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Opening the Book, Part II

Fig. 1. The supposed “largest book in the world,” the visitors' register for the California Building, Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, Seattle, 1909. Photo by Frank H. Nowell. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This second batch of writers on the process of finishing their books ranges from meditations on the situatedness of academic writing to blow-by-blow descriptions of the publication process to a call for more inventive and ethical ways of acknowledging one’s scholarly companions. Here you can find writing on the “hard edge of a colonial language,” in Sarah Dowling’s apt description of her work. Rebecca Colesworthy calls attention to the “not-writing”: the money, time, and resources that condition the long-term development of a book. Helen Rydstrand narrates the difficulty of accepting any work as good enough. And Alix Beeston’s “intervallic bridgework” concludes this installment of the Process cluster by pushing the form of the monograph toward a politics of citation.

 Walt Hunter

Sarah Dowling

In writing my book, Translingual Poetics, I wanted to frame things that were intimate to my experience—stories about language politics in a settler state—as an interpretive politics and a literary-critical methodology. I knew that I wanted to write about contemporary poets who used more than one language, and that was straightforward. But it was a challenge to write lucid scholarly prose that was responsive to the linguistic innovation of its object. Late in the process of editing, I added two lengthy footnotes to my introduction. Although apparently subordinate to the argument and unrelated to one another, these two footnotes attempted to lay out the stylistic conventions I’d established in support of and in conformity with my own claims. In other words, I had this idea that my book should perform its own argument. Translingual Poetics examines the ways that contemporary poets refuse to naturalize English as the language of North American poetry. It seemed that I should attempt to do the same.

The first footnote I added was an explanation of the word “récriture.” The literal translation for “récriture” is “rewriting,” and it’s a literary term used by French critics to describe texts that write through, copy, or re-present other texts—think of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! When I used this word in my introduction, I didn’t italicize it. I didn’t italicize any subsequent “foreign” terms either, so I needed a footnote to explain not only the meaning of the word, but why I hadn’t marked it out typographically as different from the surrounding text. Maybe this seems like a small matter, but my decision was informed by an extensive series of conversations among Latinx writers—Daniel José Older, Daniel Chacón, Sandra Cisneros, and others—that have taken place over the past few decades. Some of these writers argue that italicizing words that are not in English marks out the terms of particular audiences’ linguistic un-belonging. Following their lead, I sought to scramble, at least momentarily, the clear borders and the taken-for-grantedness of English.

The second footnote I added late in the game was an explanation of my use of the pronoun “they,” which in the introduction and at various points throughout the book I use with a singular antecedent. Most of us are familiar with the argument that “singular they” is a gender-neutral pronoun that can be substituted for the gendered pronouns “he” and “she,” or for cumbersome phrases that combine them. My use of “they” in this book is somewhat different: rather than indicating neutrality, I wanted to use “they” to point toward the cisheteropatriarchal norms imposed as part of the settler colonial project, and to indicate that there is more to gender than what the English language gives us. Of course, “they” does not name the gendered and relational possibilities that exist in other languages and societies, but the minor grammatical awkwardness that sometimes results from its use offered another opportunity to meddle with English-as-usual. It seemed a chance to avow an otherwise or indicate the existence of something else and something more.

The other thing I did toward the end of the writing process was my acknowledgments. In addition to thanking my partner, my childcare providers, and my advisors and friends who had read and responded to my work, I included a land acknowledgment indicating that I had written the book on the traditional territories of the Lenape and Coast Salish peoples. It seemed important to note where my English-language intellectual activity in writing the book had taken place, as this acknowledgment made clear the prior existence and the prior claims of other languages, and of the people of who speak them. I wanted to begin the book with a statement that our English-language scholarly activities enact the belief that English is a linguistic common ground. I saw that this belief was questioned in poetry; I wanted to create scholarship that did the same. My aim was to be like the poets, to identify and contest the fundamental linguistic conditions of literary production. My book does something different than their books do, but I think we are beginning at the same place and with the same question, on the hard edge of a colonial language, looking for another world and another way.

