Friday, September 26, 2008

Interesting dilemma

By blogging about these journals, I'm sort of setting myself up. How can I send a literary contribution and a donation to a journal I just blogged about? Won't that be, um, awkward? I don't kid myself that the readers will be aware of this experiment, but it could happen. Although I can't imagine the words on this blog affecting an editorial decision one way or the other (it shouldn't matter at all), we live in the real world, not the fantasy one, and this could potentially be odd.

I'll take Eighteenth-Century Studies off the list, and instead blog about other scholarly journals where I don't plan to send my work. And as for VQR? Hmmmm, haven't figured that one out yet. If some of my Georgetown faculty readers have read about VQR and now feel inspired to send, however, that would be great.

Scholarly and Literary Journal Experiment: In VQR's Living Room

I strode into the living room of the Virginia Quarterly Review this week to have a look around. No, I didn't drive to Charlottesville. Instead I sat down with the Fall issue and a cup of coffee and read. For all seven of you who follow this blog regularly, this is part of a journal experiment where VQR is the first victim of my scrutiny.

"Reading" in this instance involved more than the actual literary content, although that was crucial. I did read each article, story, and poem, but I also read the masthead and looked up people there whose names I didn't recognize; I read the bios of every contributor; I looked at the artwork (so much a part of this journal's unusual affect); and I even considered the advertisements, all telling a story in themselves. I further read about VQR's history online, to get a sense not just of where it is and where it wants to go, but also where it has been. I read even an appreciation/ obituary for its longest-serving editor, who stepped down in 1975 after 33 years.

Knowing a journal is like tasting a wine or appreciating a color or a texture. Once you get a sense of it you can think about what might pair well with it. You establish quickly a sense of whether or not your writing style is compatible with its editorial vision (or could be), and what sort of work would make sense to share. Think of this exercise as planning a dish to bring for a meal in someone's home. Every dish doesn't work in every gastronomic context. What work will you offer not just as a sampling of who you are and what matters to you, but of who those editors are and what would enhance their overall vision?

The journal does feature writing by women, but its overall tone is decidedly masculine with a global focus. It almost feels like the literary companion to a newsmagazine. Its emphasis remains on the stars that it naturally draws through the stature it has built over time, but it appears open to less-glittery contributors as long as they share what I perceive as dual characteristics (neither taking precedence): great writing, and a journalistically slanted global perspective. Sebastian Junger's current forays in Afghanistan would offer perfect core material, but so would your experiences working in an AIDS orphanage in Senegal.

VQR appears to reflect the precise editorial vision of its current editor-in-chief Ted Genoways in as specific a way as Harper's for a long time reflected Lapham, or The Paris Review reflected Matthiesen and Plimpton. I can't imagine a poem, story or essay appearing here that would work equally well in other literary journals, so the exercise of sending your stuff around to see where it sticks would seem futile in this case. I think to hit VQR you've gotta know -- and savor -- the target.

All of this is my opinion, not VQR's words, so I'd be interested to hear from anyone at the journal with thoughts either way.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Q: Did Hemingway really call Rolling Rock "The Green Muse"? (A: Uh, no, that would be absinthe)

This is sort of scholarly. Author Horst Dornbusch will host a Smithsonian Associates event at the Brickskellar on October 25, featuring his new book Prost! The Story of German Beer. Smithsonian Associates likes to hold events in restaurants; I was once part of their event at 1789 Restaurant, where we celebrated Joan Reardon's books about M.F.K. Fisher. Fisher was a legendary 20th-century food writer whose work I taught during my "Nonfiction as a Literary Form" classes at Georgetown. Here's a link to the Smithsonian event. These tend to sell out, so order early if you're interested.

I took the blurry image above during our university trip to Kenya in June. Some of us drank Tusker pretty much every day...

