Category Archives: publishing

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The U of Missouri Press is closing, Jennifer Egan is Tweeting

A bad week for publishing, but sometimes it seems like they all are.  First I was greeted with the news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune has cut back circulation to three days a week.  Apparently later in the same day, three papers in Alabama announced a similar move to downsize and reduce circulation.  Apparently being an award winning newspaper that does heroic community service in the midst of the disaster of a century is no longer enough.

Then today’s twitter feed brought me news of another University Press closing.

University of Missouri Press is closing after more than five decades of operation, UM System President Tim Wolfe announced this morning.

The press, which publishes about 30 books a year, will begin to be phased out in July, although a more specific timeline has not been determined.

Ten employees will be affected. Clair Willcox, editor in chief, declined to comment but did note that neither he nor any of the staff knew about the change before a midmorning meeting.

In a statement, Wolfe said even though the state kept funding to the university flat this year, administrators “take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities and re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.”

via University of Missouri Press is closing | The Columbia Daily Tribune – Columbia, Missouri.

Plenty has been said about the worrisome demise of daily papers and what the transformation of journalism into an online blogosphere really means for the body politic.  Will the Huffington Post, after all, actually cover anything in New Orleans if the paper goes under entirely.  Reposting is still not reporting, and having opinions at a distance is great fun but not exactly a form of knowledge.

The demise of or cutbacks to university presses is less bemoaned in the national press or blogosphere, but it is still worrisome.  Although I am now a believer in the possibilities of serious intellectual work occurring online, I am not yet convinced the demise of the serious scholarly book with a small audience would be a very good thing.  Indeed, I believe the best online work remains in a kind of symbiotic relationship with the traditional scholarly monograph or journal.  I keep my fingers crossed that this is merely an instance merely an instance of creative destruction, and not an instance of destruction plan and simple.

On a more hopeful note, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the New Yorker tweeting Jennifer Egan’s latest story Black box and am looking forward to the next installments.  I’d encourage everyone to “listen in”, if that’s what you do on twitter, but if you can’t you can read it in a more traditional but still twitterish form at the New Yorker Page turner site.  To get the twitter feed, go to @NYerFiction.  The reviews have been mixed, but I liked it a great deal.  Egan is a great writer, less full of herself than some others, she has a great deal to say, and she’s willing to experiment with new ways to say it.  Her last novel, Waiting for the Goon Squad, experimented with Powerpoint like slides within the text.  And, there’s a nice article over at Wired about the piece, suggesting it may be signaling a revival of serialized fiction.

Let’s hope so, it will make up for the loss of the U of MIssouri Press, at least today.

Digital Archive as Advertisement: The Hemingway Papers

The pace at which digital material is being made available to the public and to students and scholars in the humanities is accelerating, whether one thinks of the digitization of books, the new MOOC’s from MIT and Harvard and others that will extend learning the humanities and other fields, or the digitization of papers and manuscripts that were previously in highly restricted manuscripts or rare book sections of single libraries like the James Joyce Papers just released in Ireland.

Another addition to this list is the release of a new digitized collection of Hemingway’s writings for the Toronto Star.  The Star has put together the columns written by Hemingway for the paper in the early 20s, along with some stories about the  writer.  I’m basically extremely happy that archives like this and others are taking their place in the public eye.  I had a great course on Hemingway while pursuing an MFA at the University of Montana with Gerry Brenner, and the legacy of Hemingway was felt everywhere.  Still is as far as I’m concerned.

At the same time, I admit that the Star site left me just a little queasy and raised a number of questions about what the relationship is between a commercial enterprise like the Star and digital work and scholarly work more generally.  First cue to me was the statement of purpose in the subtitle to the homepage:

The legendary writer’s reporting from the Toronto Star archives, featuring historical annotations by William McGeary, a former editor who researched Hemingway’s columns extensively for the newspaper, along with new insight and analysis from the Star’s team of Hemingway experts.

