Sunday, June 12, 2011

Book report.

So it's now been some months since I posted anything about my book, I think. Perhaps since MLA. I returned from MLA to the suckerpunch of the semester, and since my term ended I've been working on an article, and I have another to write that's due before the end of summer. So my book and I are on a little bit of a break right now. Which is, I think, healthy.

If you read earlier posts, you may recall that I met with an editor from a Big UP at MLA. He was generous, thoughtful, full of both goodwill and evident care for good scholarship. He was what one hopes all academic editors are, and no matter what happens with this point I'm really happy to have had the chance to meet him, because he changed my sense of what a good editor is and does.

Our conversation was helpful, and both encouraging and daunting. What became clear over the course of our discussion of my project's argument is that my book, as it stood back in December, was at a kind of crossroads. See, I had written a book that gestured toward a very big argument--gestured so far as to propose a wildly ambitious concluding chapter that may or may not have imagined itself as surveying the entirety of poetic history to the present time. This very big argument, the kind of argument that, if I did it right, could actually be a game-changer in my field and possibly in the wider field of literary criticism, about the relationship between poetic structures and cultural systems of thought. This big argument was anchored, to that point, by a series of chapters with far narrower focus, examinations of particular writers in a particular tradition. These chapters are strong, solid pieces of argumentation, but their focus is narrow. Really, too narrow to arrive at the big game-changing argument that my proposal promised they would.

The editor in question asked to see my chapters, which was very nice, and I finally got around to sending them his way in late April. But it's pretty clear that he's really interested in publishing the Big Argument book--no surprise, given his press's roster of studies.

And here's the thing: ten years ago, it would have been crucial to my sense of self-worth to write that Big Book, to be a game-changer. But I'm not sure that my psychology requires it anymore. I am really good at textual scholarship, and my project has something very smart and important to say about the poetry I love most, the poetry that, to my mind, does influence all the rest until now. But do I need to aspire to be the Greenblatt of poetic theory? Do I really need to change any games? Really, I don't, especially knowing what it will cost me--both in time and in stress, and in the way that it would trap me in this moment of my life for unknown months or years more. I sort of need to be able to move on with my life, to put this project to bed and start working on other interests that I have, to stop being held hostage to this one set of ideas. Because really, I could keep refining and expanding these ideas--any of us could, I suspect, keep working on the ideas that rock our minds, producing ever wider and more far-reaching projects. Indeed, I can envision the arc of another version of my book, the Big version of it, can see how its argument develops and the conclusions it suggests. I see it. But to write that book would require at least a couple more years of intensive labor. Probably more, given the other responsibilities in my life.

I love this subject, and my future projects will--perhaps inevitably--be informed by the discoveries I've made while I've been working on this book (they are, in so many ways, my pet issues, the questions that drive all kinds of productivity in various genres for me). But I like my modest project. I like what I've discovered. And I'm ready to let it go.


The other press I've been in conversation with is, and has always been, my fave UP. I get a ton of use out of what they publish. I read and learn, and that seems like the kind of company one would want to keep. It's not the hugest name in UPs, but it's certainly very reputable in my field, and I really, really want to place the book there. Like, really. (Like, I'm almost afraid to type these words, not because I might jinx it but because in doing so I am admitting my desire in clear terms, which will make potential disappointment all the more profound.) As I mentioned in an earlier post, the editor there, who expressed real enthusiasm for the project many months ago when it was still in progress, died. The press just named hir replacement a month or so ago. I've emailed the new editor a whole new proposal and indicated the predecessor's interest, but really I'm starting from scratch, and I don't even have a body of existing books to give me a sense of what kind of work this new editor will be sympathetic toward. I wish I knew the magic words. I'll just have to hope that they're somewhere in my writing sample.


Ink said...

If you were really excited to make the necessary sacrifices for Big Argument, then that's one thing. But to start it out of a feeling of "should" is, as you point out, quite another.

I love the sense of peace you seem to have when reflecting upon this.

And I do think that trusting one's instincts are always the best choice.

But congrats on coming up with such fabulous ideas, in both cases.

squadratomagico said...

Could you write the close textual-scholarship book, and then write the Big Argument book as a follow-up, in a more leisurely fashion? Or does it have to be tied to those preceding chapters?

Or maybe you could turn the Big Argument into a methodological article and publish it in the appropriate flagship journal for its main readership?

Flavia said...

I was going to say exactly what Squadrato did--that is sounds to me like you're not necessarily abandoning the Big Argument. It could be your next book (or part of your next book), or it could be a substantive article. I think it makes good sense not to pour new wine in old skins or (to change the metaphor) yoke two projects together when they're straining in different directions.

Your thinking will only get better, richer, deeper over time, and I'm sure you can do justice to your Big Argument in another form.

Dr. Koshary said...

Very interesting to read! Perhaps I'm over-reaching based on my highly limited knowledge of you from your blog, but I feel like the thought at the very edge of your post is that you actually would like to write Big Game-Changing Book -- just not right now, while you have your scholarly baby to deliver. (In short: what Squadrato and Flavia said.) You have an enviable level of self-knowledge and self-confidence to say that you don't need to write this book to satisfy your ego or prove yourself in your field. But a Big Game-Changing Book need not be a work of egotism or award-chasing. It might even be refreshing to read such a book, without feeling the author crowing from every page.

Perhaps, once you've put the current book project to bed, and you have a little time to stretch your brain, you might find yourself drawn to BGCB. No reason you couldn't cite your other book liberally as part of your argument. :)