Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Watch this space

In theory I have a million things to say about the liminal moment in which I find myself: 40th birthday just past, a variety of 10-year anniversaries on the horizon, and a big professional move in the works. I'm busy enough and happy enough, and I've even had the time to write. It's just that my brain feels like it's gone silent.

Ordinarily, I move through life talking to myself. In the shower, I'll go into a spiel about a text I'm teaching. On my drive to work, I'll start composing a blog post. Sitting in my office, I'll hold an imaginary conversation with a friend. At the gym, I'll summarize, under my breath, an article I just read, as if talking to a colleague or a hiring committee. It's not about anxiety. My brain is busy, always, with hypothetical Facebook and Twitter posts, emails to friends, arguments with people I no longer speak to, tricky bits of scholarly prose, descriptions of what I did last weekend. In a very real way, I don't experience my life except through language.

But lately that chatter isn't there. I'm still writing to-do lists and lesson plans, taking notes toward my next book, and cursing aloud when someone cuts me off in the parking lot. But there's not the usual verbal processing of whatever I'm thinking and feeling. I'm not bored or impatient, but it's very. . . quiet. I have the sense that I'm waiting for something: a reply from the oracle, a transmission from outer space; something.

Until then, though, it may be as quiet around here as it is in my head.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Forty.

As of today, I have walked the earth for forty years.



Presents for everyone!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sorry: brain full. Try again later.

This semester I'm continuing my Italian study with private lessons. This initially seemed easier than what I was doing in the fall, and in most ways it is. I meet my professor once a week for two hours, which means that I get about as much instructional time but waste less time commuting; I also have less work to prepare in advance. And since it's just the two of us, it's all quality time: there are no moments when I'm zoning out or only half listening while one of my classmates is on the spot.

That's also the problem. Two hours is a lot of time. Just as my body is not ready to run 9-minute miles for two hours straight, my brain is not ready to speak Italian for two hours straight. This week I'd read a couple of articles in the Italian press about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, so after 45 minutes on grammar we turned to that. Then we broadened our discussion to EU immigration policies more generally and how one strikes a balance between border protection and humanitarian relief. This was hard, but I was pretty game for a while. Around the time that my instructor turned the conversation to Obama's executive action on immigration, however, and asked me to compare the American and Italian situations and outline the differences between the Democratic and Republican positions, my brain stalled out.

Partly it was the complexity of the material, but mostly it was just fatigue: at a certain point I was unable to access even the most basic vocabulary or pronounce words I'd been saying just fine twenty minutes earlier. In fact, I've never before felt quite this level of mental collapse--though those times I've been awake for 30 hours for a complicated transatlantic journey and then had to negotiate an unfamiliar municipal transportation system might come close.

I recovered, of course, but the experience has made me think a little harder about the way I schedule and manage instructional time in my own classes. I've always been mindful of the kind of fatigue produced by monotony (sitting too long in one place or doing exactly the same kind of work for 60 or 90 minutes), especially in lower-level classes or classes that meet only once a week, but I haven't thought much about the fatigue caused by brain overload. Maybe a student isn't staring off into space or typing on her phone beneath her desk because she's uninterested, but because she can't absorb any more information right now.

Not that the two are mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Inside the snow-globe

Like much of the East, we've been snowed under for the past ten days. We didn't get even a third of the snow that Boston did--a fact I take great pleasure in pointing out--but we got enough that it's still heaped everywhere. Whatever surfaces aren't icy are slushy and salty and dirty and gross, so every venture out remains a minor expedition.


And you know, of all the things I hate about winter, the one I may hate the most is all the gear it requires. I hate putting on a coat just to take out the trash. I hate wearing snowboots to the gym. I hate the feeling of all those layers. I hate how grubby all my outerwear gets. I hate the monotony of always wearing the same things. And I really hate having to take all that crap off and put it back on eight times a day.

In this respect, this winter has been better than last. Last year, although I was on sabbatical, I was commuting downtown three days a week on public transportation, walking about a mile, and then wending my way through a Habitrail of skybridges between buildings to get to my Italian class. I dressed for the commute and for the fact that I wasn't teaching, so I wore lots of boring and practical layers. As soon as I entered the first building, I started peeling them off--first hat and gloves, then scarf, then coat, then vest, and finally I'd wind up at my classroom with a huge heap of clothes in my arms. I looked about as harassed and bedraggled as I felt.

