At the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a bespectacled Dr. Jones (in suit and bowtie) addresses his students:
“The archaeologist work is not a treasure hunting, there is no X marking the spot”, he says, “The work of an archaeologist is done at a library.”
Of course, he spends the rest of the film contradicting this statement.
There is a current trend in fiction novels which reminds me of that film scene. Those books in which a modern day researcher (usually a woman) feels a connection with a writer from the past whom she is studying. The findings of her research help her solve her present day problems. Possession by A. S. Byatt (1990) inaugurated the tendency, continued with more recent novels like Daphne by Justine Picardie (2008). It is not my purpose in this blog post to analyse this trend. In any case, Patsy Stoneman has recently written an excellent article about the topic in Brontë Studies.
Whenever I read one of these novels, I cannot help but thinking how unrealistically they portray literary research. The plot often involves seeking an old, lost manuscript. Like the Holy Grail, it holds the key to discover the deepest secret of the writer object of research. There is usually a posh, unscrupulous rival, whose (abundant) money and contacts pose a threat to the researcher heroine’s quest. At the ending, the lost manuscript happens to be under the custody of an eccentric old person, who (like a dragon) refuses to share it.
However, the work of a researcher (especially in the Arts and Humanities field) is not about finding lost manuscripts. It is about having an opinion or a new perspective on a text and being able to justify it. Plenty of work is sharing, reworking or expanding what others said, which is fine as soon as you reference everything you quote. It involves endless hours at the library, where you do not need to overcome the resistance of a dragon custodian, just show your library card.
Nevertheless, if these novels are unrealistic, it is because that is the way they should be. Research can be boring and monotonous, while readers demand entertainment and a good piece of fiction. Just imagine this very realistic climax:
“The researcher heroine had been reading and taking notes for more than three hours at the university library. Suddenly, she shouted:
‘Eureka! I found a new critical perspective!’
The posh villainess appeared from behind a shelf and pointed a finger at the heroine:
‘You! You quoted me at page 320, but did not reference me!’
The heroine raised her laptop and showed her the screen:
‘It was just a typing error. I corrected it in my latest draft. You see?’
The villainess’ expression relaxed:
‘Fine, then. Fancy a coffee?’ “
Remember. Nobody goes to the cinema to see Indiana Jones reading at the library, but to cheer when he cracks his whip.