Jul 20

What is it like to have a book in print?

Blank page intentionally end of bookMy first book was published in February. For an academic, this is an entirely normal event: to progress in most humanities fields, you need a book. But it’s also a big deal. I started the book in 2008, as my doctoral dissertation, and it was a big part of my life for a long time. Now it’s finished. It’s out there. I don’t have to (or get to?) work on it anymore. Since it’s an odd feeling, I wanted to share some thoughts about what it’s like.

The biggest difference is mental. I’ve been thinking about children’s moral tales and the history of the novel for the better part of a decade, and constantly had that topic in the back of my mind: I read every new work of scholarship through that lens, looking for arguments I felt myself in conversation with, or new theories that might be relevant to my argument, or mentions of some relatively obscure tale I was writing about. It’s an attitude that’s hard to turn off, and I still find myself considering roads not taken.

To give just one example: Jesse Rosenthal’s forthcoming Good Form: The Ethical Experience of the Victorian Novel argues that “when Victorians discussed the moral dimensions of reading novels, they were also subtly discussing the genre’s formal properties.” That’s pretty close to the conclusion at which my book arrives — albeit, from a different direction. While I argue that children’s moral tales shaped Victorian reading habits, Jesse links those habits to Victorian moral philosophy. My book has quite a bit to say about moral intuition (my dissertation’s outside reader was Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who worked in that field), but one of the manuscript’s reviewers found the moral psychology part a bit extraneous. I wonder if Good Form might have helped me integrate it a little better, and at the very least it would have bolstered the historical argument. Now that my book is in a fixed, unchangeable form, I’ll never know.

Greg Colomb, an important mentor to me, was fond of saying, “perfection is the enemy of finished.” New scholarship will keep appearing, and I’ll keep thinking about how I might have incorporated it into my argument. But I’m learning to let it go.

And a sense of freedom comes with publication, too. Not having the moral tale always in mind means I can start another project. While I was on the job market, I had a “second project” about Victorian psychologies of learning. I made fitful progress — a couple conference presentations, some blog posts, lots of miscellaneous notes and scattered paragraphs. I still like the idea, but it was a “second project” for so long that it still feels secondary. As I’ve freed myself from constantly thinking about the moral tale, I find myself pursuing another project that interests me more.

Just because the book is out, though, doesn’t mean I stop thinking about it. Instead, my relationship with it has changed: now that I’ve written it, I’m supposed to promote it.Peacock terms.png

Self-promotion comes naturally to some people. I have a friend who, at a conference we both attended, encouraged others to ask their university library to purchase his book, even checking WorldCat to make sure they’d done so (and following up if they hadn’t).

Many academics are uncomfortable with that level of self-promotion, even while recognizing its necessity. (The issue, like everything, affects some more than others). Some at the conference were put off by my friend’s insistence, especially when he brought it up a second (or third) time. I recognize the importance of self-promotion, but I’m also sort of uncomfortable with it. I tweet about my work when it gets published (and write posts like this one), but I don’t take a sustained or systematic approach.

Luckily, publishers do. My book is published with the University of Tennessee Press, who put me in touch with their marketing assistant and an event coordinator (“events” in this case means sending out review copies; the global book tour presumably comes later). They make sure university libraries have the book, distribute copies to reviewers, advertise it in various venues, help me target some prizes to submit to, and send books to personally relevant publications like my college magazine (which will feature the book). Their work helped me realize that others have a stake in the book as well, which takes some of the “self” out of the self-promotion.

Last but not least, there’s an element of ego: I have a book out. You can buy it on Amazon (don’t ask me where the used copies come from). It just feels good.

Do you have a first book our, or coming out? Or do you remember your first book? How does (did) it feel? Is it different with a second (or fifth) book?

Dec 11

Dickens, Adaptation, and A Christmas Carol

My book manuscript is about children’s literature, the novel, and moral instruction. I argue that Victorian writers like Charles Dickens learned the narrative strategies that underlie their morally instructive novels from the stories they read as children. Chances are, this holiday season you’ll watch or read some version of one of the texts I write about: A Christmas Carol.

The novel is everywhere this time of year, in unexpected forms. Characters might be Muppets, or the Flintstones, or Barbie. Scrooge might be be Bill Murray as a television executive: Scrooged film poster.JPGOr Matthew McConaughey as a bachelor photographer: Ghosts of girlfriends past.jpgOr Vanessa Williams:A Diva's Christmas Carol.jpg

All adaptations are interpretations. And even the oddest adaptations of A Christmas Carol might in fact be quite consistent with Dickens’s story, which is itself about interpretations, good and bad. Scrooge is initially skeptical about the instructive ghosts: when Marley asks him if he believes in ghosts, Scrooge says he can’t believe his own senses – “A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

But it only takes one visit for Scrooge to realize how valuable the lessons will be. When he meets the second ghost, he says, “I went forth last night on compulsion, and learned a valuable lesson. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” Before the story is half finished, Scrooge has already learned not only to recognize his own unhappiness but also to welcome future lessons.