I hadn’t really realized that the Toronto Star was a center of Hemingway scholarship, but maybe I’ve missed something over the past 20 years.  Other similar statements emphasize the Star’s role in Hemingway’s life as much as anything about Hemingway himself:  emphases on the Star’s contributions to the great writer’s style (something that, if I remember, Hemingway himself connected more to his time in Kansas City), emphases on the way the Star nurtured the writer and on the jovial times Hemingway had with Star editorial and news staff.  Sounds a little more like a family album than a really serious scholarly take on what Hemingway was about in this period.  Indeed, there is even a straightforward and direct advertisement on the page as it sends you to the Toronto Star store where you can purchase newsprint editions of Hemingway’s columns.

I don’t really want to looks a gift horse in the mouth.  There’s a lot of good stuff here, and just having the articles and columns available may be enough and I can ignore the rest.  Nevertheless, the web is a framing device that makes material available within a particular context, and here that context clearly has a distinct commercial angle.  It strikes me that this is a version of public literary history that has all the problems of public history in general that my colleague John Fea talks about over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Here of course it is not even really the public doing the literary history but a commercial enterprise that has a financial stake in making itself look good in light of Hemingways legacy.

The Star promises the site will grow, which is a good thing.  I hope it will grow in a way that will allow for more genuine scholarly engagement on Hemingways legacy as well as more potential interactivity.  The site is static with no opportunity for engagement at all, so everything is controlled by the Star and its team of Hemingway experts.  We take it or we leave it.

For the moment I am taking it, but I worry about the ways commercial enterprises can potentially shape our understanding of literary and cultural history for their own ends.  I wonder what others think about the role of commercial enterprises in establishing the context through which we think about literature and culture?

Book futures, or, apocalypse now.

I led a discussion in the Adult Forum down at St. Stephens last Sunday in which I suggested that apocalyptic literature falls in to basically two types: apocalyptic nihilism and apocalyptic redemption, the one seeing an end to everything the other seeing destruction as the necessary precursor to renewal. Theres an awful lot of apocalypticism out there about the book these days, a good bit of it just assuming the book is going to hell in a handbasket.

I mentioned in my post earlier today that prognosticating the future of the book seems to be a growth industry. Indeed, we devoted an entire symposium to it here at Messiah College. Besides the recent articles I mentioned earlier from my colleague Jonathan Lauer, and another by Jason Epstein, I ran across this from John Thompson at Huffington Post. A lot of it was the usual and obvious grist for the blogging mill, but I was intrigued by his final point, that the death of our current models for book production and dissemination may well lead to a flourishing of smaller independent publishing concerns

Seventh, small publishing operations and innovative start-ups will proliferate, as the costs and complexities associated with the book supply chain diminish, and threats of disintermediation will abound, as both traditional and new players avail themselves of new technologies and the opportunities opened up by them to try to eat the lunch of their erstwhile collaborators.

This strikes me as a plausible idea, and an exciting one. Although Anthony Grafton lamented the loss of the demanding professional editor, I think there’s an awful lot of talented creative people out there who could bring new energy and innovation to the world of ebooks and print books alike. We might be able to look back at this time fifty years from now and see this moment as one that heralded a new beginning for the book rather than its demise. If that’s not just so much rose colored glasses.