Rebecca Colesworthy

I learned about this cluster as I do many things: on Twitter. On Academic Twitter, I feel like a success story—proof that an English PhD can find other employment and continue to publish as an independent scholar amid the withering of the tenure-track job market. But this story isn’t much of a story. It has a beginning (a PhD!) and an end (a book!) but no middle. It’s a sound bite, a status update, eclipsing the actual process and conditions of writing my first book outside academia.

While based on my dissertation, my book was largely written on nights and weekends while working full-time in fundraising and communications at a New York City nonprofit from 2012 to 2016. I never really “left” academia insofar as I continued to apply for tenure-track jobs, despite swearing year after year that I never would again. I’d had the opportunity to design and teach a couple of Master’s courses tangentially related to my project during a three-year postdoc at NYU, but I wasn’t teaching anymore and my job made going to local talks hard. (An aside: I’ve decided the term “day job” is about as absurd as “alt-ac.” Here’s the thing about day jobs: they’re jobs, i.e. stressful and demanding no matter how nominally peripheral to your “real” work. I was also good at mine, crazy though it made me—but that’s another story.)

I gave up conferences with the exception of MLA conventions when I had interviews. The issue wasn’t money (my job paid decently) but time. I had a finite number of personal and vacation days, which I tried to reserve for writing, for visiting and taking care of my mom, who had health issues, and, yes, the occasional vacation. My job was 9 to 5:30 at least with no flex time and a one-hour subway commute to and from work, which I would sometimes use to write notes on my phone. During my last year at the nonprofit, I negotiated taking Fridays off, giving me a few months of three-day weekends. They were a boon but also meant taking a 20% pay cut and I inevitably stayed late other nights to keep up.

After letting the book languish for a couple of years, I returned to it in earnest in the spring of 2014. Based on whatever calculus I thought I should “have a book” (i.e. have a proposal under review) to apply to tenure-track positions again after “being out” (i.e. having a PhD) for five years. My greatest anxiety was not the writing—though that fueled plenty of terror—but the research. Reading at night put me to sleep but reading on the weekends felt like a waste since that was much-needed writing time. There was, even more fundamentally, the perennial issue of how to get access to print and electronic resources. Determining how to finagle library privileges every year continues even now to be among the greatest stresses of attempting to do scholarly work. They are never a given but always a problem to be solved. In NYC, I asked a professor (also a friend and collaborator) in the NYU English department to sponsor me as a visiting scholar each year. The asking was painful and embarrassing though the asked was happy to oblige and the administrator who helped was a dream. Still, I worried for months each summer about the department chair agreeing to sign off and the application being approved. Once it was, I had to get a new ID in person each year, which meant taking time from work. The actual privileges often weren’t activated, requiring follow-up with the department and the library. Once I got privileges, they would suddenly cut off each October because of a mistake in the system that never got fixed but had to be worked out year after year.

I worry that these details are dull and my frustrations flimsy. I’ve said nothing about the writing itself—the isolation, the sacrifices, the craft, the good days, the bad days. But everyone already knows about that. I wanted to capture something of the not-writing— the day-to-day difficulties and demands of navigating institutions on which one necessarily depends for money, time, and resources despite one’s supposed independence as a scholar. This, too, is part of the process.

Helen Rydstrand

At the end of October 2018, I received the final proofs on my first book. It’s due to come out in January 2019, on my little brother’s birthday—I joke that I’ll have been working on that gift for eight years (so he’d better like it). It began as many first academic books do, as a PhD thesis, and I spent close to five years with it at this stage. Throughout the candidature I found that an inconveniently large part of my task was to convince myself that I could actually do it. But, at the end of that long and often arduous process, the work had assumed roughly the form it still has now. When I went nervously to meet my co-supervisor after she’d read my final “tome” before submission, she told me that it read like a book, and asked me to please abandon my plan to give it one more edit. I often deliberately recalled this moment as I pushed the project into book form—and I am still trying to live by that assurance that my work is good enough, and to learn to let it go.

