The "Deadly Embrace":  When a Scholarly Secondary Source is "Too Good" for a Novice 

        When databases first were placed on big server computers so that many people could use the databases at once, designers immediately discovered a problem they called the "deadly embrace."  This happens when two people with the authority to edit the database decide they both want to edit the same piece of data at the same time.  What should the database do with their instructions when they each click "Save"?  The early software crashed until it was given a rule like "store the last Save and ignore the earlier ones," or the more common "store both Saves in a work space and send an error message to all who Saved asking them to resolve the conflict about which data to store."  Either way, when two people tie into exactly the same data while trying to do different things to it, like two authors writing about the same primary source, bad trouble can result if one author has a far less secure sense of scholarly authority than the other.

        From long experience teaching novice literary scholars, I have learned to warn them not to research secondary scholarly support until they already have developed an independent thesis based on an original insight and supported with at least an adequate amount of data from the primary source.  Otherwise, they tend to read compelling, published scholarly arguments about their primary source and get overwhelmed by them.  This causes them to forget those little intuitions from their own reading experience that lead to original insights.  The effect is like being the first database editor in a database following the first "rule" above--your own insights are erased and the published scholars' insights take their place.  This can produce a host of unproductive and dangerous outcomes, ranging from writer's block to unconscious plagiarism to mistaking a summary of other scholars' work for your own original thesis.  Any of those outcomes could lead to a failing paper.

        Is this condition permanent?  No, thank heavens, or we never could read scholarly journals to keep up in our fields of study.  In fact, we need to be sure nobody else already has published our insight before investing months or even years developing it, and we spend hours seeking additional support to help make our original insights and evidence more persuasive.  With more experience, more awareness of critical theory and the rules for handling evidence, and more years experience reading widely in the literature, it becomes possible to read even a wonderfully persuasive argument while withholding agreement and noting other possible truths as one reads.  If nothing else, experienced readers come to know the primary sources very, very well, so that they already have a wealth of possible insights about them.  In fact, some scholars intentionally pick fights with previously published work in order to break out of writer's block or other less dangerous emotional states.  The key is experience, and it can't be faked.

        If you are a novice literary scholar, there is one simple way to prevent this until you become experienced enough in literary analysis to fight back against published work and win.  Do your primary source research first, and at least outline your thesis, your support, and a crude sketch of your argument before risking contact with secondary sources.  What if you find your own thesis already published?  If you are a graduate student, you have to be very clever and find some way to use your thinking to add something to the previous critic's discussion, unless the previous critic has made a serious error, in which case you can correct it.  If you are an undergraduate, the conventions of American academia usually allow you to explain the situation to your instructor, show her/him your drafts and notes from before the research, and condense the whole story into your paper's first endnote.  This is good news.  Undergraduates who independently develop a thesis that already has been proven publishable have achieved something great.  Pity the poor graduate students who cannot work the evidence or theory to turn that thesis into something new.  They have to start over again!