Journal of the Digital Humanities: The Community as Gatekeeper

Earlier today I posted on ongoing sense of mild disorientation making my way through the thickets of Digital Humanities, noting with complaint that roads and pathways toward destinations were none too clearly marked, and that gateways “in” seemed obscured by a resistance to the notion that there were insiders and outsiders to begin with.  It’s probably a good thing I posted this morning, since this evening I was pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a roadmap and a gateway on my iPad screen in the form of the newly minted Journal of Digital Humanities.  Not only does it look like a really fantastic read, with articles ranging from theory to the problems related with specific projects and tools to the question of the privileging of racial and gender stereotypes in DH discourse, it actually has  an article written just for me and my fellow “noobs” whom I evoked in my post earlier today:  Lisa Spiro’s “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities”.  It’s really a little bit more of a catalogue than an article, and I would have kind of liked a little more reflective or evaluative analysis, serving perhaps as a form of a bibliographic essay of sorts. The very large number of possibilities and the fact that they are all existing on a more or less equal plane still leaves one groping just a bit. But still, mostly I found it really informative.  I also found it comforting because I recognized a lot of the resources and felt like I and my group here at Messiah College had been pursuing the right things, consulting the right sources, looking in the right places, the feeling a little like one who has been wandering around in the woods for several hours and crests a hill to discover she’d been going the right way all along.

Perhaps more than that article, however, the fact of the journal struck me as a kind of beacon–although I know there are other journals related to DH and I’ve looked some of them.  Perhaps I felt this way because of its unique editorial and publishing agenda, embodying an open-review ethos and practice. From the editors introduction to the journal:

Nothing herein has been submitted to the Journal of Digital Humanities. Instead, as is now common in this emerging discipline, works were posted on the open web. They were then discovered and found worthy of merit by the community and by our team of editors.

The works in this issue were first highlighted on the Digital Humanities Now site and its related feeds. Besides taking the daily pulse of the digital humanities community—important news and views that people are discussing—Digital Humanities Now serves, as newspapers do for history, as a rough draft of theJournal of Digital Humanities. Meritorious new works were linked to from Digital Humanities Now, thus receiving the attention and constructive criticism of the large and growing digital humanities audience—approaching a remarkable 4,000 subscribers as we write this. Through a variety of systems we continue to refine, we have been able to spot articles, blog posts, presentations, new sites and software, and other works that deserve a broader audience and commensurate credit.

Once highlighted as an “Editors’ Choice” on Digital Humanities Now, works were eligible for inclusion in the Journal of Digital History. By looking at a range of qualitative and quantitative measures of quality, from the kinds of responses a work engendered, to the breadth of the community who felt it was worth their time to examine a work, to close reading and analyses of merit by the editorial board and others, we were able to produce the final list of works. For the inaugural issue, more than 15,000 items published or shared by the digital humanities community last quarter were reviewed for Digital Humanities Now. Of these, 85 were selected as Editors’ Choices, and from these 85 the ones that most influenced the community, as measured by interest, transmission, and response, have been selected for formal publication in the Journal. The digital humanities community participated further in the review process through open peer review of the pieces selected for the Journal. Authors selected for inclusion were given time to revise their work to answer criticisms and suggestions from the community and editors, prior to a round of careful editing to avoid typographical errors and other minor mistakes.

This strikes me as ingenious since it combines a high standard of quality control with a community based ethos.  Theoretically, this produces a work that is neither the idiosyncratic preference of an editor, nor is it simply a scattershot random collection of the individual preferences of readers or writers.  It really is in some ways the embodiment of the values of a particular academic community, demonstrating and enacting the standards by which membership/participation in that community is determined.  In my post earlier today I discussed the importance of gatekeepers as a “way in” even though the presence of gatekeepers can feel exclusionary or hierarchical.  This kind of approach to an academic journal strikes me as a way of embodying the community as gatekeeper, something that comes closer to embodying the kind of egalitarian ideals that DH folks obviously hold dear.

In any case, kudos to the editors and the community that built this journal.  I’m looking forward to the read.

Kurt Vonnegut, Zombie Author–Or, I am the hype that I descry

I picked up via twitter yesterday that a Kurt Vonnegut novella that was twice rejected by major magazines has been published for the first time via Amazon singles.  Dutifully, I downloaded the book and now have it available via my Kindle app on my iPad and ready for reading. Perhaps a review will be in the offing if I can get around to it. (If I would blog less, I’m sure I would read more.)  The ways in which this leaves me feeling strange and uneasy requires a catalogue.