Fig. 2. Marta Minujín, “La Torre de Babel de Libros” (2011), Buenos Aires. Photo by Estrella Herrera. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Here is a much abridged summary of how I tried to do that. After making minor corrections required by my examiners, I submitted the final thesis to my university on 31 May 2016. I sent off my first book proposal in January 2017, and received my first rejection in February (my book was too similar to another being commissioned, and still too much like a PhD because it has a three-author structure; I decided to save the latter feedback for the next book). I sent another proposal to another press in April, and in late June a glimmer of hope appeared in my inbox—the editor I had contacted asked me to send the manuscript in for review. I got that email while on a long-delayed holiday in Vietnam. I managed with some difficulty to find-and-replace the word “thesis” with “book” throughout the document, using the skeleton word processor I had on my tablet, sent it off, and joined my friends in the pool. (I later discovered that this had created neologisms like “hypobook,” which the readers graciously did not mention.) In December the reports arrived at last! One was brief but very kind, and one long and delightful. The latter wrote that the book was “ready to be published as is” but suggested it would be improved by extending the conclusion. By Christmas the publishing board had approved the project and I had a contract.

Of course I could not actually publish it “as is”; rereading the work produced (and still produces) waves of horror, though alongside some ripples of pleasure. So I made some revisions, including those suggested. I added some nice archive findings, and spruced up the framework—the introduction, conclusion and various transitions. I also revivified the final chapter, which still held traces of the exhausted states in which it was written and rewritten. If I had allowed myself to consider it, I might have restructured the whole thing, redone all the reading and analysis, and tried to scrub out every clumsy sentence. But I restrained myself from this, because supervisors, examiners, reviewers and editors told me it was okay, and I decided to believe them. I let the final manuscript go on 31 May 2018, somehow exactly two years after finishing the thesis version.

Reflecting on this process, I must end here with a note of thanks for the many people who helped to make the book possible: my PhD supervisors at UNSW, John Attridge and Helen Groth, those who examined and reviewed it, the members of my women’s writing group in Sydney, my partner and friends and family, and the team at Bloomsbury that have helped to make my book a real thing that will soon exist in the world.

Alix Beeston

It’s so slick, academic writing: so smooth and unbroken, its surfaces polished to a sheen, and also so tight, taut, trim, selecting one word and not three, lobbing its synonymic cousins into the trash by the magic of the backspace key. Often it’s writing as unwriting, like I did with that last sentence, moving phrases back and forth to lock in a rhythm, trying to make the comma splice, my favorite error, into a style, while still playing by other rules, testing out verbs to keep my metaphors unmixed, a shot not a cocktail. Academic writing knows how to enjoy itself, getting a kick out of the pursuit of precision and nuance; but it also knows how to hide the effort it takes to get the job done. It’s an expert in cleaning up the evidence—in Jani Scandura’s words, “the false starts and elisions, the offhand remarks and intense conversations, the costs, passions, and fatigue that shape but are effaced by [its] labor.”

Scandura’s Down in the Dumps (2008) stages an account of Depression-era detritus worthy of the topic: cluttered, eclectic, leafed with email transcripts, amateur photographs, and other texts. I fell in love with Scandura’s work—work as work, work as workings—as a graduate student in Sydney, years ago now. The book seemed to me more beautiful, its thought more rich, for keeping its ends loose, its debts on the table. And I took on something of Scandura’s ethos in the writing and rewriting that became my own book, In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen. On its pages I sought (I seek, in the relentless now of the literary present) to enter into the intervals and openings that define so much of the writing and photography that we associate with modernism. I approached these intervals as textual sites in which the social and political laws of modernity might be critically negotiated.

Yet this argument raised a methodological challenge. If I was right that the intervals between one fragment and another fragment, or one body and another body, can serve as spaces where the operations of power are exposed and even retooled, what then is academic writing doing when it covers up its own gaps and breaks, its false starts and elisions?

