The Intellectual Life of a Publisher
More of a comment than a question
Six years ago, I left academia for good. It had been a slow goodbye, with unpaid leaves and minimal teaching (and pay) for years before I finally told TIAA-CREF I was no longer employed by the college, and thus could dip into my retirement funds, to help me do the job I do today. I wrote, in what was not yet a cliched genre, a piece of quit-lit.
Today, academics who want to “write for the public” are more numerous, as are those leaving or having left tenured jobs. But, just as the odds for young humanities PhDs are longer today than they were when I was on the job market in the late ‘90s—which was certainly no boom moment!—the landscape for “general audience” article and essay publication is also bleaker now than it was just a few years ago. I used to teach workshops and classes for academics and grad students on how to “write for the public” and place freelance writing. I don’t do that any more; it feels like an exercise in bad faith. There was never much money in it; there is less now.
“I’ll show them” is motivating; it certainly fuels my workalcholism. I have no idea if I have, indeed, shown them, and the “they” keeps shifting. After all, I now pay for my health care on the shaky ACA marketplace, and I lost my matching retirement contributions. I don’t get to take those lovely “winter shutdown” vacations. “I’ll show them” is a sugar rush; and I could stand to eat less candy.
I had very few intellectual experiences once I became a professor. Truth be told, there weren’t many during my last years in grad school, either. I do have strong, profound memories of intellectual absorption: my sophomore year in college, during a summer school course, I took a class on semiotics that was revelatory, a conversion experience of sorts. I read all summer, and talked about ideas, and drank, and played euchre at the dive bar. It was 1986 and we were all in on theory. Postermodern, poststructuralism, post Marxist, it was heady and exciting. That intensity and love of sitting, stooped over a book, pen in hand, thinking very hard, would continue when I took more theory courses: literary, Marxist, Architectural, Continental. I wrote papers with theses that excited me, talked endlessly over more booze and cigarettes, the whole cliched thing. I loved it.
After college I went right to grad school. I enrolled in a then-new program in, well, basically, theory. The cohort that started with me were all besotted by Lacan and Foucault and Said and Irigaray, and we sat hunched over our books and drank and smoked and talked. I left after one year, and when I re-renrolled at the institution I would get my PhD from, I had another few years of besotted thinking. There were fewer late nights drunkenly debating; my new friends talked more about their non-textual worlds, but my professors kept me on my toes.
While studying for my comps, I entered a cocoon of engagement. I set up a system on my computer to take copious notes, using one of the first software programs designed to aid research. I had a list of 100 novels and the critics and theorists who would inform my reading of those novels. I stared so hard at the screen I developed severe eyestrain and had to go to the doctor.
I had moments of ecstatic thinking while writing my dissertation but it was never effortless, or fun. I had been socialized, and understood the stakes of that dissertation, the role it would play in my rung on the prestige ladder and in future compensation. I was writing it for an audience of three—my advisors—and yet it would be the decisive document of my career. My prose, unsurprisingly, became clouded, wooden, forced, overthought. The ends were usurping the means: say something new, no matter how small; choose a topic that might help a chapter get published; write to get a job. The struggle was clear on the page. My small audience didn’t even like each other, or agree about how novels should be written about. It showed in my prose.
None of this changed my interest in theory or the American novels I ruined my eyes for. I was eager to get back into the fresh air of teaching to engage, again. But I had to do a strange change of speciality in the form of kinda-spousal-hire gymnastics, so I did not get that opportunity.
I kept reading and writing once on faculty, but, mainly, dutifully. For the purpose of getting pats on the back, treats given out at the annual reviews of my progress towards tenure—“presented a conference paper, had an article tentatively accepted, good job, gold star.” I also worked, occasionally, on a side project that I called “creative,” to distinguish it from the “real” work I was to do in order to keep my job, and I had been piddling with for years during graduate school. That project would eventually become my way out of academia: after I was tenured, I published it as a trade title with a university press, which led me to do more and more “writing for the public.”
Being a publisher is far more intellectually engaging than was teaching (though I loved teaching), or the scholarly research I forced myself to do in order to get tenure. It requires me to solve a varieties of creative puzzles I love working on, from deciding what to ask an author to change in developmental edits to conceptualizing a season’s mix of titles. From the widest and most interesting perspective, I constantly think about how Belt Publishing figures in a larger culture of and conversation about publishing, and how it might add something new, a ‘read’ of the industry as it were. No one else need think about the press this way; it’s my own little intellectual game, and it’s sustaining for me. It’s as if the press itself is my thesis, and I am making staking a small, tentative claim—as scholars do—about American publishing.
What engages and absorbs me—what drives the intellectual life of this publisher—is simply this question: “What do I want this press to mean?”
It seems I haven’t traveled very far from my training after all. I am absorbed in a conceptual question, one uninteresting, irrelevant, and certainly self-important to many others; one that will not lead to consequential answer, but is, yet, important enough to ask, for a particular cohort, and one I can endlessly analyze from a dizzying number of perspectives, and doing so offers me a modicum of meaning and a good bit of pleasure.
Which is not to say that here at the ragged edge of a ragged year, I don't fantasize about taking 10 fat utterly-unrelated-to-my-job books to a hotel room for a few weeks, and read without thinking about how I could edit, angle, or sell them. It would be a bit like going back to grad school. It’s a counterfactual I’m ok with that.