This year, I'm commuting by car to MY VERY OWN OFFICE. My clothing choices aren't unlimited--I still have to plan for the walk to and from the parking lot and for the possibility that I might need to shovel out my car--but I have a reason to dress up and take pleasure in what I wear. And once I get to my office, I can throw all my outerwear in the corner, change into heels, and trot around free and unburdened, like a human being rather than a pack animal.

This is, for whatever reason, a huge psychological boost. And I need as many of 'em as I can get.

*

What small pleasures get you through the sloppy, dreary, ass-end of winter?

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Stepping it up

I know the first week of the semester isn't always predicative, but damn, I had a good one.

The greatest surprise was my M.A. class. It's a small group (though, fortunately, not this small), and I'd never met most of them. I also assigned a lot of reading before our first class--too much, probably. Last weekend I was plagued with visions of how badly things might go: what if half the class didn't get my email or didn't do it? What if three people decided to drop? What if they were just annoyed or confused?

Instead everyone showed up with the reading done and digested. They were eager to talk about it and had smart things to say. And if that weren't enough, two of them had also read an entire 450-page book I hadn't assigned (a recent biography of Donne) just because they thought it would be useful and interesting.

Okay, class: game on.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Angry pretty girls

Because the amount of fiction reading I do is directly proportional to the amount of time I spend at the gym--and because the gym is not the place for complicated, experimental fiction--I've been whipping through novels lately. The one I finished most recently is Gillian Flynn's debut novel, Sharp Objects which I picked up after having read and loved Gone Girl a couple of years back.

Sharp Objects isn't as strong of a novel, though it's very good. Suspense/mystery/crime isn't my preferred genre, but both Gone Girl and Sharp Objects have stuck with me for reasons that are only loosely connected to genre. I guess the easiest way of putting it is that I can't stop thinking about Flynn's women. Both novels are narrated by the kind of women who are familiar from crime fiction, but who usually aren't given the chance to speak for themselves. You know: tough, beautiful, damaged, and dangerous to themselves or others. The kind of woman the male hero gets entangled with--and usually tries but fails to save.

But the women in Flynn's novels get to be more than just enigmas or objects of fascination; they show us heterosexual femininity under pressure. Some of her female characters are monstrous (Sharp Objects has a lot of these, from country-club backstabbers to suffocating mothers to mean-girl tweens), but even their monstrosity seems just a twisted and exaggerated version of types we all know. We know those types, because we live in a world where many women feel the pressures of femininity. And so they have coercive sex at 13; shun and shame other women for fear of losing status; transform themselves into perfect homemakers and spend their days shopping and decorating and drinking themselves into stupefaction.

Flynn's women are not tragic victims and they're far from feminist heroes. But in indirect and often self-serving ways, they make a feminist point about our social scripts for women. The famous "cool girl speech" from Gone Girl may have been delivered by an extremely unreliable narrator, but as its popularity suggests, it's a sentiment a lot of women relate to. As someone who was an awfully angry teen and twentysomething (though quiet and almost entirely unrebellious), I tend to believe there's a lot more female rage out there than we talk about. In Gillian Flynn, the fury of the pretty girl and the hostility of the good girl are all right there. It's a reality I appreciate seeing depicted.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Library privatization

Over the past week I spent a few hundred dollars on books. That's a lot of money, but the expenditure itself isn't so remarkable; I might easily spend two hundred at a conference or at a used bookstore in a town I pass through only seasonally. What's giving me a bit of a twinge this time is that the books I bought are substitutes for things that in another life I might have expected to be held by my university library: one is a major Miltonic reference work and two are facsimile editions of early Donne volumes.

Now, I'm not complaining about my college library; we have a decent acquisitions budget and everything I've ever asked for has been acquired, including pricey multi-volume sets. It's possible that if I'd asked for these--all long since out of print but available on the used market--the library staff might have been able to acquire them. (Though they certainly couldn't have acquired original copies of the Donne volumes, which run more than $50,0000.)