By the third spirit’s visit Scrooge knows the game very well: he resolves “to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw.” The silent third spirit shows Scrooge a funeral, and Scrooge replies: “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now.” Scrooge is wrong. He incorrectly interprets his moral visions, failing to recognize himself in the “unhappy man.” When the truth finally dawns on him, he tells the spirit “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.” He is converted only after making that mistake.

Part of the lesson, then, is being wrong. To learn something from A Christmas Carol, we have to be willing to make a mistake – and then willing to correct it.

When we watch an adaptation of a novel, we typically ask, “how does this film compare to the book?” And we typically respond, “the book is better.” But A Christmas Carol gives us an opportunity. In Scrooge, Dickens shows us the power of being wrong. So when we look at an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, we can ask not just, “is it right in its interpretation” but also “how might it be different from the book, and what might that difference mean”? How might making Scrooge a television executive or a bachelor or a diva use Dickens’s novel to respond to modern, American cultural needs?

And if those responses turn us back to Dickens, is that such a bad thing? In Film Adaptation and Its Discontents, David Leitch calls A Christmas Carol “entry level Dickens”: people encounter the novel, often as children, and besides the moral lessons about compassion and conversion they gain the cultural knowledge that the story represents. The story provides an entry point not just to Dickens, but to adult culture more broadly (his reading of The Muppet Christmas Carol is especially good).

ChistmasCarol2009-Poster.jpgOne problem: the story isn’t always associated with Dickens. Disney’s 2009 version, for example, advertises Jim Carrey and claims this is Disney’s A Christmas Carol — Dickens is nowhere on the poster.

So at this time of year, maybe we need to be especially conscious that we make this connection: that we make A Christmas Carol entry-level Dickens rather than just another Disney product.

I’ll be doing that on Saturday: if you’re in Orlando, come hear my talk at the Orlando Public Library. I’ll be talking about Dickens, childhood, (both his own childhood and his child characters), and, of course, Christmas: Poster for Dickens Christmas Talk

May 03

Good Feelings about Bad Footnotes

Classes are over, and as I wait for students’ final projects to come in, I’ve turned my attention to my book project. The project developed from my dissertation, and as I’m revising I am adding a new chapter, about the Victorian industrial novels. The project is about the ways in which Victorian novelists incorporate into their works the narrative structures of moral tales, a genre of children’s literature popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries — the period when these novelists (and, equally important, their readers) were children.

This week I’ve been reading Gaskell’s Mary Barton, which contains this allusion: “of all shops a druggist’s looks the most like the tales of our childhood, from Aladdin’s garden of enchanted fruits to the charming Rosamond with her purple jar.” The Oxford Classics copy I’m reading has this footnote:

The references are to the Arabian Nights Entertainment or the Thousand and One Nights. This collection of Arabic stories, translated into French in the eighteenth century and into an English expurgated version by Edward Lane in 1840, was enormously popular. The tale of Aladdin, though not in fact one of these tales, was generally reckoned with them.

If you’re familiar with the Arabian Nights, or with Maria Edgeworth, or with the history of children’s literature, maybe you caught the error here. The mention of Rosamond is not an allusion to the Arabian Nights, but to “The Purple Jar,” a story from Edgeworth’s The Parent’s Assistant (1796). In Mary Barton the reference is especially relevant. For one thing, the next line tells us “No such associations had Barton,” thereby separating the reader (who is presumably middle-class and educated, having read both classic and newly-published books as a child) from the poor factory worker John Barton. And readers who know Edgeworth’s story will recognize that the allusion goes beyond this one line. In the tale, Rosamond buys what she thinks is a beautiful purple vase but turns out to be just an ordinary glass jar filled with ill-smelling purple liquid. She buys the jar from a druggist’s shop. Like Rosamond, John Barton is lured into such a shop, on his errand to save his friend Ben Davenport. Barton is given medicine “very good for slight colds, but utterly powerless to stop, for an instant, the raging fever of the poor man it was intended to relieve.” Recognizing the theme of enticement and disappointment in Edgeworth’s tale underscores the pathos of Gaskell’s scene.

There’s something like schadenfreude, then, in reading the footnote I quoted above. The phrase “critics haven’t noticed” is one of the conventional moves of academic argument. Building an claim about the importance of moral tales in Victorian novels, and reading a direct allusion to one of these tales, I come across a footnote that completely misses the allusion. A specific critic hasn’t noticed something specific. Great! (for me).

Of course I’m not the first person to notice this allusion — lots of people have, and I’d imagine that other editions have accurate footnotes about it. But I can still enjoy the moment.

Have you had an experience like this, where you recognize another scholar’s minor error, that happens to bear directly on your own research? Tell me about it in the comments.