A tiny tip that will save you hundreds of hours

Time saver extraordinaire: Before returning any source (especially if you have traveled to a distant archive) do four things: (1) Enter the complete citation into your electronic end-note source such as RefWorks, and make sure it is absolutely letter perfect; (2) double-check your page numbers and your quotation of the source; (3) take a photocopy of both the publication page and the quoted text itself, in case your computer crashes or is stolen; and (4) write up your thoughts about those sources while they are still fresh for you.

Does this sound like beginner's advice? Then you'd be surprised how many famous scholars come to me with end notes that are a mess, and without complete certainty that x set of notes came from y archive. One stopped by recently with over 500 haphazard citations and a pitiful question, "Will someone in your office please check all of these for me?" The answer is of course was no (it would take months if not more than a year of quite a few hours per week from one individual), but someone must do it before his book is published.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! If you do just a few citations as you write, you'll get there, and you'll be so relieved not to have to face it all at once.

Out of the spin cycle: Balance between research and writing

I met with a woman who had researched a subject for two years, and was trying to get up the energy to begin drafting her manuscript. She sighed and looked at the pile of books in her bag -- "I'm at a distance from much of the early research. I was halfway through a book this week before I realized that I already read it back in 2006, and simply forgot."

Many academic authors come to me caught in this interesting spin-cycle of research and note-taking. This period can last for many months or even years, and some authors never leave it. I know of at least one project that was in the research phase for over twenty years! The resulting lovely book went on to win a Pulitzer, so the effort wasn't wasted, but those of us who know the story well also understand that it didn't have to take that long. And yes, like the woman above, the author probably forgot much of the early research and had to re-trace his steps a few times.

Some authors strike a productive balance between research and writing. Many focus on one aspect of the book at a time (this requires discipline, because it means not reading everything else that comes to hand, and not checking out every possible book on the larger topic, but noting them on lists for later). They then they write up the research on just that bit, even if they know it will change later.

Meanwhile, some of those who get stuck in the research phase also become overwhelmed by potential sources, and a few express fear at the notion of having to change anything after writing it. They don't want to step out of the research phase long enough to write because they dread learning something new that will overturn their conclusions. But why? They're just words on paper. You can change them. Promise yourself that you will change them if you learn something new, but if you're stuck in the spin cycle, try writing your research up in tiny-bit text form anyway. Not only will you make steady progress, but you'll have the luxury of drafting your book while you're still fresh on each source. This is also a great plagiarism prevention device, because it's easier to check and make sure you didn't inadvertently copy anything without attribution.

Writing bits of actual text as you go and paying meticulous attention to the notes will yield something amazing -- a book that grows bit by bit, organically, rather than being rushed along in a too-fast writing phase. This can potentially yield text that has more depth, richness, and character.

Image of Ukraine’s Central State Historical Archives in L’viv borrowed from

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sabbatical is sacred (in more ways than one)

"I'm supposed to be on sabbatical," he said, "but of course I keep getting dragged back in to the department for busy work."

The first time I heard this from a faculty member, I assumed that he simply had personal issues with boundaries and saying "no." The second time I heard it (this time the professor was female), I thought perhaps it was a characteristic of a certain type of individual who needed to feel needed, even during the time for travel, research and writing with which universities have traditionally rewarded their successful post-tenure faculty. By the third time, however, I realized we have a mini-epidemic on our hands, and one that every university should address: sabbatical is sacred, and it must be respected both by the individual on sabbatical, and by the colleagues back in the home department. Allowing oneself to be dragged back from sabbatical for meetings, political squabbles, personnel matters, and other department business is a disservice both to oneself and to the home university. No other profession is so generous in offering an academic year off for travel and research, and everyone should treasure it and work to preserve it.

But what really happens? How does sabbatical break down, and why? I'd love to hear from readers about it, and why you think it's so hard to stay away. Is it the individual professor's fault? That of the department? The university as a whole? Is it just human nature? I'm sure that many people take their sabbaticals and return with manuscripts in hand, but what happens when that doesn't happen? I'll hunt to see if there are any journal articles on this important subject.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Oscar Wilde's library

Via Arts and Letters Daily I found this engaging article in The Literary Review about Wilde's library... I'm now adding Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright to my reading list. At present it's only available in the U.K., and I've ordered a copy, but perhaps soon it will find its way across the briney.