The crafted sentence, clean and proper; the dance of argumentation, a perfect step-by-step; the endnote as defensive barricade, there to cover your back. Isn’t it all a clever seduction? A series of pretty gestures, a winning smile, not a hair or punctuation mark out of place?

In hermetically sealing my book, however unevenly, as an object of commercial exchange and circulation, I worried over what I might be stealing away from view along with my mistakes, vacillations, frustrations, doubts—all the stuff I sent to the trash. Or perhaps I should say all the shit. I once came across a letter that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, in 1921, in which he called the ink pen “the ineffable destroyer of thought, that fades an emotion into that slatternly thing, a written down excretion. What ill-spelt rot!” Poor spelling is waste matter on the page, which is also, as Judith Brown notes in Glamour in Six Dimensions, “the stain of the sloppy and sluttish woman.” Leaving aside Fitzgerald’s pejorative gendering of textual trash, I like to think that this letter invites us to question our preference for writing in ink, writing imagined to be perdurable and autonomous, including that made neat and pristine in publication. There’s a gap between Fitzgerald’s shit-strewn page and the cleanliness of his published work, but it’s one that encodes thought and emotion, activity and creativity—that of the author, sure, but also of the numerous other people who make books into books. Scribbled pencil marks are traces of process, signs of the embodied, social, and institutional contexts of all writing.

I knew I couldn’t claim the radical possibilities of the gap in modernism by writing in a mode that filled in, or pretended to fill in, all of its own gaps. And so I worked toward a scholarly method of combination and accumulation, somewhat like Scandura’s. I pulled together a wide range of literary texts with diverse photographic projects and traditions, making surprising and sometimes counterintuitive connections between the written and the visual. I also used a highly citational style that enjoined my writing with that of the many, many scholars who mapped the ground on which I was playing. This is, I hope, academic writing as intervallic bridgework, bearing on the page the processes of reading, thinking, collecting, organizing, appropriating, modifying, which in turn invites and enables these processes in those who read it.

(Of course, some of the most urgent conversations happening right now in the humanities concern the politics of citation practices. Sara Ahmed’s work, in Living a Feminist Life and elsewhere, to theorize citations as the building blocks of new worlds, the raw materials of “feminist shelters” is amplified on the daily by feminist scholars’ whip-fast, whip-smart Twitter takes, such as Eugenia Zuroski’s recent threads on citation as a non-hierarchical and non-instrumentalized act of sharing and gratitude that produces “networks of trust.” Twitter, of course, runs on the retweet, the citational chain: I retweeted Zuroski because my friend Grace Lavery retweeted Zuroski; and Zuroski writes in response to a provocation by Lindsey Eckert and learning from Ahmed as well as from a recent lecture by Katherine McKittrick exploring citation practices in Black studies.)

This isn’t to say that in writing my book I wasn’t cowed by the prospect of its permanence—or that I wasn’t in thrall to the impossible dream of perfection, the feverish pleasures of copyediting as waste removal, errāta corrige (correct the mistakes!). And, in fact, it’s hard to imagine that a scholarly book with too many frayed edges, too many holes and lacunae, would really be a good scholarly book. Scandura claims her book is made in “half-told stories and unfinished sentences,” but hers is controlled, gorgeous writing, from start to finish. Indeed, it was the clarity and wit of scholarly writing that first drew me to academe.

So I continue to labor over my writing. I make it up as I make it up, because my writing didn’t wake up like this, any more than did Beyoncé—the consummate professional, who trades, as Natalia Cecire writes, in “spectacles of occluded labor.” Even so, the process of writing my book has left me convinced that the slickness of our style is a disguise, a posture, that casts the academic in the shadow of our culture’s old geniuses—brilliant, prodigious, solitary, above and apart from the lived realities of our world—and it’s one that I’m trying to reach for less thoughtlessly, less quickly.