Citizen Radical: Or, My Life As An Editor

July 26, 2012, 3:44 pm


My recent post about icky academic theory-speak stirred the writing pot big time. It prompted a vigorous on-line debate about my unwillingness to name the author/book that triggered my eruption about the unreadability of some theory. My argument that many books would do a better job of illuminating the subject at hand if they were freed from jargon and grammatical circumlocution received less attention.

I am interested in this question because I write, but also because I edit academic book projects and try to take them from good to great, great to fabulous. I meet them at the proposal stage and live with them until they are handed off to the author’s best friend, the copyeditor.

I have a strong bias that I would like to share with you: I think all books, regardless of field or genre, do better with an editor than without. A bad book (or a bad blog post, for that matter) is bad, not because the author isn’t smart, but because the author has — despite the phone books of names that are embedded in every acknowledgments section — lacked an editor.

To my great delight, one of the new acquaintances I acquired through this discussion sent a link to Lev Grossman’s essay “I Hate This Book So Much” (Time, July 25 2012.) Like me, Grossman fulminates about a sucky book. Unlike me, he puts the responsibility on a publishing industry driven by celebrity authors.  Commenters on Grossman’s post don’t see much at stake in his failure to identify the book. Rather than present elaborate reasons why he should identify his miscreant, they seem happy to just insert the name of their favorite overrated famous author and let it go at that. “Postscript notwithstanding, Lev,”one writes, “it’s hard not to envision a Citizen Kane scene in which your dying words are ‘Jonathan . . . Franzen.’”

Commercial publishing is a hard world to break into: academic publishing, for all its terrors, less so. As a series editor who helps first-time authors get published, I would say that the greatest danger for a young scholar in my fields is not failng to find a press, but that an author won’t get the help and honest criticism s/he needs to produce a good book. When a book is in print and it isn’t what it could be, that has ramifications down the line for a person’s career.

The calls for me to identify the author of the book reflect an ugly feature of university life: all academics, no matter how junior, are active gatekeepers who constantly bestow or retract privilege, opportunity and reputation based on their views of what others have written. We judge other people’s work constantly in highly formal, often high stakes, settings. Furthermore, criticizing someone’s writing can be a coded statement that indicates prejudice or ignorance about the field of the book, its political implications, or worse. (Hat tip to a colleague who once wryly, and usefully, observed to me that educated African-American people are often characterized by whites as “articulate,” indicating that this is an unusual and lovely surprise.)

As a series editor, I have an opportunity to make a productive intervention in this cycle of judgement. I am more invested in helping people become better writers than I am in promoting my reputation as the Mrs. Astor of Academia (remember that Ward McAllister’s famous 400 would not have been special if the names of 400 unworthier dinner guests had not been well known. Of course, as a senior colleague, I have been involved with critiquing manuscripts and helping people turn dissertations into books for a long time.* Back in 2009, Renee Romano and I decided to take our skills to a bigger stage. We sketched out the ideas that eventually became our University of Georgia Press series, “Since 1970: Histories of Contemporary America.” Since then, we have published two books and our own edited collection, Doing Recent History (2012): keep your eyes peeled for Jane Gerhard’s book on Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party.

This is all to say that as an editor I have developed a much keener sense of what does, or doesn’t, happen when an academic book makes its trek from the proposal stage to Powell’s. I have developed opinions about why books are, or are not, successful that far exceed those that I had as a mere tenure referee or search committee member. Therefore, when a prospective author asks “What are the benefits to being published in a series?” one of the things I can say with great confidence is:

The series editor will read and critique your work, making it the best and most accessible book it can be. S/he will explain to you what audiences you are including, or excluding, by making certain kinds of decisions about your writing. S/he will make it good, and far better than you can accomplish on your own.

Now, there’s a lot more to say than that about why you might want to be in a series. But instead of doing it myself, I thought I would let the editors of a hot new series at Temple University Press, “Sexuality Studies,” start the conversation. The series will debut in Fall 2012 with its first book, Lisa Z. Sigel’s Making Modern Love. Historian Regina Kunzel, sociologist Janice Irvine and Temple’s editor-in-chief Janet Francendese took the collective time to answer a few questions from Tenured Radical on what a series can do for a young author.

What are the advantages of publishing in a series?

The main advantage is having scholars in your field read your manuscript, give you comments, and shepherd the book into print. They can give you a different kind of read from even the best editors. In addition, since series editors know the field, they can advise the press editor in terms of choosing appropriate reviewers and thinking through those reviews once they come in. They know the conversations and debates in the field, and can help authors think about framing of the book and, later in the process, marketing to particular audiences.

The very existence of the series indicates a press’s commitment to the kind of work the author is doing. It’s not only a sign of a past commitment but to a continuing effort to seek out work that extends a particular field of inquiry.

What are the advantages to publishing your first book in a series?

A book in a series is in the company of other books that bring it extra attention. This is probably an advantage for a book at any stage of one’s career, but perhaps especially important for first books. Since a first book often had a prior incarnation as a dissertation, a series editor can help a new author in the transition away from the type of mentoring one receives in graduate school.

Are there circumstances in which not being in a series would be advantageous to an author?

We can’t think of any disadvantages to being in a series, unless your book is shoehorned into a series that doesn’t make sense for it.

Readers: what are your experiences working with editors? Publishing in, or outside of, a series? Do these experiences connect to issues about writing and audience that were raised in my earlier post on theory?

*For those of you beginning to imagine the revision of a diss, Renee and I always recommend William Germano, From Dissertation to Book (University of Chicago: 2005). And who — this Radical included — does not benefit from a periodic re-reading of William Strunk and E.B. White’s classic The Elements of Style, now updated in a 2011 Kindle edition?

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