Why Books?

This post from Sisyphus is timely for me, as I had a meeting recently with a representative from a university press to discuss what kind of monograph might lurk beyond the discrete research and writing projects I have been engaged in lately, and as a result I have been thinking a lot myself about the shape, purpose, and necessity (or not) of academic books. Sisyphus asks,

why is the “gold standard” in literary studies a book for tenure if we are not assigning them in our classes?

I hadn’t thought about monographs in our discipline from quite that angle before, but it’s true that, consistent with what Sisyphus says about other disciplines, I remember being assigned quite a lot of scholarly books to read in their entirety when I was a history student, and doing assignments that were essentially a kind of book report or review. But it would never occur to me to assign more than a fraction of a scholarly book in one of my own undergraduate classes, or, for that matter, in my graduate classes. If I assign anything besides a stand-alone article, it is most likely to be the framing chapter(s) from a book, where the main theoretical or interpretive argument will be laid out, sometimes along with a chapter directly addressing an assigned primary text.

I’m not sure, though, how to connect these observations (keeping in mind, of course, that my practices in this respect may be anomalous) with what we ought to value when it comes time to assess tenure files. Our classroom work typically bears little overt relation to our published work, doesn’t it? Also, as the students doing Sisyphus’s library assignment discovered, however dynamic and engaging we are when we teach, in our books and articles our “academic voice” becomes “difficult, contentious, and completely boring”! That may be one reason why, as has been pointed out in a couple of places recently, even academics hardly read other academics any more.

Another likely cause of our own relative failure to ‘keep up’ with each others’ output, as well as our reluctance (assuming this is a general phenomenon) to assign entire books along with–or, as every syllabus is a zero-sum game–instead of primary texts, may be the massive proliferation, and overwhelming micro-specialization, of academic monographs. No matter how narrowly I define my own research interests, it is physically impossible for me to read all the relevant available material, and as my interests in fact range across periods and disciplines, the labour of choice rapidly becomes overwhelming in itself. Inevitably, it seems to me, the excessive supply degrades the value of any particular book; it becomes hard to justify singling out one (or two, or even three) monographs that really demand and deserve such special notice and extended engagement. This is not to assume that any given monograph is not in fact, on its own terms, valuable, but here’s a not entirely hypothetical case: I’m teaching a graduate seminar next winter on George Eliot. Which entire academic book would you assign in its entirety? My instinct is that the best candidate would be an older book–a critical ‘classic’–because you’d want its range and applicability to be as broad as possible: Barbary Hardy’s The Novels of George Eliot, for instance, or Dorothea Barrett’s Vocation and Desire: George Eliot’s Heroines. Books published since about 1990 get increasingly specific in their interests–George Eliot and science, or historiography, or empire, or Italy, or music–and thus decreasingly useful in a more general context such as my seminar (though, of course, they would be invaluable to students pursuing presentations or papers on related narrower topics).

The overwhelming number of highly specialized academic monographs was one of the things I wanted to talk to this university press acquisitions editor about. It’s hard not to feel at times as if we should all just stop and ask ourselves what we are doing and why, and whether doing it in book-length manuscripts that may eventually be seen into print only to languish, expensive but unread, on library shelves should really be our goal. The MLA argues for decentering the monograph as “the gold standard” for tenure and promotion, but largely on practical grounds: publishing books is only going to get harder, for reasons that have little to do with the quality of their content. (It may have something to do with the nature of that content, of course, as the intense specialization typical of an academic book guarantees a small market.) If we could do that, though–if we could remove the expectation that junior scholars need to “have a book” to get tenured, not only could we release them from the vice but also liberate ourselves from the book glut. Because let’s face it: how many monographs published in the last two decades are book-length because their arguments “need to be thought through on this level of scope and depth across a lot of pages,” as Sisyphus sums up the usual pro-book argument, and how many for more careerist reasons? The standard model is a theoretical, contextual, or critical framing (the book’s selling point) and then a series of chapters “reading” particular texts from that angle or through that lens. (That’s exactly how my own monograph is structured.) That’s not a terrible way to build a book, but almost inevitably the “readings” chapters lack urgency: they are illustrative, rather than integral or developmental. They show the main idea in practice, and they demonstrate how or why it is an interesting or useful or important idea. But they’re arbitrary, rather than necessary, and they might do just as well as supplementary articles. They might even have more portability and usefulness in article form because they would need their own framing material, perhaps a refined version of the book’s larger argument, and so would work well as assigned readings, whereas in chapter form their specific claims may not be entirely cogent without the explanation offered in the book’s introductory chapters. (Now that I think of it, I do often assign articles that have eventually appeared as book chapters, but I use the stand-alone version, for more or less that reason.)

Lightening up on the book expectation would also remove the corrupting pressure to inflate, not only our prose and our manuscripts, but our claims. Book-length treatments of subjects do require justification, after all: the claim needs to be made that here is something really worthy of time, attention, space, and resources. So we make relatively grandiose claims about the innovation and importance of our work. It’s no use having insight into a particular author or text: you need to propose a revision of a major critical paradigm, or a reconfiguration of traditional literary histories, or a radical new understanding of the importance of some side-angle in a particular writer’s corpus (pickles, anyone?), or otherwise attach what may be a genuine but modest claim to something as big as you dare. You need to make it sound “interesting,” even if that means knowing your reach will exceed your grasp.

The editor I spoke with was firm about the commitment of his press to specialized academic monographs, and we should all be grateful that there are publishers who recognize that some subjects do need to be treated, some arguments made, in long form, and that their value is not defined by the size of the audience they will reach but by their contribution to knowledge and understanding. We’ve all probably been delighted, too, to discover on the shelves hitherto unknown books, maybe books we are the first to sign out, that illuminate a topic about which we have suddenly discovered we want or need to know more. But something’s wrong when “a book” as such is the goal. Shouldn’t we work on a smaller scale until we discover we really can’t explain ourselves without a larger canvas? Shouldn’t a book be a capstone achievement, as it once was, rather than an obligatory and thus often perfunctory professional performance? If enough people keep asking these questions, maybe we can “be the change.”

(cross-posted)

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