In the Interim

This is a difficult post to write. Every post after an unintended hiatus is hard — how to explain the absence; how to rediscover momentum — but this one carries its own peculiar difficulties.

When last I wrote anything of substance, I was basking in the glory of tenure — now official, incidentally, blessed and toasted by the trustees themselves — and marveling at the fact that I was still unreservedly happy, still celebrating, still un-undermined by the world, a full 48 hours later.

I was only a little ahead of myself. It took 72 hours.

Tuesday morning I got the dean’s voicemail. Friday morning — five minutes before I had to go teach — I got the email telling me that the publisher that had been reviewing my manuscript for the last ten months, the publisher that had solicited and received two very positive readers’ reports, the publisher whose literary and cultural studies editor was extremely enthusiastic about the book, would not be extending me a contract. For financial reasons.

I’ve been unable to post since then — except about the joys of being a Tiger fan at this moment of the world — in no small part because I had no idea what to say. I began a deeply whiny post a couple of hours after getting the message — and then took a moment to look around me, and discovered what had befallen Liz’s family.

In the scheme of things, an unpublished book is nothing. A non-problem.

And, as a wise friend pointed out to me in the days following, the two messages arrived in the right order.

And everyone who has read the manuscript raves, and says it’s bound to be published somewhere good.

And so I feel guilty, deeply Catholicly guilty, for being angry about this situation — for resenting the fact that I finished this manuscript a year and a half ago, and am still shopping it around to academic publishers who seem intent upon understanding interdisciplinary work as a marketing neither-nor rather than both-and. For hating that I write for a market in which it’s perfectly acceptable to tie up a manuscript for ten months (simultaneous submission making one persona non grata) and then just let it go. For dreading having to start this whole process over again, with no sense of its eventual outcome and a complete inability to move on until this project is finally, completely, put to bed. For hating the knowledge that circumstances that one can’t control — the economic health of academic publishing being completely outside my ken — can nonetheless leave one feeling like an abject failure.

For being so concerned about my bruised ego when I’ve just been given a prize that any number of folks would happily trade publishing histories with me for. When my loved ones and I are happy, and healthy, and alive.

And so I haven’t posted, because I just haven’t known what to say. But in order for me to get back to writing, it’s got to be said.

4 thoughts on “In the Interim

  1. Sorry to hear about the manuscript Kathleen.

    And while it’s certainly good and appropriate to recognize that you do have things going well in your life (healthy family, tenure, etc.), it’s also fine to realize that “suck” is an analog rather than a digital scale.

    And academic publishing woes certainly register on the scale of suck.

  2. Like Jason says, that sucks. But you’re caught in the cogs of a crumbling system, Kathleen (we all are). Having secured the glowing readers’ reports, why shouldn’t you publish those, along with the full text of the project online (where it would get a much wider readership)?

    In fact I completely understand why that’s not realistic, and I’m not seriously advocating it. Nor am I suggesting that we all become our own online publishers, at least not unless that’s part of a continuum of different options. But the point is, the system’s broken and it’s time we got busy fixing it. What ought to count is peer review and scholarly merit, not the physical form in which the text is ultimately delivered.

  3. I of course completely agree with you, Matt. But it does seem as though we’re not going to be able to make the break with the old, crumbling system of scholarly publishing and move to a new, functional system without a few sacrificial lambs along the way.

    That’s not terribly clear — let me try again. There are a few fields in which this publishing paradigm-shift might be possible today, including (perhaps) your own: folks out on the edge of the study of electronic textuality might be able to forge a new system of peer-review and publishing that would serve the field well, because the nature of the field itself has produced a kind of consensus that electronic publication is a viable, respectable mode. In fact, the forging of such a system would itself be an important scholarly project in that field. And all of this would work in part because you (by which I mean “one”) could safely assume that your peers would find and take seriously and read and cite a project published in such a fashion.

    I, alas, am writing about the ostensible death of print for scholars who are still attached to the print form, arguing (however ironically it now appears) that print is neither dead nor dying, but instead using representations of its death-throes as a vehicle for its continuance. In order for the argument to work in some fundamental fashion, it’s got to appear in print.

    Not to mention, of course, that the folks in my field — however narrowly one must define it in order to distinguish it from yours — are pretty unlikely to (1) find, (2) take seriously, and (3) cite an electronically-published text, no matter how it carries the markers of its peer-review process. So however much I’d like to be involved in the forging of that new system, I could only do so by sacrificing the viability of my text as a player in my field.

    Demoralizing. In order to get out from under the collapsing old system, one has to be brave enough to imagine, build, and support a new system. But all of our current standards of success are based around that old system, and leaving it behind appears to be a form of career suicide.

    If the suck-o-meter is indeed analog (thanks for that, Jason!), the needle’s swung way over into the red…

  4. Well, that certainly sounds like something I want to read, and I’m disappointed I’ll have to wait just a little while longer to do so. Kathleen, you might be interested in a piece I wrote a while back on David Carson’s graphic design, where I make a similar kind of argument about print’s conspicuous representations of its own demise:

    http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/kirsch.html

    It’s really just a conference paper but it’s something I’d like to get back to one of these days, hopefully with the benefit of your critical text at hand.

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