The Potato Chips of Books:
On Short Books and Essaying for General Audiences
On Short Books and Essaying for General Audiences
Christopher Schaberg, Anna Leahy, and Susan Harlan in conversation
The Object Lessons book is a particular kind of book: short and not properly academic, smart but accessible and lithe. What’s the draw for taking on this sort of more-than-essay, less-than-long-book? For the writer, how are the constraints of a short book frustrating or liberating, or both? What are the challenges, what are the risks? And what opportunities open up, what are the rewards, for both writer and reader? Series editor Christopher Schaberg and recent authors Anna Leahy (who wrote Tumor) and Susan Harlan (author of the about-to-be-released Luggage) reflect on their experiences with the Object Lessons book and consider some of the larger questions and considerations that other scholars and writers may face when writing for general audiences.
CS: When I first envisioned the Object Lessons books I imagined cute, compact books that would be enjoyable to read and memorable, the sort of books you can tote around easily and that also look striking on the bookshelf—books you want to keep. Books that felt intimate, as if you’d gone on some sort of weekend journey with the author, if that makes sense. I remember when I read Graham Harman’s wild little book Circus Philosophicus, which is a bunch of quirky allegories, and it struck me how much fun it must have been to write like that: to take an idea, a structure, and a form and then play it out over a brief number of pages (fewer than a hundred pages, in that case). Maybe it’s not a surprise, as it’s right in the title, but Harman’s book is actually about philosophy—however, it has such narrative texture that it felt like reading a good collection of short stories. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, another slim book I read around the same time, similarly got me thinking about what a short book can do.
AL: I’ve discussed this issue of length with some of the other authors in the fall 2017 batch of Object Lessons books. In a conversation essay for Assay: A Journal Of Nonfiction Studies, I claim that this length—25,000-30,000 words—is the novella of nonfiction, neither essay nor traditionally book length. It strikes a balance between expansiveness and focus. Writer’s Digest says that the average length of a novella is 30,000 words, so I’ll stick by my assertion, but fiction writers with a novella are often encouraged to develop the manuscript into a novel in order to have a better chance at securing an agent and a publisher. Many novellas are indeed probably short novels and not really taking advantage of this form situated between short story and novel. That’s not to say that there aren’t some amazing novella writers. Jane Smiley is a master of the novella, with Ordinary Love, Good Will, and The Age of Grief, and Alessandro Baricco’s Silk and Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine stand out as fiction that takes full advantage of this middling length and in-between form.
CS: And Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine as well. On the nonfiction side, books like Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just and Roland Barthes’s Mythologies stand out to me for similar reasons. When I first started to imagine Object Lessons, I was teaching these sort of short books in various classes at Loyola, and I liked seeing how my students would read, discuss, and come back to short books. There was something special about such books. It may sound pretty obvious, but short books tend to be very reader-friendly. Or, at least, they have this immediate appeal and potential. Who doesn’t want to pick up a neat little book? And then, who doesn’t want to open the book, to see what’s nestled inside?
AL: There’s an appetite and a market for nonfiction of this length that doesn’t seem to exist for fiction, despite the standouts. I was especially pleased to see Object Lessons mentioned by the BBC in an article about how best to use one’s commute to read more every year, as the size and scope of these print copies seem ideal for those who want to use that time, which is otherwise either wasted or actual work, productively and also get away from their devices. One semester years ago, I felt especially busy and wanted a sense of both leisure and productivity in my reading, so I prohibited books that were more than two-hundred pages. That’s how I discovered Silk and When the Emperor Was Divine, and I gained a sense of accomplishment getting through so many books in a few months.
SH: I like this point about time and reading—that a shorter book fits into your life in a different way than a long book. You can read it in one sitting if you want to. Obviously, a lot of novels in the nineteenth century were serialized, so you read them over time—broken up by time because you read a bit, and then you had to wait for the next installment. So in a scenario like that, a book has a different relationship to your life and to how your life is unfolding. And that is true of long novels today, even if we read them differently. But a short book can exist in a particular moment of your life. You can go to a bar and read the book and then go home (that’s what I like to do). Or read it on a train. And then it’s an experience. An experience that is bound, and limited, by time. I recently finished Francis Ponge’s La Table, which is a short object study and one that walks a line between poetry and prose. I read it in a cabin in Tennessee one evening. Now I associate it with that time.