And maybe I'd have wanted these books even if RU had copies of its own; in grad school, I splurged on some complete sets and reference works even though I lived a ten-minute walk from one of the greatest research libraries in the country. I'm not as much of a bibliomane as some people, but I'm definitely on the acquisitive end of the readerly spectrum: cost permitting, I buy just about every book I read and every book I come across that seems like it might be useful in the future. Apart from the pleasure of ownership and the efficiency of having everything I want in a single location, I also like feeling I'm doing my small part to prop up the academic publishing economy--one $95 book at a time.

But though I don't regret the money I spend on books, in light of the limitations of my institutional library (and the similar, if not greater, limitations at the library of my future employer), building a private scholarly library sometimes feels like hoarding treasure for my personal use--or at least like a retreat from a commitment to institutional libraries as the cornerstone of the intellectual community.

And yes, I know that building a private library needn't mean neglecting institutional ones: in the nine years that I've been at RU, I've helped build up our early modern collection to the tune of a few hundred volumes and many thousands of dollars. I've ordered copies of things I already own, things too expensive for me to buy, things I don't need for my own research but that I imagine as valuable for future faculty and students. But knowing what I now know about acquisitions and deaccessioning policies, I realize that if I don't use a book I ordered, it's possible that no one else will--and in five years it could be gone.

So it's hard not to feel that building my personal library is, in fact, a hedge against disaster: not just a compensation for all the things I don't have access to now, but a preemptive move against the further destruction and degradation of whatever libraries I'll be associated with in the future. Straitened acquisitions budgets, deaccessioning, the move to more-easily-stored-but-less-easily-used digital formats, and the decision to warehouse books off-site (in order to turn libraries into student lounges, computer workspaces, or similar) all mean that I can't be sure I'll ever again have the same library experience I had in college or grad school. Ergo, the private library.

I like tending my own garden, and it makes me happy to be able to share it with my students and colleagues. But it's no substitute for those that are open and available to all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A well-wrought urn

I don't want to brag or anything, but not only have I completed the most complicated syllabus of my entire life (a ground-up revision of my graduate Donne class, now structured so it's also a sort of methods class and a sort of review of 20th-century literary studies), but I've written all the assignments, too.

This is something I've never done before. I mean, sure: my syllabi always say what the assignments will consist of--a presentation, a close-reading paper, a research paper, a midterm, whatever--and I have a decent idea what they'll probably entail. But write them? No. Usually I do that at the last possible minute, either when a student asks whether they might be getting the assignment sheet soon or when I happen to glance at the syllabus and realize, shit! that thing is due in two weeks! I need to write it immediatamente!

But because this class is so complicated and the assignments build on each other, involve an interlocking set of skills, will overlap in time, and are largely unlike any assignments I've designed before, I felt I had to come up with detailed instructions now, just so I could get everything clear in my own head and make reasonable decisions about how to schedule their component parts. So with my syllabus doc and four other files all open, I moved back and forth among them, composing, revising, changing due dates, and altering the particulars in innumerable ways. Finally I arrived at a sequence that seems doable and makes sense.

Parts will still fail, I'm sure, and I'll undoubtedly have to make at least medium-sized changes between this instantiation of the class and the next one. But for now it all looks like a perfect and beautiful whole, complete, unshakable and enduring.

Now, if only I'd spent half as much energy on my writing projects. . .

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Benefactors, fairy godmothers, and others

The other day, completing my winter blitz through piles of unread periodicals, I encountered the latest in Jenny Diski's series of essays about her extraordinary relationship with Doris Lessing--which began when Lessing, a virtual stranger, took in the fifteen-year-old Diski after the latter's homelife exploded and she was sent to a mental institution.

Reading Diski's account of her anxious and uneasy adjustment to her new home--why had Lessing taken her in? would Diski ever be clever enough to join Lessing and her friends in convesation?--I found myself fumbling to dredge up details from the previous essay: Diski had nicknamed Lessing "Benny," right, for "The Benefactor?" No: that was what Gary Shteyngart called his quasi-parental figure in Little Failure. And was it Diski who described her fear of seeming stupid in front of her boyfriends and their political and academic families? No: that was the fictional Elena Greco, in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.

It is, I suppose, a coincidence that several of the things I'm reading right now have some overlapping themes and plotlines. But it isn't such a coincidence that three different accounts of intellectual and artistic self-fashioning should involve similar figures and similar anxieties--even though these stories take place in three different countries and two different generations.