1.  If the book has been rejected multiple times and Vonnegut in his later life never chose to publish it when he most assuredly could have, as an e-book or otherwise, why should I buy this book now.  Is it because “it’s a Vonnegut,” and therefore worthy of my time.  I think this must not be true since in the end Vonnegut didn’t think it was even worth his time.  Am I somehow trading in a cult of celebrity in which the Vonnegut industry keeps pumping out the undead wisdom–even if the quality of the book might end up being something akin to a black velvet painting of Elvis being sold on the roadside beside a 7-Eleven in Arkansas.  Somehow I think here of Foucaults inquiry in to what exactly constitutes the work of an author.  I always kind of smiled at the question of whether an author’s laundry list is a part of his or her work.  I am now wondering whether Vonnegut’s laundry lists will be imaged and sold online as amazon singles.

2. I haven’t read half of the Vonnegut that Vonnegut himself thought was worth publishing.  Why should I purchase this latest for 1.99.  Because its easy and I didn’t even have to leave my couch to do it?  On the other hand, I have wasted a good bit more money than that on impulse purchases of literary magazines that now serve landfills, or perhaps could be fodder for Liz Laribee’s latest art project(the latter a worthy demise, I should say)

3.  Should I really enrich Rosetta Books and Amazon.com in pursuit of Vonnegut’s ghost.

4. Is there a problem with the fact that the internet erases distinctions between ephemera and things of “enduring value”?  What is the nature of “enduring value” when essentially everything can endure on an equal plane and theoretically in to eternity. ( I know here that my colleague Samuel Smith thinks the internet is more ephemeral than a paper book, but I have my doubts.  If we really get to the point of apocalypse in which all our digital resources are essentially unavailable through some massive destruction of the grid, we won’t be reading our paper books either.  We’ll be burning them in our fireplaces.  Or cooking them in our soups.)  The intellectual world is flat, and if Rosetta books had not chosen to publish the work, some enterprising graduate student with a scanner and an email account could have.

5.  Is it a problem that in writing this blog post, linking to websites, retweeting GalleyCat missives, posting to Facebook, I am flogging a book that I haven’t even read, part of the industrial–internet–publishing complex that makes Kurt Vonnegut a Zombie Author who continues to fascinate and destroy.  I am the hype that I descry.

What is the future of the book?–Anthony Grafton’s Keynote lecture at Messiah College

This past February we had the privilege of hearing from Dr. Anthony Grafton from Princeton University at our Humanities Symposium at Messiah College.  Grafton is a formidable scholar and intellect, and a generous soul, a too rare combination.  The following video is his keynote lecture for the Symposium.  Grafton’s instincts are conservative, readily admitting his undying love for the codex and its manifold cultural institutions (libraries, used bookstores, even Barnes and Nobles).  At the same time, he is under no illusions that the future of the book lies elsewhere.  His lecture looks at what is threatened, what should be valued and protected from the fast, but also what might be a potential for the future of the book, and what values we should bring to bear to shape the book, which is, after all, a human institution.

Many thanks to Derick Esch, my work study student, for his work in filming and producing this video.  Other videos from the symposium can be found at the same vimeo page.

Dr. Anthony Grafton: 2012 Humanities Symposium Keynote Address from Messiah Humanities on Vimeo.

In Praise of Reviews, Reviewing, and Reviewers

I think if I was born again by the flesh and not the spirit, I might choose to become a book reviewer in my second life.  Perhaps this is “true confessions” since academics and novelists alike share their disdain for the review as a subordinate piece of work, and so the reviewer as a lowly creature to be scorned.  However, I love the review as a form, see it as a way of exercising creativity, rhetorical facility, and critical consciousness.  In other words, with reviews I feel like I bring together all the different parts of myself.  The creativity and the rhetorical facility I developed through and MFA, and the critical consciousness of my scholarly self developed in graduate school at Duke.  I developed my course on book-reviewing here at Messiah College precisely because I think it is one of the most  challenging forms to do well.  To write engagingly and persuasively for a generally educated audience while also with enough informed intelligence for an academic audience.