AL: The concentrated temporal experience of reading a short book can also generate a craving. When I finished reading my first Object Lessons book—Hood by Alison Kinney—I immediately wanted to read another and then another. As a reader, I think of them as the potato chips of books, and the length makes it easy to rationalize grabbing just one more.
CS: The potato chips of books! I love that. But that raises an interesting question: How to make the books palatable and enjoyable without, well, leaving the reader feeling gross? We all know that awful mouth-feeling after having eaten too many chips. (Actually snacks are their own interesting genre. And I have strong feelings about snacks, too.)
I think sometimes authors underestimate the sorts of challenges that such a book poses: they might think it’s merely a half a normal book, or a lighter book, written really breezily. But in fact these books—like a good snack—require just the right mix of crunch, savoriness, and a self-imposed limit (like individual-serving-sized bags of chips?). So if the trick with these books is to make them desirable and grabbable—and also substantial—how can an author achieve this? What forms lend themselves to such books? I think about the various strategies that our authors have used in our books, from launching off from an oddity (Cigarette Lighter) to revealing a surprising history (Personal Stereo) to charting a constellation of personal encounters and affects (Phone Booth) to exchanging letters by way of orbiting an impossibly large object (Earth). I always like to see what final form the authors choose, and how it works out—or, if it doesn’t quite work in the first draft, how it can be modified or tweaked in revision.
An amazing thing about the short book is that you can zoom out and see the shape of the book from above quite easily.
SH: That’s true. I love looking at my Table of Contents page now and seeing the shape of the book there. The potato chip idea is funny because you also wish that you could keep writing Object Lessons books. I wish that I could write Map. House. Pen. Skull. Frame. You get hooked.
Avidly has a new series of 30,000-word books—Avidly Reads—with NYU Press that they describe as “short books about how culture makes us feel. Each volume in this series will explore the surprising or counterintuitive pleasures and revulsions of a single cultural experience, phenomenon, or artifact.” Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series and Routledge’s New Critical Idiom series also come to mind as short crossover books, although they really aim to be accessible introductions to an idea, and the latter may still skew a bit academic. Stanford publishes the Briefs series, and Minnesota rolled out their own brief Forerunners a few years ago—still academic but, in their own word, “grayer” than traditional monographs. A book like Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time also comes to mind. Its subtitle, A Short History of Fairy Tales, draws attention to its brevity, and it’s also a pretty, pleasingly small book.
I love the idea of short books. I have never understood the fetishizing of enormously long books. Some books need to be enormously long, and that’s great, but I found that the choices you have to make with a short book were a major part of the writing process. The Object Lessons books could be 90,000 words. But they’re not. They require authors to really focus. They ask you to leave out a lot of things. And that leaving out can be very productive. I asked another Object Lessons author at the beginning: how did you choose what to write and what to leave out? But of course that is going to be different for everyone, and it has to do with how your book takes shape—what you feel like it wants and needs and what can be left out.
AL: You’re onto something important with this leaving out. Exclusion is a particular type of writerly decision making that makes sense to me because my book covered such a well-trod topic and because I come to nonfiction through poetry more than through scholarly writing, though I’ve done that too.
SH: Academic writing is often about being exhaustive. If such a thing is possible. You are endlessly footnoting, endlessly covering your bases. And it’s a kind of joke in the profession that a reviewer will still point out what you left out, what you neglected to account for. But this is different. I applied for an NEH Public Scholar fellowship at the same time that I submitted my Object Lessons proposal, and I remember thinking: I wonder if they will consider the book long enough. I didn’t get the fellowship, but I’m glad I applied because that also made me think about length, and about what assumptions we have about what nonfiction books will look like. To be liberated from exhaustiveness in Object Lessons was great.
AL: Because I think of myself as an essayist, I thought of Tumor, when I first proposed it, as a collection of essays, even though I didn’t dare put that into the proposal. I talked briefly about this essay plan I had in a conversation with other Object Lessons at Poets & Writers, but I’ll admit more here. Despite the seemingly clear chapter organization in the proposal, my ideas were unwieldy, the book length seemed long, and thinking essay allowed me to break down the project into manageable pieces. I did the math—25,000 words looked like four 5,000-word essays plus an introduction and conclusion, each half that length. And I could break each chapter down into smaller parts of about 1500-1800 words, which is a relatively comfortable length for me. But essay was a lie I told myself in order to suggest the project to you and, then, in order to sit down to begin to write it once you had been convinced.