On the surface, Diski's experience seems to be an extraordinary outlier: how amazing for an aspiring writer to be literally (if not quite legally) adopted by a famous novelist! But the young Shteyngart has a similarly complicated relationship with a t.v. writer friend-of-a-friend who takes an interest in him and his work; and though Elena has no single comparable figure, Ferrante's novels show her fixating on various teachers, boyfriends, and classmates as models for the kind of intellectual and public figure she'd like to become.

Indeed, aspects of all three experiences are probably familiar to anyone who has struggled to become anything: how does any of us learn to inhabit a new self, if not in response to others?

Most of us don't have a mentor or a patron, but take our models from among our peers. I sure did: in college, in grad school, and in the interstitial years between the two, I fixated on the people I thought of as truly smart--literary, cultured, whatever--and how they talked about things and moved through the world. I was attracted to but abashed by those who spoke well, who had opinions, who knew stuff about stuff. It amazed me that my peers had things to say (circa 1995, circa age 20) about what Tina Brown had done to The New Yorker, or the politics of senators from states other than their own, or the fortunes of American musical theater over the past twenty years. I studied them carefully and tended to have crushes on the men--perhaps feeling that though I didn't have the requisite talents, maybe I could date my way in.

Self-fashioning is always a complicated and anxious process, but if there's any lesson to be drawn from Diski, Shteyngart, and Ferrante's accounts, it's that it isn't any easier with a fairy godmother (Diski's semi-ironic name for Lessing), or a Benefactor, or any other singular mentor or maestro; the people we model ourselves on are also those we struggle to diminish and separate ourselves from: the erstwhile idol becomes only a t.v. writer or only a high school teacher; not really an original thinker--or simply judgmental, unkind, or limited in all the ways that human beings inevitably are limited.

I was never really friends with any of the people I took as my aspirational models, and I'm not friends with any of them now. They were useful projections and fantasies, but equally useful to be able to outgrow.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

New Year's Meme

(Eighth in a series.)

1. What did you do in 2014 that you'd never done before?
*Had a book published
*Received my second tenure-track job offer
*Solved the two-body problem
*Got an EU passport

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes: two good friends had their first, one her second, another her third--and one lucky lady had her first and her second (twins).

3. Did anyone close to you die?
One of the children mentioned above did not survive.

4. What countries did you visit?
England

5. What would you like to have in 2015 that you lacked in 2014?
I'd like to have more of a sense of excitement and adventure, both of which seemed in shorter supply than usual.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
This was a big year for achievements. But the one that feels the most like an achievement was finally placing the Article of Eternal Return.

If we're talking about achievements in a less end-driven or goal-oriented way, though, I'm most happy with how I spent my leisure time this year. I probably read more novels in a 12-month period than I have since my twenties; pursued a more aggressive gym routine; kept studying Italian; and managed to meet friends for drinks every week.

7. What was your biggest failure?
Lots of little failures. No big ones.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing serious.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
I've been gradually replacing items in my wardrobe, and I really love the shape it's taking. There's not one particular item I'd single out, but I bought several dresses that make me very happy.

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
I'm not sure "celebration" is appropriate for anything anyone did this year--though I'm certainly grateful for many people's kindnesses and gestures of support.

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
This was a grim fucking year, nationally and internationally. So the list is long.

12. Where did most of your money go?
Clothes and books. But I've been spending money almost nonstop since October, after a year of deferred purchases during my sabbatical.

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) Tough call. A lot of good things happened this year, but there's also been a lot of upheaval
b) Thinner. I returned from sabbatical heavier than I've ever been, but since August have lost it all (and then some)
c) Probably a wash.

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Is my answer to this question always a wish to have written more, done more research, made more progress? Probably. And it remains true.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Sat around paralyzed with anxiety, frustration, and dread.

16. What was the best book you read?
Best re-read: James Baldwin, Another Country.

Best new read: either Marilynn Robinson's Home (which I liked better than Lila) or Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend.

17. What was your favorite film of the year?
So many good movies this year! But I'd say Ida.

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
I'm not sure I bought an album that came out this year. But I like what I've heard of Taylor Swift's 1989 and D'Angelo's Black Messiah.

19. What was the best play you saw?
Best new play: Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Almeida)

Best revival (if that's the word I want): Tamburlaine (TFANA)

20. What kept you sane?
Being back in our house.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2014.
Shit's never going to work out exactly the way you want, on exactly the terms you want. Get over it. Only then can you recognize your abundant good fortune, your own hard work, and the generosity of others.