The book journal, part six: becoming anxious during research

Several authors have reported a phenomenon that I have also experienced. In the middle of historical research on something that you find exciting and engaging, it is possible to become seized with a peculiar dread that someone else has seen this and written about it, and that you are busily researching the obvious. A related concern is one I addressed in an earlier post, that another scholar will beat you to your own results. A competitive, paranoid nervousness can set it, accompanied by twitches and strange thoughts.

[As background, I've been up to my dusty eyebrows in library materials about an 18th-century subject that I'm planning as a book. Right now I'm deep in the research stage for the sample chapter that will go out with a book proposal (in this case a hybrid between a scholarly prospectus and a trade nonfiction proposal) to potential university press publishers. I'm noting progress on this blog in the hope that others will also share their book writing experiences and chime in.]

In the middle of all this, the odd dread came upon me, and I had to sit down on the floor of the library stacks to get over it. Perhaps it was the fumes from all of those old books (I'm working with some of the oldest that are still on our shelves in the hope of finding traces of my author mentioned in works by others, with many of them pointing to books and documents that no longer exist except as reference notes), but I had a vision of turning a page or completing a computer search and seeing my own words under somebody else's name, but not plagiarized, because the article had been written years ago! Of course it was all a fantasy, but it had the effect of reality... I had to step outside for some fresh air and a reminder that nothing is new, it's what the researcher brings to the study that matters most. Most of us strive for originality and unique contributions, but we so often find traces of others in the scholarly past, laboring quietly in a solitude now covered over by time and quaint obscurity. I just know that I have a 19th-century intellectual doppelganger who touched the same pages, took similar notes, and drew startlingly like conclusions about our shared 18th-century interest. I just haven't found her or him yet. If I do, I'll simply travel back in time, crying "Thought thief!"

Monday, September 22, 2008

Scholarly and literary journal experiment: The new VQR is here!

It is remarkable how exciting the arrival of a journal becomes once you have declared an interest in it. In this case the journal is the Virginia Quarterly Review, which I chose as the first journal in an ongoing literary experiment (see explanation at right and blog posts below). Whereas before it just came in the mail and I put it on the coffee table stack along with the others, today when the mailman dropped it through the front door slot and I heard it plunk to the hardwood floor, once I saw what it was I actually felt my heart rate rise. I cared.

Is there a danger that your book will "fall into essays"? Is that a valid concern?

Twice since June I've had authors express concern that their books-in-progress will "fall into essays." Each time the author used the same phrase to describe what was perceived as a pitfall to be avoided. Through probing we learned that the concern was more structural than thematic -- there was in each case a sense that all of the chapters belonged together, but that they somehow might fail to cohere in some sort of logical or necessary way.

My answer is to step back and ask if any nonfiction book is really more than a collection of essays. Theoretically any chapter should be able to stand on its own with a reason for its existence, and a beginning, middle and end. There is a sort of ideal model that wants all of the chapters to be necessary, and that hopes they will link somehow to keep the reader interested and turning pages, but readers tend to dip in and out of books (especially nonfiction, but even fiction sometimes... have you ever heard of the mystery reader who gets the gist and then turns to the finish? They're out there!), and we know that many nonfiction readers prefer going back-to-front, whether in a magazine or in a book. Some magazines actually structure themselves that way, to reward the right-to-left reader who likes to start at what English-speakers would consider the back of a publication. And think of all the major world languages that read right to left. There is nothing particularly special about left to right and about the order of chapters as many of us in English-speaking universities understand them.