CS: I might steal that for my students (and for myself): an essay is a lie you tell yourself to suggest an idea or structure, in order to just sit down and begin to write something. Our books rarely are proposed to us in finished form; the proposal is something of a gambit, or a what-if scenario. I like the suspense in seeing how the books actually turn out. And then, to see how these different short forms play with readers.
SH: That sense of flexibility is important. It gives an author a kind of freedom in writing because one don’t feel completely tied to the proposal. And the short length was also massively appealing to me because it seemed to have something to do with the essay as a form. I write a lot of essays, so like Anna, I initially conceived of my book as sort of a collection of essays. I loved the idea that you could write four or five essays on a given subject—sort of come at it from various angles. And I liked the idea that these essays might in some ways stand alone but would also be linked.
AL: The wonderful thing about essays is that they are so malleable. Plans can be drawn up and then be discarded as one goes, though I see how much risk and trust that requires of the editors.
When I decided what to write and what to write next, I thought first and foremost about what I wanted to include in Tumor—what was most important to me—and then how I could find the structure to include disparate topics and ideas. I wanted to talk about my parents because their experiences with cancer shaped how I see the world as well as how I understand the subject matter of Tumor. That personal narrative seemed important to include at the very beginning, and the way I put that narrative together invited discussion of the probability and statistics of cancer in the opening chapter as well. I’d had a fascinating conversation with a colleague who studies field cancerization, so I wanted to talk about that research and the question of where we end and a tumor begins. I wanted a nurse’s voice in the book, and I wanted to include what poets had written about cancer. I also wanted the book not to be only about cancer, so I had to clear some room for the benign tumor as well. So, for me, content led to structure, and the length limit was a guide for establishing depth and deciding when to pivot. I trusted that what interested me would interest readers.
CS: One funny thing about the series is that we never can tell how the different books are going to find their audiences, and when. Sometimes I have hunches, though. For instance, I knew I was reading something special when I read Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, and it was enormously gratifying to see her book delight so many readers and reviewers (and piss off a few). Short books seem like a low-risk enterprise and yet they have the potential to find wide readership. The productively squirmy tradition of the essay you’re both alluding to jibes with the possibilities and constraints of short books.
SH: Yes, as I worked on the book, I found myself thinking less in an essay-oriented vein, but the essay was a way of understanding a length that was new to me. It was a way in. The first Object Lessons book I read was Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, which I loved. It’s very beautiful. Lyric. So is Brian Thill’s Waste, which I read next.
CS: Object Lessons books—and others in this crossover realm—toe the line between academic and trade, between nonfiction and a certain poetic style. In an interview with the Antenna Gallery's Room 220, I pointed out that all the books in the series are meditative, which makes sense given that each is titled with on object upon which to meditate. I also said, “they almost must be lyrical to a certain extent.” So, they each navigate the dance between the academic and the popular differently. That’s connected to the length constraint and the resulting need, as I said, “to be economical and sometimes move quickly, in order to get where they want to go in relatively short order.”
AL: I don’t think the lyricism results from the book’s length but, rather, from the editorial vision you and Ian Bogost have and from the series tagline: the hidden lives of ordinary things. What a lovely line of iambic pentameter, with the sonic echo between hidden and things. You have a lyric sensibility that includes sound and emotion and shapes the series out of books that navigate the dance between really smart ideas and popular appeal, between complex concepts and mainstream readers.
SH: The series undoubtedly attracts writers who find that dance appealing. I was reading a lot of poetry as I wrote Luggage, and, in fact, a lot of what I read ended up in the book, not because I had been looking for a poem about luggage or packing or what-not, but just because I found connections there. Alice Oswald’s Dart. A Mary Ruefle poem called “Müller and Me” about a portmanteau. Ovid’s exile poems. If you’re reading a lot while you’re writing, and of course writers tend to do this, you’re thinking a lot about being a reader, about what you want to read, what you enjoy reading—what you choose to read. I was also reading Jane Austen’s letters, so she shows up a few times in the book, talking about her luggage.