Wishing everyone a good 2015--may it bring you all you deserve or desire!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The pleasures of the private

Last Sunday's Styles section featured an article arguing that the last taboo of Facebook is the unhappy marriage. Although the article dealt with some genuine, practical problems faced by those in struggling relationships (the pressure to make everything seem perfect; the difficulty of knowing how to announce a split), I was surprised by the number of those quoted who seemed to think that the fact that most people don't admit to relationship problems on Facebook is itself a problem. Someday, these commenters imply, we'll all be so open and enlightened that we won't fear judgment--and can finally get the help we need by crowdsourcing advice on how to improve our marriages.

And yeah, I know: it's the Styles section. Most normal people don't think that literally everything needs to be shared or that it's pathological to consider one's marriage a private affair. But I was struck that there was no acknowledgment that those in distress might be turning to real, live, in-person friends for advice--or that those friends might be more valuable than several hundred virtual ones.

In my own travels through the academic internet, I often find myself wondering something similar: where are your real friends? Why are you posting for 500 people what should be a three-to-five-person bitch session over drinks? I'm not talking about catastrophic oversharing, or the merely mundane; I'm talking about posts that fall into that catch-all category, "unprofessional," which includes everything from the possibly-legally-actionable to the merely tacky. You know: using Facebook to snark about your department chair or other easily-identifiable colleagues; mocking your students; complaining about what a shithole town you're forced to live in.

Partly this is a matter of tone and frequency (occasional complaints or complaints that are more self-deprecating than self-righteous are different from relentless negativity)--but it's also true that what we deem "unprofessional" reflects changing social-media norms. People used to indulge in more unfiltered venting than they do now, at least in my corner of the internet; I'll freely admit that in my first years of blogging I said a number of ill-advised things, both because it seemed improbable that my words could reach or matter to anyone who knew me in real life and because, as a new Ph.D., I didn't yet understand myself as having structural power or obligations.

No one who's been paying attention trusts to anonymity or privacy settings any more; we all know how easily someone can take a screen-shot or forward a link. Some people rage about this change in norms, believing they should have an unrestricted right to "blow off steam." But the fact we're now more aware that nothing is private on the internet isn't really an encumbrance, but a useful delineation of boundaries. An enthusiastic embrace of social media can coexist with the pleasures of the private. And I'm grateful to social media for reminding me of the value of analog friendships.

There's a difference between calling up five different friends to share good news and broadcasting that news to 500 people. Both are satisfying, and it's awesome to be able to speedily disseminate news of your successes. But there are people with whom you want to be able to share all the details--and who are eager to hear about them. Similarly, bitching in general terms about an annoying student or asshole colleague is a kind of relief, but bitching AT LENGTH with a trusted friend over a bottle of wine is much more cathartic (and much less likely to get you in trouble or to make you look like a jerk to the 450 people who are silently judging you).

So, sure: crowdsource whatchagotta. Broadcast your awesome news or your hilarious observation. But think twice about what's really fit for a mass audience--and make some phone dates, have a friend over, open up the Gmail. Our real friends want more of the story than we can tell over social media anyway.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Like a refiner's fire

It's been a strange advent season. Handel's Messiah gets a lot of airplay in our household, and hearing those lyrics taken from Isaiah and Malachi and Job while obsessively reading coverage of the non-indictments in Ferguson and Staten Island; the release of the CIA torture reports; the exoneration of Mubarek; and the executions, massacres, and rapes perpetrated by ISIS has brought home to me why people in every age have been prone to fantasies of divine intervention and restituiton.

Sometimes that intervention is imagined as compassionate healing and sometimes as wrathful purgation, but our broken world seems to need more than what ordinary human beings can provide. Of course, all the believers I admire--like all the atheists I admire--know that sitting around waiting for a solution from the outside is an abdication of our responsibility to our fellow creatures. Peace and justice don't descend from on high; they're entrusted to us.

It's Christmas, and we all deserve a few days off (speaking for myself, I'll be eating tamales and drinking margaritas). But I hope that all who celebrate it--whether we believe in a literal messiah or not--remember that his work is everyone's work.

