Paying It Forward

2014-10-05 09.34.05

There has been a lot written lately about the turgid, techno-exclusive nature of academic prose.  This is an old trope, of course, dating back to the assault on universities as bastions of effete, liberal eggheads in the 1980s.  If some people (I’m looking at you, Steven Pinker) want to trot it out for a little Malcolm Gladwell-style cash, that is fine.  One might reasonably complain that no one asks scientists or business school profs to write for subway strap-hangers, but then again, maybe we have higher expectations for humanists – a stronger sense that they should after all, write for humans.

Really, though, the issue isn’t merely that the modern, neoliberal university demands increasing specialization from all of its faculty – with more profound consequences for humanists – or that the public is disinterested in complicated stories with uncertain conclusions. Because it is also true that academic writers don’t usually make a great case for themselves. Our careers depend on tenure committees and anonymous reviewers who are also academics, so we frame ourselves for those groups.

There are deeper, psychological issues in play here, too. Whether we realize it or not, we are all corporate authors now. We’re all invested in reputation, in buzz, in image. In proclaiming significance beyond the university. But we can be a little shy about tooting our own horn, or celebrating our own work.  Indeed, we loathe that colleague who proclaims his or her awesomeness, and tend to look down on self-promotion. We don’t like to get our hands dirty. And, unlike, say, Oprah, we don’t have full time PR folks who’ll crawl through the mud on our behalf, and beg the Today show to profile our prose. So we rely on the kindness of strangers.

Maybe we can help each other out a little.

Here are 10 sort-of simple steps to help new writers. 10 ways those of us who’ve been around for a little while can help those who’ve just arrived – as new authors and/or new academics. 10 ways to pay it forward, and to keep the hucker-ish shilling to a minimum.

1.If you read a book in manuscript, insist that the author write for the widest possible audience, and provide concrete suggestions for revisions – and models – that will be helpful.  Encourage new writers to read excellent writing by people in other fields, or even non academics. They don’t have to lose their focus on a question rooted in some scholarly literature, but they should be thinking about how great readers marshal evidence to support important stories. Give advice about writing.

2. Once the book is out, review it on Amazon. And sign your name to the review. Even just a brief, honest review by a legible academic can be helpful, as people generally turn to Amazon – and trust its algorithm – as a preliminary guide to what is good and what isn’t.  Four sentences. However many stars.

3. Create a Wikipedia page for a new author, and actually summarize – as best as you can – their professional life and the focus of their work. There have been a lot of cool “wiki-hacks” lately, but as a group we need to get better at doing this regularly. Once you get in the habit of it, it can take just an hour or so to create a Wikipedia page for someone else. Again, people outside of academe turn to Wikipedia for proof that someone – or some book – matters.  And the absence of a page – or, even worse, a badly written page – can damage an author’s reputation.  We know this work best, so we should be building these pages. Routinely.

4. Volunteer to review their book for the local newspaper or academic journal. Book review editors often scramble to find people to find people for this kind of work, so why not volunteer?  More importantly, book review editors don’t always know a good book when they see one. We can all play a more active role in broadcasting new academic work simply by communicating better with our communities, and offering ourselves up to write a review.

5. Use your own presence on social media to support them. If you read their work, and if you like it, say so on Facebook and Twitter. Repeatedly.

6. Cite their work in your own. Right? Simple. But we don’t do it enough. You know what tenure committees count? The number of citations in the secondary literature. You know who keeps track? Google scholar.

7.  Assign their work – or pieces of it – in class. Again, expose your students to the parts of the work you like best, or the parts you find most troublesome. And if you do so, contact the author and let them know how it went. Let them know how your garden variety 19-year-old read 5 tough pages on Franz Boas or Jean Toomer.

8. If you live in a city, and there is an active public library present, recommend these new writers as possible speakers. Or host a book talk for them in your house. Yes, I know that publishers frown when authors sell copies of their own books for cash at “off-the-books” events, but we’re all hustlers now. Hustle for someone else, I say. I’ve seen good smart people – the kind of people who appear on MSNBC – selling books out of the trunk of their own car, and dispatching me to get change.

9. Ask your local bookstore, your university bookstore, and your local mega-book-monster store to carry the book. And whenever you are in the store, make sure these books are faced out, with the cover and not the spine showing.  By “make sure,” I mean: do a little redecorating, and surreptitiously move some things around. You know who does this?  Hustling authors. Reading the loathsome scientific racist Madison Grant’s correspondence with his editor – the famed Maxwell Perkins of Scribners – I could help but be blown away to find that he would routinely complain about book placement in stores, and was always approaching salesclerks to press his case.  Do it for someone else (with better politics than Grant!). It’ll feel better.

10. Ask your university library and your public library to buy the book. Yes, buying budgets are flat or lean, but we’re talking about a simple email here. 5 minutes. And free. If you don’t do it, they’re going to just buy another Jack Reacher novel. Or the whole set of Lee Child works. Or, even worse, the new Dan Brown. Help librarians focus their meager budgets onto the most intellectually significant task: buying smart books, not pulp.

As a friend put it to me: We should all always work harder on the writing – on all aspects of the writing, including framing it for our publics. Nothing ever gets hurt by focusing a little harder on the writing, and by telegraphing to readers what is important in our sandboxes.

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