AL: For the writer, style, which encompasses voice and perspective, is that ability to dance and is what both links and distinguishes an Object Lessons book. Writers understand their choices in this dance by reading. Of what I’ve read of the series thus far, my favorite is probably Silence because of John Biguenet’s style. I enjoyed his story collection The Torturer’s Apprentice several years ago, and though Silence certainly doesn’t sound the same, he knows how to dance as a writer. Reading the opening page immerses you in his lush, meditative lyricism as well as the book’s subject matter. Dust by Michael Marder opens with jauntier sentences dependent on lots of simple, one-syllable words. Do I hear silence? Do I hear the word dusting as a noun or a gerund? (And you don’t have to know what a gerund is to think about the difference.) Each book quickly becomes emblematic of the author’s mind at work and, therefore, depends on that’s author’s distinct perspective and voice. Both openings get the reader thinking.
SH: A friend of mine once said that academic books don’t have a reader. Not that people don’t read them, but that the author is not encouraged to consider the reader’s experience of reading, beyond the quality and clarity of the argument. You know that the people in your field will read your book. They sort of have to. And ideally want to. You don’t need to attract readers. You don’t need to get someone to want to read you. But with nonfiction, you do. Roland Barthes wrote criticism that is beautiful. His is a model for me of incredibly smart, gorgeous writing. Writing that is pleasurable to read. I re-read The Pleasure of the Text, Mythologies, Mourning Diary, and A Lover’s Discourse. Books like Olivia Liang’s The Lonely City and Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse also do a lovely job combining research with the the personal and the poetic. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which is memoir and biography. And of course there is Anne Carson, who writes across genres and who brings together the personal and the intellectual like no one else. I re-read Glass, Irony and God all the time.
CS: We like it when our books balance a personal approach with a penchant for scholarly research. We want the books to have a distinctive voice, but we also want them to go for a certain detached—dare I say radically objective—perspective. Maybe this is a contradictory demand. But books can do this, I think.
AL: Tumor opens with a chapter about my parents’ cancers, so it’s very personal content. When my aunt read it, she was surprised that it wasn’t sad, and I’ve heard similar responses from other readers who knew my parents. I take this to mean that I achieved the detached perspective that’s part of the signature of the series. As a writer, I’ve always been leery of slipping from the personal into the private and of sentimentality or melodrama. In fact, ever since Stanley Plumly suggested to me in graduate school that I was so far from sentimental that I should stop worrying about it, I’ve worked toward including more of the personal and edging into greater emotion. Still, I like detachment or, rather, plenty of intellect—a form of recollection, perhaps—filtering my emotion.
SH: That’s a nice way to put it: the intellect filtering the emotion. That’s when emotion is most interesting to me. And I think that what we call close reading in literary studies can actually be personal, or emotional. Since that’s my background and training, I wanted to bring that into Luggage and to think about luggage in literature and about the language of luggage in everyday life (“baggage,” “unpacking,” etc.), but I wanted to do it in a more personal way than in my academic work. Sort of a felt criticism. And for me, this was linked to a personal connection to the object themselves.
AL: That’s a wonderful term: felt criticism. While I’ve done some scholarly work, having a penchant for curiosity is really what carried me through Tumor and led me to immunology, the difficulty of translating science to the public, metaphors we use to talk about cancer, and the biggest benign tumors. The demand for the personal and the scholarly doesn’t seem contradictory to me at all, and I trace that back to Friday afternoons with my parents at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where I spent hours looking at fetuses, chick hatchlings, a submarine, and a space capsule. While not everyone is this sort of nerd, I grew up thinking that knowledge and fun were dependent on each other and that pondering how the world around us works is an important part of being human.
SH: I’m a collector, and I have written a lot about my collections, as well as about odd and quirky museums that, more often than not, are the personal collections of someone. I wrote about a museum of motorcycles in Maggie Valley, NC, amassed by one man and the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Gatlinburg, TN, which houses 40,000 salt and pepper shakers. It’s overwhelming. There is a museum of luggage in Haguenau, France I hope to visit one day. My own collection of vintage luggage in part inspired the book, and I write about some of these pieces—about what they suggest about the past. The Object Lessons series relates to objects, or considers objects, in a way that is not unlike how a collector relates to her collections: she pushes back against the idea that there is something shameful about being attached to objects, or even something idolatrous.