A book is what an author decides it is, and its chapters relate to the extent that the author declares it so. If two chapters don't seem to connect naturally, then it's the author's job to build a helpful bridge that demonstrates the link the author perceives. Just as transitions take us from one idea to the next in a well-structured essay, so chapter transitions lead us from one to the next, preferably with a bit of enticement so that we don't do what most readers do at one time or another -- drop in a bookmark and never pick up the volume again.

Keeping readers is a secondary challege to getting them in the first place. There are a number of ways to do this, and building engaging and easy-to-use transitions among chapters is surely one of the most helpful. Then it won't matter whether a book is at risk for falling into essays... for the infrastructure will be there to keep it together with much more than just two covers and some library stitching.

Is what Booklab does "coaching"?

This morning someone sent me an interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about book coaching on campus. It cites the program at Emory where I have spoken with Amy Benson, who guides authors (although it does not name her), and also programs with more of a clinical psychology focus at Vanderbilt and UMass-Amherst; it also mentions a couple of private academic coaching firms. They all sound valuable and necessary, but they bring up an interesting question, at least to me. Is what we do at Booklab coaching?

Eh, I'd say sort of, but most authors who come to Booklab have no trouble motivating themselves to write. They have earned their jobs because they did and do write and publish, and typically by the time they find themselves with a job at Georgetown they've overcome most issues they have with time management, deadlines, goal setting and more. Although this office was originally imagined as a resource for all book authors, but especially first-time ones, it was surprising to observe that most of the people who consult Booklab have published before and are now interested in moving their careers into an even higher sphere of literary influence. (I eventually learned that it is a characteristic of many well-published scholars to ask for help. It is often a characteristic of the unpublished to disdain it. Ponder and report.)

The issues that I address with our faculty usually involve this bigger career picture, tackling questions such as how one transcends mere productivity and moves into becoming essential in one's field, or where the prizes are for particular kinds of scholarly publishing. What is out there to reach for besides tenure, or the rank of full professor? What university press titles win the Pulitzer and why? How does one become a public intellectual and participate more consistently in the discussions on NPR, CNN, C-SPAN Book TV, MSNBC, and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and, for that matter, The Chronicle of Higher Education?

This may be coaching, and I certainly enjoy the psychological aspect of this job, but it is also envisioning, and it involves me and my own writing trajectory as much as my authors. We're all in this together, imagining among ourselves what Georgetown can and should be in terms of its publications, and how we as colleagues can challenge ourselves to think about our books and articles in ever-more ambitious and publicly necessary ways. In a media-soaked world still thirsting for meaningful intellectual conversation that speaks across disciplines and to thinking people outside of academia as well, what we do is vital. Fun, yes, and rewarding as can possibly be imagined, but also darned important in a world that likes to say "publish or perish" as though that's all the goal is about.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jim O'Donnell at Politics and Prose with "The Ruin of the Roman Empire"

A standing-room-only crowd filled Politics and Prose on Saturday, September 20 to hear Georgetown's Provost James J. O'Donnell read from and discuss his new book, The Ruin of the Roman Empire (HarperCollins/ Ecco). Among the animals joining him at the podium was a donkey, and it stood as more than a mascot -- it was a harbinger of a book to come.

You can also listen to his interview with Lewis Lapham on The World in Time, his weekly program on Bloomberg Radio.

Alternative thoughts about approval (helpful when submitting work to book publishers or journal editors)

"I don't want people's approval. I want people to think the way they think.... 'You there! Stop your internal life and focus over here, on me! I absolutely know that it's in your best interest to approve of me. I want that, and I don't care what you want.' But you can't control someone else's thinking anyway. It's a house of mirrors. Seeking approval means being stuck in the thought, 'I'm a this,' this little speck, this limited thing." (Byron Katie, from Question Your Thinking, Change the World.)

This was interesting for me to read, and my new answer to it is to more regularly send work to editors without confusing their responses with approval. Publication is not validation. If I desire to feel better about myself as a person, a scholar, an artist, then I meditate or seek guidance. If I desire someone to publish what I have written, then I seek an editor. I try not to confuse the two.