Monday, December 22, 2014

But no one would dare fail the Log Lady

We've been watching Twin Peaks--Cosimo for the first time, me for the first time since the early 1990s--while the grading rolls in for the semester.

And seriously, I think Lynch might've taken every Log Lady introduction straight from a pile of the worst freshman comp essays you've ever read:





Maybe I can put this to good use in the future by imagining every dreary studentism I encounter as coming from her mouth.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Why do anything?

I've never understood what people mean by a "hobby."

When I was a kid I did kid things, and when I got older I had activities--playing the flute, working on the literary magazine, competing in Quiz Bowl--but I wouldn't have called them hobbies; they were too structured and too connected to some plausible end, whether educational or professional. (I also did things just for fun, but they weren't explicable or sustained enough to be called hobbies: why did I write letters to friends under various fictional personae? Or dress up in weird outfits and wander around town in them?)

But I don't recall anyone asking me about my hobbies in high school or college, or if they did, I told them about what I did--either my classes or my extracurriculars--or what I liked: I managed the marching band and I wrote short stories and I was reading my way through Evelyn Waugh.

After college, though, people were always asking me about my hobbies. At that point I had even less to say: I was working 50 or 60 hours a week, and though I had lots of enthusiasms, I had virtually no recognizable hobbies. I didn't work out, bake, sing with a choir, knit, or paint watercolors. I didn't have pets and I didn't have the money to travel. I went to museums and movies and I read and I wrote--but I didn't feel knowledgeable enough about anything to claim that I was "into" film, or an art nerd, or whatever. And it seemed just too sad and delusional to declare myself "a writer."

So when someone asked me about my hobbies, the best I could come up with was, "I read." And the conversation usually ended there.

Looking back, I think part of what I resisted about hobby-talk was the implication that "hobbies" constituted a distinct category (unrelated to one's job or schooling, but more than just goofing off; serious and sustained, but also fun). I also resented what I felt was a cheap attempt to relate to me through whatever I did in my spare time--as if I'd automatically have something in common with someone else, just because we both played tennis.

At the same time, I think I bought into the idea that what one does in one's free time should be legible in some way, or directed toward some end. I didn't talk about most of the things I did, because they didn't add up to an identity or an expertise. And though I often thought about resuming flute lessons or French classes, I couldn't really see the point. Then I'd. . . what? Read Le Monde every day? Join a community orchestra? Why?

These days I feel differently. When asked why I'm studying Italian, I shrug. Sometimes I say I want to read Dante and Petrarch in the original. Sometimes I say that Cosimo and I hope to spend summers in Italy, once we're living together full-time. Sometimes I mention being half-Italian, and now a citizen. But those explanations are afterthoughts, attempts to imagine a reason rather than reasons in themselves. It's too late for me to be a fluent speaker; I have no plans for comparative work in the Italian Renaissance; neither travel nor research requires that I speak or read the language better than I do.

But really: why do anything?

If I once felt that there was no point in doing something if there wasn't a clear goal or outcome, I now find the lack of a point freeing. You do something. It's interesting enough to keep doing. And it leads to something else, or it doesn't. The doing is its own reward.

I don't think I'm the only one to have arrived at this realization as I enter early middle age: in the past few years a surprising number of my friends have suddenly picked up old passions or begun new ones; I know people who have resumed writing poetry or taking piano lessons, or who are studying photography or taking up mountain-climbing. Not to be experts, not to change career paths. Just because.

The thing is, we're all going to die. Nothing we do matters: having kids, not having kids; being successful at work or not; spending the weekend doing this or doing that. Or it all matters. Whichever. It amounts to the same thing.

But I still refuse to call anything I do a hobby.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What's a "good" press?

So far my book has received two reviews, neither in a scholarly journal. Luckily, they're both good. But though I won't start patting myself on the back until I've seen something positive in a field-specific journal, in some ways these two reviews may be a bigger deal. That's because one of the journals is Choice, a publication of the American Library Association, which makes recommendations to acquisitions librarians, and the other is the TLS, which is--well--the TLS. Both review only a selected number of academic titles and both reach an audience that isn't limited to in-field specialists.

Now, I have zero expectation that my book is going to be some kind of crossover hit; I was mildly surprised that the Choice reviewer deemed it accessible to undergraduates and that the TLS apparently thinks it might interest a general reader. But whether the book is actually interesting or accessible to those groups doesn't really matter, because they're not the ones who are going to be buying my book or talking about it.