The books are also about valuing objects, not because they are monetarily valuable, but because they have these hidden lives. I found that everyone has a story about luggage—maybe about their own lost luggage or about a suitcase they inherited from their grandmother or about something they found in a duffel bag that had been stuffed in the back of their closet for years. A lot of this made it into the book: things friends told me or posted on my Facebook page. I wanted to move back and forth between books and art and film and the lived experience of people in my life. It started to seem to me that luggage asks to be narrated. It holds stories.
AL: A lot of people have stories about cancer too. In fact, the number of published cancer memoirs was daunting. I couldn’t represent everyone’s stories, especially because so many had represented their own, so I thought about concepts of cancer and how people narrated it, rather than what was narrated.
CS: When you wrote your book, then, you had to make certain decision about how to structure it in ways that aligned with these ways of thinking about the stories, information, and concepts you wanted to included. More narrative? More cultural commentary? History? Factoids? You had to pick and choose, making the Object Lessons book multiple things at once but not too much of any one thing.
AL: When I proposed Tumor to you and Ian Bogost, I included an outline. While some of the chapters stayed—Self/Other(s), Part and Parcel, Inside/Outside—because I had a broad, conceptual idea of what I wanted to accomplish with them, the structure I’d planned changed a lot in the writing of the book. The chapters aren’t in the order I proposed and don’t include what I’d divvied up for each. Between proposing Tumor and drafting it, I’d become a better and more confident nonfiction writer, recognizing my strengths through drafting and revising other pieces that blended personal narrative, science, history, and cultural commentary.
SH: I had a similar experience of thinking about my strengths and about what I wanted to to with the book. My original proposal was maybe a little conventional for lack of a better word—I had a chapter on the history of the suitcase, for example—but then, as I worked on the book, the first thing I found was that I wanted it to have a more thematic structure. I wanted each chapter to be about an idea—“Luggage and Secrets” or “The Language of Luggage,” for example. Certain patterns had started to emerge, and those patterns were what interested me: thinking about how this material thing was an idea as well as a thing. That a suitcase is about portability. Or secrecy. Or freedom. Or restraint. Or the things we bring with us and why.
I asked myself a lot of questions about what I could do that would be new and different. Did I really need a lot of design history? Initially, I had thought that would be a pretty major part of the book, but it has been done. It’s out there. So I ran this new, more conceptual structure by Chris, and he had the incredibly helpful idea to add interludes that traced a trip. I was planning to go to a conference in Atlanta last spring, so this trip became the interludes, which was perfect because the drive took me into the mountains, where I go to get away from work, and it took me to work: to an academic conference. And my packed suitcase reflected the hybrid nature of this trip. The final book has more of me in it than the proposal. More autobiography. One of the chapters is about my trip to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama, so there is also that travelogue element, and I hope the interludes speak to the personal nature of travel, too. It’s a book I wrote at home and on the road. It’s about home and not-home.
AL: Several years ago, an editor at Passages North accepted an essay I wrote for that journal’s Writers on Writing series in part because he was impressed by how many disparate things I could pack into a single essay. Given the length constraint of an Object Lessons book, I approached the writing as a challenge to see how much I could pack in and how I might surprise the reader by including the unexpected in a way that felt inevitable. That made structure impossible to work out when I considered the whole but unavoidable when I was drafting and revising. I trusted I could set out a few broad categories for discussion and make the connections paragraph to paragraph, page to page. I didn’t know whether you would trust my writing but sensed that my approach to the writing process fit the series well—that you’d be able to see the shape of the whole at a distance. I was especially pleased when you didn’t question the poetry that I snuck in at the end of Tumor.
CS: If you can’t sneak poetry into a book like this, where can you? (Incidentally, my poet colleague and great friend Mark Yakich would love the idea that poetry has to be snuck into a book.)
SH: And we have to be sneaky. It was hard to figure out what to include and exclude. That was a challenge in writing the chapter outline for the proposal. When I was in grad school, I was told that a dissertation proposal was a “thin tissue of lies.” It was something we would all joke about, and it helped to alleviate some of the stress for writing a book proposal for the first time. I was thinking about this phrase when I started writing my proposal for Luggage, which was a really different kind of proposal—shorter, non-academic—but still requires you to envision of a book you have not yet written. And everything you think you want to include can lead you to something else and then to something else, and that feeling is thrilling but also slightly scary. The short format is liberating in a lot of ways, but, of course, you also worry that you haven’t done enough. That’s a challenge. But maybe all authors worry about that. Writing 90,000 words doesn’t save you from feeling that you might not have done enough. That’s just writing: not doing enough.
