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?

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.

May 03

Moral Clues, Moral Tales

Consider these stories:

  • A bottle of vitriolic acid with no stopper is the only clue at a murder scene. The murderer is discovered when a stolen check is found to be discolored, and a scientific experiment reveals that the discoloration was caused by vitriolic acid. The same markings are found on the guilty party’s pocket, where he had kept the stopper — and the murderer is revealed.
  • A years-old robbery is solved, and a fortune is restored, when one piece of stolen property resurfaces, and is recognized as part of a set. The set is traced back to the thief.
  • A treasonous remark is printed on a china vase, and the artist is wrongly accused. At the trial his lawyer pieces together the clues, calling as witnesses several men involved in making the vase and outlining the china-making process.

What these stories have in common is that each narrates a crime. The narrative unfolds as the clues are discovered and the guilty party revealed. These are features of the detective story, a genre that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with Edgar Allen Poe, became famous in the Victorian period, and took off in the twentieth century in the hands of writers like Agatha Christie, Dashiel Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. TV shows like Law and Order and CSI descend from this genre, and none of the plots above would be out of place in an episode.

But these plots aren’t from detective stories at all. They’re from Maria Edgeworth’s Moral Tales for Young People (1800), and they’re not at all atypical. Not all of her tales deal with crimes, but many are resolved through clues like marked coins (in “Lazy Lawrence” and “The Orphans”) or recognizable objects (in “The White Pigeon” and “The Good French Governess”). Take “The Prussian Vase,” for example — the third of the plots given above (the first two are “Forester” and “The Good Aunt.”) In this story Augustus Laniska is supposed to write “Frederick the Great” on the bottom of the eponymous vase, but when it is printed it reads “Frederick the Great tyrant,” and Laniska is accused of treason. The second half of the story consists of Laniska’s trial, as his friend Albert comes to his defense. Using his knowledge of the process for making china, Albert pieces together the clues to reveal that a Jew named Solomon wrote the word “tyrant” in order to revenge himself on Laniska.

Before he reveals these clues and proves Laniska’s innocence, however, Albert tells the jury, “To you, judges of my friend, all the probabilities of his supposed guilt have been stated. Weigh and compare them with those, which I shall produce in favour of his innocence. His education, his character, his understanding, are all in his favour . . . The extreme improbability, that any man, in the situation, which the character, habits, and capacity of count Laniska, should have acted in this manner, amounts, in my judgment, almost to a moral impossibility.” Albert undertakes Laniska’s defense — and must wager his own freedom to do so — based solely on his interpretation of Laniska’s character. Like Sherlock Holmes, Albert omits what he considers impossible (that Laniska is guilty) and from there collects the clues that prove his friend’s innocence.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, moral tales have their own narrative conventions, requiring readers to pick up on clues about characters — early in the story a reader has to know whom to emulate, whom to avoid (categories I’ve termed mimetic and emetic, respectively). Edgeworth was widely read throughout the nineteenth century, both in England and in America. And her tales, both for children and for adults, are credited in the history of the short story, the genre that would introduce the detective to the literary world. What does it mean, then, that her tales are built from clues, the formal feature that by 1900 (as Franco Morretti has argued) comes to characterize the best detective stories? This isn’t a question I’ve yet taken up — but I plan to.