Rather, in the weird, slow, indirect economy of academic publishing, attention in non-scholarly venues translates into attention within the scholarly community: if more academic librarians order it, then it's on more shelves waiting for more scholars to stumble across it; if the TLS reviews it, Renaissance scholars who might otherwise think my book sounds like a total snoozefest--and who might not even read a review in RQ--might notice that there's a chapter or two that's relevant to their own research.

The benefits of this kind of virtuous cycle are pretty obvious: more publicity means more sales, more sales means more publicity, and both keep my press happy and make them more likely to put the book out in paperback. What's less obvious, I think, is that getting good publicity is neither totally accidental nor solely attributable to my own awesomeness. It's one of the dividends of publishing with a good press.

So let's talk about the nitty-gritty of why it matters who you publish with. Everyone will tell you that you should publish with the best press you can, though what counts as "the best" depends on your discipline, your department, and how alarmingly your tenure clock is ticking. But the reasons people give for seeking out a better press sometimes sound like nothing more than name-brand snobbery: if you publish with Press A, people will think your book is more consequential simply because it's published by Press A.

And yeah, that's real thing in the world. Plenty of readers (and search committees, and tenure review boards) use the perceived prestige of a press as a lazy vetting mechanism, outsourcing decisions about a book's worth to whoever approved it for publication in the first place. However, a truly good press isn't just a designer label. A good press works hard to promote your book--and some mid-tier presses are better at this than the big 'uns.

Here are a few of the ways to gauge how hard a press works for its authors:

  1. The size of their print runs. Academic monographs (and edited collections) have laughably small print runs relative to trade books, since most of their sales are to libraries rather than individuals; the low end is about 200 or 250 and the high end is maybe 750. Still, that's a difference of 200%.

  2. The time and money they put into design. It's not rocket science, but a more attractive cover and (especially!) more reader-friendly page-design is more likely to attract readers.

  3. The price point. As with a handsome design, cheaper books are an easier sell.

  4. The publicity budget. How many review copies do they send out, and to what kind of journals? Do they submit books for consideration for prizes? At how many conferences does the press have a table?

If you're an aspiring academic author, you've probably thought about some of these things: you know which presses publish work you admire, which produce consistently attractive books, and which show up at the major conferences. You may also have asked friends and acquaintances about their experiences publishing with X or with Y. But other things are harder to get a feel for from the outside (or even from the inside: most authors don't know what their initial print run is, or how their press compares in terms of its marketing and publicity strategies). Here are a few ways to do it:

  1. WorldCat, which allows you to search for how many libraries hold a given title worldwide, is the easiest way to get a sense of how successful a book has been, how big its print run was, or how vigorously its press has promoted it. Find a bunch of books from a few different presses, all published 4-5 years ago, and then see how the different presses compare. You'll be surprised: some presses are consistently under 200, others around 500.

  2. Skim reviews and review journals to see which presses are best represented, especially in journals that don't do a lot of reviews or that are geared toward a general audience. This will give you a sense of which presses send out a lot of review copies or have a relationship with those publications. (You can also do this with individual titles--find a few books you think are equally strong, published around the same time, by different presses, and see how many reviews each got, and where.)

  3. Look at which presses win prizes in your subfield (not, like, the MLA first-book prize, but the smaller prizes). Over the past 10 or 15 years, are there presses that seem to clean up?

Bear in mind that there can be a lot of volatility in this kind of data: a book's topic matters; reviewer availability matters; big hits will skew your results; and more recent books are harder to get a handle on. The above strategies are no way to make a judgement about the worth of any individual title. But if you track enough titles by a few different presses, you'll start to get a sense of their business and marketing strategies.

(You can probably tell that I used to work in academic publishing by the strong sporting interest I retain in all its behind-the-scenes aspects.)

Finally, ask your published friends specific questions about how their books got marketed. I can tell you that when my press asked me where they should send review copies, I came up with a list of maybe twenty journals, including a few long shots. I thought that was pretty comprehensive. Their final list? Forty-seven.

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Readers who have published academic books: would you add anything for aspiring authors--things you'd wish you'd known about the publishing world, or about the strengths of different kinds of presses?

And readers who are seeking publishers: do you have questions for me or my readers?