CS: Can we make that slogan into a T-shirt? WRITING = NOT DOING ENOUGH. It’s so true. And it’s almost Derridean, isn’t it? Completion, full coverage, authority—those dangerous supplements that always haunt the paragraph, the page, the book. I’m getting a little heady here. But something about the short book allows the fundamental inadequacy of writing to take place more freely, even jubilantly.
The malleability of nonfiction writing serves as both an exciting opportunity and an intimidating gauntlet. Most of the authors of the Object Lessons books weren’t trained in nonfiction per se. This makes the books better—they aren’t formulaic. This, though, frustrates some of our readers who wish that the books had more consistent a style across titles. In any case, the ambiguous nature of the essayistic tradition, and this uncertain crossover realm of writing—these things are interesting to me and very much keep the series stimulating to me as an editor. And I hope to authors and readers, as well. How did you navigate this slipperiness as you worked on your books?
AL: I’m a poet by most of my writing training, so the trust I have in my nonfiction is more recent and hard-won. I might write nonfiction very differently if I had started in my twenties instead of in my forties, when I had also achieved some job security. The first piece I wrote in the vein or style of Tumor was about John Wayne, nuclear weapons, and my father’s death from cancer. I sent it to one journal to test the waters—The Southern Review was doing an Americana issue. Editor Jeanne Leiby called me to accept it (Leiby died just days after I received my contributor copies), and Cara Blue Adams did the most amazing job fact-checking and copyediting of that piece. That experience convinced me that what I was writing meant something, not just to me but to others who are shaping the cultural and literary landscape. The essay form, this recombination of ideas, and the kind of crossover writing of the Object Lessons series are important—perhaps now more than ever—even if Montaigne was doing it six-hundred years ago.
SH: If you want to do crossover work, think about what interests you personally as well as what might be more widely interesting. That personal connection is important in the Object Lessons series and in a lot of crossover writing. If you’re an academic, that’s not part of the way you write normally. The objectivity of the critic is essential in academic writing. But to be able to write in another way means you’re allowed to think in another way. Of course, a lot of academics have a personal connection to their scholarship—the old joke about research as “me-search”—but that connection can’t be visible to your reader. In crossover writing, it can be.
The importance of writing time is key, too, to this sort of sustained thinking. I try to write consistently, and my teaching load isn’t too heavy, so I can usually do that. Carving out time in the evenings and on weekends helps, too, if you want to do that or can do that. I like to rent a cabin in the woods and just write for a few days. No grading, no other kind of work. Just writing and reading. I like the change of scene. The focus. Being somewhere beautiful. So these weekends away are sort of like a writer’s residency.
AL: One of the reasons the writing of Tumor went as smoothly as it did, when I finally sat down with my notes and books, was that I had a writing residency at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. Over years, I had shored up a lot of reading and ideas in my head already and had some bits drafted, and then I wrote for hours every day, day after day, for about a month. One day, when I was revising the early part about my mother, I had tears streaming down my face, and I kept working. This sort of dedicated time for writing—sacred time, in a way—is not necessary for every project nor do-able for every writer, but writing residencies allow me to be a good college professor and also sustain writing projects that take time and take risks. Writing in the essayistic tradition—essay is from the Latin meaning examine or test—requires enough time to ponder, to wander, to argue with yourself as well as with others.
SH: Yes, wandering is important. We write Object Lessons books pretty quickly (at least compared to academic writing), bur there is still that wonderful wandering and pondering in the process. Academic writers and non-academic writers tend to think about time differently. You want to get your work to where you’re happy with it, but also accept that you only have a certain amount of time for any project, so at some point you have to let it go. That’s something I have learned writing nonfiction, both essays and this book. My academic book started as my dissertation; I have lived with it for a decade. I don’t want to live with another book for a decade. I want to work on different projects, shorter projects or projects that can be completed in less time, and then move on. That is more possible in crossover writing than in academia.
CS: Ian and I have talked about this a lot lately, how once you start writing in a more brisk mode, it becomes harder to stay attached to a Big Idea or Big Book Project. It’s much more gratifying, on some level, to write short work and see it go out into the world more quickly and be received by readers.
