Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ian Bogost & Chris Schaberg: Object Lessons, a series about the hidden lives of ordinary things

We launched Object Lessons in June 2013 as a home for lucid, imaginative, concise writing about specific things—from conches to neckties, cinnamon ferns to sewing needles. Since then, we’ve been swamped with submissions from a staggeringly wide array of writers, thinkers, and scholars.

The essays for the series exist in two forms: essays (~2,000 words), published on The Atlantic website; and short books (~25,000 words), published in small, beautifully designed print and electronic editions by Bloomsbury.

By ‘things’ we mean pretty much anything—as long as there’s a story to tell, or a lesson to be gleaned. So far, we’ve published essays about subjects as varied as the potato, the pit latrine, the placenta, and the Domino’s Pizza. As for books, the first batch will be published in early 2015, on the remote control, the driver’s license, the drone, and the golf ball.

When we conceived of the series, we wanted it to become more than just another boutique list meant to be published more than it was meant to be read. For one thing, we wanted Object Lessons to be accessible: the essays are all freely available online; the books are priced at $16.95—affordable, even collectible. And we wanted this accessibility to be reflected in the writing itself, as well as in the book titles: one or two words, no colons or subtitles. Locks, lily pads, lipstick, limestone...

We also wanted to welcome writers of different ilks, with varied motivations. Our authors range from novelists, poets, and artists, to philosophers, historians of science, videogame critics, graduate students, and media theorists. Our standards are simple: write well about an ordinary object in a tantalizing way.

Thanks to Bloomsbury we have a reliable (if modest) advance budget for our non-academic book authors, and thanks to our editors at The Atlantic we can pay our essayists a small fee for their contributions. (We ask full-time employed academics to forego fees, so that we can pay working writers a bit more.)

We are often surprised by the proposed projects for the series, and just as frequently surprised by the results: Who knew that so many people would want to read an essay about the TI-83 graphing calculator? Or a dead, giant squid?

Perhaps the best sign of a promising Object Lessons book proposal is the feeling, upon hearing the idea for the first time, that the object in question is an unviable subject for a book. Not that it couldn’t be written about, of course, but that everything one could imagine saying has already been said many times over. Such was the case when we first read Harry Brown’s inquiry about a book on the golf ball. Is there anything more to say? It turns out there’s a lot to say. Brown’s approach to the golf ball is both obvious and totally novel: he presents it as a subject that mediates between the natural and the human worlds. Now the book is under contract and we can’t wait to read the final manuscript.

When we were first discussing the series, we began rattling off random lists of things. Wide varieties of objects, when seen in list form, tend to take on curious qualities. Clustering objects together helped us get a sense of the scope and range of the series—its possibilities and potentials: band-aids, bundt cakes, cuttlefish, aircraft carriers…vacuum bags, bottle caps, flying buttresses…Blow Pops, slime mold, sawdust…magnesium, bone marrow, bilge pumps…crabgrass, Kleenex, engine coolant…lodgepole pinecones, dryer lint, dental floss…honey, hurricanes, heliotropes, hatred…morel mushrooms, molasses, landing gear…copper wire, cruise ships, Velcro…tampons, tigers, trademarks, trash…cilium, silt, slugs, suitcases…dirt, dioramas, interstellar nebulae…windshield wipers, wonder, inchworms. We even installed an Object Lessons topic generator on our website, which spits out topics unsullied by our idiosyncratic interests as series editors.

This approach to soliciting material seems totally counter-intuitive at first. Rather than starting from a subject domain, like foodstuffs or painters or electronics, we’re casting as wide a net as possible, inviting writers to meditate on a subject they might not be able to write about anywhere else.

The essays we have published read kind of like this, by sheer accumulation and coincidence: glass, the shipping container, the key, the toilet, the ice bucket, the blanket, the fake bird in movies, the McRib, the jet bridge, the refrigerator, the biopharmaceutical Enbrel. In part, what makes an Object Lesson legible is the fact that the reader has no predisposition toward its subject. Why not read about blankets? Why not write about light switches? Once the initial skepticism wears off, the fear that the exercise amounts to little more than an Andy Rooney sneer, then the work of writing an Object Lesson can begin.

The question is not just what can count as an object, but what is the story to tell, the hook or through-line that makes it worth reading about? In theory, everything might become a topic for the series—but it’s up to the authors to convince us that they’ve found a unique angle or a compelling story. While each object teaches a lesson, as told by a human writer, the series hopes to push us to see those things as commensurate with, or even more compelling than our human experience of them. The lesson should fade from our view, even as we get a glimpse of it. Object lessons, at their best, should be strange, alien encounters.

From the outset we wanted to create a series that people would want to be a part of. (An imaginary snippet from a meeting between two people on the street: “Oh, you wrote the Object Lessons essay on gouda cheese? I’m proposing an Object Lessons book on tank tops!”) The response has been overwhelming, and in retrospect we weren’t quite prepared to handle the onslaught. Our authors reading this now are probably wondering why we’re wasting our time advertising rather than editing and publishing. We’re sorry and we love you!

The series is also our own modest contribution to the dynamic, shifting landscape of publishing. It’s part online, part in print. The book proposals are peer reviewed by the editors and/or members of the advisory board, but it’s a relatively swift and open process. We move fast when we want to get a book under contract. We work closely with our essays and book proposals, editing and reshaping, in a very hands-on fashion. We’re taking the thematic organizing principle of an academic series, and gearing the end products toward a crossover audience, for both academic and general readers. It’s a perfect series for up-and-coming writers, and an equally perfect series for more established writers who are looking to work on an interim, shorter project, or who may want to write for a wider audience.

When a book is ready to publish, we’ll excerpt part of it on The Atlantic website, as a way to promote the title. And conversely, we may bundle our favorite stand-alone essays into Object Lessons grab-bag volumes once a year or so. The collaboration between The Atlantic and Bloomsbury, along with editorial coordination based out of our home institutions at Georgia Tech and Loyola University New Orleans, provides the series with a broad platform for publicizing each essay and attracting potential authors. There’s a lot of noise about the “future of publishing,” but most of it is either dire warnings about the end of writing or Pollyannaish celebrations of its replacement by technology and TED talks. Perhaps modest, concrete efforts like Object Lessons offer a better model for thinking about how to create and share ideas in the near future.

You can read more about the series and propose an essay or book on the series site at objects objects objects dot com.

About the Series Editors

Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC, and a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic. Bogost is author or co-author of seven books: Unit Operations (2006), Persuasive Games (2007), Racing the Beam ( 2009), Newsgames (2010), How To Do Things with Videogames (2011), Alien Phenomenology (2012), and 10 PRINT CHR (205.5+RND(1)); : Goto 10 (2012).

Christopher Schaberg is Associate Professor of English and a faculty member in the Environment Program at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight (2013), and co-editor of a forthcoming collection of essays called _Deconstructing Brad Pitt (2014).

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