05/27/2009 (John Jay-Main Building: 59th st & 10th Ave)
09:20-11:00 Key Event I: Publication Roundtable (Rm 630)
Tina Chanter (Editor, SUNY Series in Gender Theory)
Wendy Lochner (Senior Executive Editor, Columbia University Press)
Amy Scholder (Editorial Director, The Feminist Press)
Helen Tartar (Editorial Director, Fordham University Press)
The best pragmatic overview of academic publishing I know is Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors (Cambridge, 1987). It is very good on all stages of the publication process and on what its author usefully calls “the mechanics of authorship.” Its sections on “writing well” and “revising a dissertation,” though they contain some useful hints, are, however, an example of the publisher’s stereotypes with which academics, especially young academics, have to contend.
Many people ask about the mechanics of submitting a book. Here is my usual advice. If you have not made contact with a publisher before a book manuscript is complete (this usually happens through another person’s recommendation), about four months before you expect to finish send half a dozen presses a packet containing: (1) a two- to four-page letter outlining the book’s argument and its importance within its field; (2) a curriculum vitae; and (3) a detailed prospectus. You can send a sample chapter in addition, if you would like. Editors receive hundreds and hundreds of these queries over the course of a year, and you should prepare yours in the expectation that the editor will read (1) carefully, may glance at (2) as some indication of where you probably fit in the field, and will skim (3) if she is interested by (1) and wants to resolve specific questions it raises for her. When presses respond favorably, rank them in your order of preference and submit the manuscript to them in turn. Do not simultaneously submit unless you have an agreement with the respective presses—simultaneous submission does not necessarily guarantee faster acceptance. If you have any questions, write the publisher at this time, to test the degree of interest and to get some taste of whether or not you could develop a good working relationship. Do some research into presses: get suggestions from faculty advisors or from friends who have had work published, and examine publishers’ lists (and your own bookshelves) to try to achieve a good match between the interests reflected in your work and those of the press to which you are submitting. If you have contacts with a press (say, an advisor has recommended that you submit there), don’t be shy about mentioning them in the letter. Publishing procedures and the mechanics of submission are less important than the considerably more complex matter of writing work a publisher can encourage and accept. Here are a few thoughts gleaned from my own experience of what gets accepted, what rejected. 1. Trust no handout, rule book, or set of maxims, including this one. The publication process is highly competitive, and no set of rules can guarantee that you will win out in any given running. The field of competitors is different for every individual decision, however, and so don’t take rejection in one context to be an absolute judgment of publishability. 2. In particular, when writing shun Strunk & White, Fowler, and all the complacent pundits of stylistic excellence. Instead, learn to feel and to see the movement of thought through the syntax of a sentence, through a paragraph, through a chapter. Then practice revising your prose accordingly. Ideas often first come to mind and first enter prose in a struggle between the intangible spaces and shapes of thought and the hierarchies and linearities of syntax. Revision changes that struggle into partnership. 3. When in doubt, read your work aloud to yourself. It is sometimes easier to hear awkwardness than to see it. 4. Respect language—all of it, including all words and the entire range of syntactical constructions—but never fully trust it. Reject nothing as “jargon,” but be attentive to its history and to what work it does—then ask whether this work is worthy of being done in a given context. Constantly interrogate your own choices. 5. Chew your theory thoroughly. Failures to integrate theoretical positions, or theoretical aspirations and primary research, are very frequent flaws in interdisciplinary work. 6. Put pressure on your argument. Take it as far as you can make it go. Don’t stop short at what you expected to find or what Theory Z said you would. Bring the primary material and the theory into conversation with each other. 7. Look at your material from every angle you can muster. Do this not as something to be written out in the work, but as a condition of what you write. Nothing gets rejected faster than analyses that overlook a central feature of a quote, or neglect key questions that should have been asked before pronouncing judgment. 8. Begin the life-long process of figuring out what you have actually written. Be mindful of the intentional fallacy: what you wrote and what you intended have no necessary relation to each other. If you have done a good job (especially on a book-length project), the former is probably more interesting than the latter, and you will have to spend some time puzzling it out. This is crucial in writing Introductions and Conclusions, but it affects the whole framework of a book. 9. Enlist others. Your text is your literal corpus, and it presents the same problems as your somatic one: because you occupy it as a position, you can never get enough distance to see it from the outside. Elicit comments from those who can (friends, colleagues, advisors, formal referees, and eventually editors). Truly engage these comments—don’t treat them merely as matters of cosmetic detail, something you can address in a week or two because you are sick of the project and want to move on to the next one. They will hurt, but try not to consider them a threat. The authors who are most successful frequently carry their response to a comment further than the comment itself goes. Remember that you can learn as much from a comment that diverges from what you wanted to convey as from a comment perfectly aligned with your position. 10. (This is the one addition, now that this handout is being retyped in 1998.) If you are writing in any of the disciplines affected by what is imprecisely called “theory,” have an ear to the historical situation of academic English. Of course, one must always write the language of one’s time, but I would offer these pointers. Many Americans (I can’t speak for the British) assume that “good prose” is a version of high modernism that I have seen best summarized in Ernest Fenollosa, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. This entire essay deserves careful attention as an imagination of how English operates (to the best of my knowledge, it is erroneous for Chinese), but let me offer a Nietzschean quintessence: “The sentence form was forced upon primitive men by nature itself. It was not we who made it; it was a reflection of the temporal order in causation. All truth has to be expressed in sentences because all truth is the transference of power. The type of sentence in nature is a flash of lightning.” To put it in more banal terms, twentieth-century English, unlike Chinese, has been a very linear language, with a great deal of emphasis placed on the progression from subject through active verb to object. There is nothing essential to English itself here—one can always point, of course, to the long shadow cast by Latin in Paradise Lost. In the last twenty-odd years, academic English has been greatly changed by synergy with French—for example, I would venture, the gesture c’est que, which the English “it is the X that” cannot begin to replicate. In theoretical writing, the English repertoire for rhetorical pause and emphasis has been used to take apart the lightning flash. Much of this is to be praised, but do be aware of the need for balance, plus that some people will consider this “bad writing.” My touchstone is the following (made-up) phrase: “It is precisely the very Blahblah itself that is to be emphasized.” If you can identify the seven unnecessary modes of rhetorical emphasis in this phrase (hint: metrically “blahblah” is already the quintessential gesture of emphasis), you have probably negotiated this particular historical crux. I hope some, or any, of this can be of help.