Like Jeffrey Wasserstrom in the  Chronicle Review, I also love reading book reviews, and often spend vacation days not catching up on the latest novel or theoretical tome, but on all the book reviews I’ve seen and collected on Instapaper.  Wasserstrom’s piece goes against the grain of a lot of our thinking about book reviews, even mine, and it strikes me that he’s absolutely right about a lot of what he says.  First, I often tell students that one of the primary purposes of book reviewers is to help sift wheat from chafe and tell other readers what out there is worth the reading.  This is true, but only partially so.

Another way my thinking diverges from Lutz’s relates to his emphasis on positive reviews’ influencing sales. Of course they can, especially if someone as influential as, say, Michiko Kakutani (whose New York Times reviews I often enjoy) or Margaret Atwood (whose New York Review of Books essays I never skip) is the one singing a book’s praises. When I write reviews, though, I often assume that most people reading me will not even consider buying the book I’m discussing, even if I enthuse. And as a reader, I gravitate toward reviews of books I don’t expect to buy, no matter how warmly they are praised.

Consider the most recent batch of TLS issues. As usual, I skipped the reviews of mysteries, even though these are precisely the works of fiction I tend to buy. And I read reviews of nonfiction books that I wasn’t contemplating purchasing. For instance, I relished a long essay by Toby Lichtig (whose TLS contributions I’d enjoyed in the past) that dealt with new books on vampires. Some people might have read the essay to help them decide which Dracula-related book to buy. Not me. I read it because I was curious to know what’s been written lately about vampires—but not curious enough to tackle any book on the topic.

What’s true regarding vampires is—I should perhaps be ashamed to say—true of some big fields of inquiry. Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. I like to know what’s being written about them but rarely read books about them. Instead, I just read Mary Beard’s lively TLS reviews of publications in her field.

Reviews do influence my book buying—just in a roundabout way. I’m sometimes inspired to buy books by authors whose reviews impress me. I don’t think Lichtig has a book out yet, but when he does, I’ll buy it. The last book on ancient Greece I purchased wasn’t one Mary Beard reviewed but one she wrote.

I can only say yes to this.  It’s very clear that I don’t just read book reviews in order to make decisions as a consumer.  I read book reviews because I like them for themselves, if they are well-done, but also just to keep some kind of finger on the pulse of what’s going on.  In other words, there’s a way in which I depend on good reviewers not to read in order to tell me what to buy, but to read in my place since I can’t possibly read everything.  I can remain very glad, though, that some very good reader-reviewers out there are reading the many good things that there are out there to read.  I need them so I have a larger sense of the cultural landscape than I could possibly achieve by trying to read everything on my own.

Wasserstrom also champions the short review, and speculates on the tweeted review and its possibilities:

I’ve even been musing lately about the potential for tweet-length reviews. I don’t want those to displace other kinds, especially because they can too easily seem like glorified blurbs. But the best nuggets of some reviews could work pretty well within Twitter’s haiku-like constraints. Take my assessment of Kissinger’s On China. When I reviewed it for the June 13 edition of Time’s Asian edition, I was happy that the editors gave me a full-page spread. Still, a pretty nifty Twitter-friendly version could have been built around the best line from the Time piece: “Skip bloated sections on Chinese culture, focus on parts about author’s time in China—a fat book w/ a better skinnier one trying to get out.”

The basic insight here is critical.  Longer is not always better.  I’m even tempted to say not often better, the usual length of posts to this blog notwithstanding.  My experiences on facebook suggest to me that we may be in a new era of the aphorism, as well as one that may exalt the wit of the 18th  century, in which the pithy riposte may be more telling than the blowsy dissertation.

A new challenge for my students in the next version of my book-reviewing class, write a review that is telling accurate and rhetorically effective in 160 characters or less.