA’s recent plagiarism allegations. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve not read the works in question — although I have always been clear about my admiration for the handful of Tom Bissell’s essays I’ve read — and am no expert on 20th Century Russian culture and history.

It seems to me that knowledge of Russian jokes and urban legends (in addition to a close reading of Bissell’s book, the allegedly plaigiarized material, and the basic scholarship in the field) is necessary to address the allegations advanced by Karl “King” Wenclas. I presume Mr. Wenclas has conducted this sort of reading and research, although if he has he has yet to come forward with it.

Yesterday I emailed my friend Kevin Kinsella, who’s working toward a doctorate in poetry from the City University of New York and spends his weekends getting drunk with Russians, to ask whether the jokes, quotes, etc., that constitute the bulk of Wenclas’ examples are common ones. Here’s what he says:

I’m not so sure how helpful I will be here, but I will say that I have heard the jokes about running out of sand in the Sahara, the one about the surgeons, and Kruschev’s about the Soviet Union catching up with and surpassing the American standard of living. Also, I’ve read similar things about people naming their children Traktor and such. And I’ve read neither Bissell nor Feshbach. Perhaps Alexei from The Russian Dilettante would be more helpful.

He’s got a good head for these kind of things.

It sounds to me like the two took from similar sources. Which is of course how scholarship works on the most basic level: some scholar does the grunt work, while the scholars who come later pick and choose from his or her findings, hopefully building upon them, as opposed to repackaging them . . . .

In my own research, I don’t know how many times I’ve come across more or less the same anecdote being recounted in more or less the same way. For instance, in my research of biographical information on the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam, I’ve read the same phrase in about six different books: “Where he attended the prestigious Tenishev School (later attended by Vladimir Nabakov).”

What first caught my attention was how this little detail didn’t add much to the narrative of Mandalshtam’s life; in terms of Mandalshtam’s biography, why bring up Nabokov at all, who came much later? And apparently, each scholar had somewhere picked up the same exact phrase. Plagarism? I wouldn’t go so far as that. It seems to me that everyone came across this detail and didn’t know what to do with it and decided to simply mention it.

What bothers me about this Bissellgate posting is King’s bald threat to “highlight those who don’t respond” to his request for comment on this. Now that’s a Soviet response! Such vigilance Comrade King!

Like when Stalin makes a remark and every Soviet writer is compelled to write something in line with it or else risk arrest or death. How silly . . . and, frankly, a much more dangerous threat to scholarship than plagarism.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s more than a bit ironic — and, believe me, I don’t use that word loosely — that an institution purportedly devoted to creating a more democratic publishing environment is headed up by a “king.” Not to mention that there are, what, five female members of the thing?

Elsewhere: Mark Sarvas, Laila Lalami and Beatrice also respond, and Galleycat amends yesterday’s post on the subject.


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