I recognize that I can sound like I’m dissing traditional academic work—slow, methodical, painstaking—but it’s more that scholars often internalize these things to the point where they don’t even know how to sit down and write, just write, for an hour or two, let alone send out short, more spontaneous work like this for publication. It becomes a lost art or even a seeming impossibility for many scholars, to simply write something pithy and accessible. Again, I’m not saying that we should jettison all academic writing (maybe a lot of it, though?!?), Still, it can be rejuvenating for scholars to realize that they can write in other forms that can reach a wider audience than in a purely specialist mode.
AL: Though I still publish pedagogy scholarship, I’ve consciously moved away from the academic writing that I did early in my career, and even my writing in scholarly outlets has a purposefully crossover bent now. So, I’d already made that shift when I proposed Tumor.
That said, considering reference points, not only Montaigne, who gets a nod whenever writers talk about models for essays or crossover nonfiction more broadly, can be important when moving away from the traditional academic model. What are we moving toward as we move away from the specialist mode? What’s the body of work into which this writing fits? Not that we need compare ourselves with other writers nor strive to do what they do, but finding connections with a larger niche helps us figure out what we’re doing that’s distinctly ours.
Elkin’s book about walking in various cities that you mentioned, maybe Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden, or something by Natalie Angier—those aren’t quite what I’m after myself, which is the very point of keeping them handy as touchstones. Rebecca Solnit can talk about family history and historical documents simultaneously; she blends the lyrical and the factual; she’s neither tied to chronology nor dismissive of it. What Solnit says about the writing process resonates with me too: “Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing, with revisions as you go, and then more revisions, deletions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.” Reading her work or that of Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, or bell hooks validates some of my own impulses and pushes me to take new risks to make my writing my work.
SH: I love Solnit. She is a model. We’re always seeking out models we admire, voices we admire. Robert Macfarlane also blends the lyrical and the factual in an incredible way. I recently read Mary Beard’s Women & Power, which is a marvelous example of a scholar speaking to a general audience. She was actually speaking—the book brings together two talks—and she writes in the Afterword that she decided not to go back and change a lot, that she thought it was best to leave the talks pretty much as they were, even with “rough edges.” She also refers to “floating” ideas in the talks/book, which I loved—that some things are more suggested than completely worked out. The book is so smart and witty and elegant and personal. And short, of course!
Floating ideas: that’s something you can do in a lecture for a general audience, and it’s something you can do in nonfiction. You can suggest ideas, and then just leave them there and let them do what they’re going go do. The Object Lessons books often have a very suggestive feel. Academic writing is about conclusions, finely tuned arguments that make a contribution to a field. We might be able to float ideas in conference papers, when we’re starting on a project, but that’s it. This idea of floating ideas reminds me also of the way many of us talk in the classroom. Part of teaching is suggesting things but not necessarily offering hard-and-fast answers. Sometimes we offer answers, of course, but it’s important to dwell in that space of thought, too, without or before conclusions. And we are translating scholarship for our students, making the academic writing accessible to that student audience. Or we offer a reading of a poem or a play that is smart and also makes sense to someone who might be coming to the material for the first time. To academics who are thinking about writing in a crossover vein, I would also say: think about how you communicate in the classroom. What you say there and what you leave out.
CS: That reminds me of advice we got from Matt McAdam, a guest editor at one of our NEH Object Lessons workshops. Matt said that when he’s working with an author who is stumped about how to write for broader audience, he recommends that they start from scratch and write a series of lectures geared toward undergraduate students. This seems to open up the writing toward much broader audiences because, of course, our undergraduate students are smart, general readers. If we’re not writing for them on some level, all the time, I’m not sure what we’re doing. Think about how much humanities-based academic writing is simply inaccessible to undergraduate readers. Does it really need to be this way? We’ve also all read brilliant academic prose that is lucid, teachable, and something to which the uninitiated relate—this seems like a much more admirable goal for writing. (I know, I know—I was just citing Derrida a few minutes ago. Old habits die hard.)
SH: Yes, undergrads are sometimes shocked to see the difference in how ideas are communicated in the classroom and in the essays, books, and articles that they read for their research papers. I value academic writing, but I also have certain ambivalences about it. In some ways, I’m not sure if academic writing has ever really come easily to me. I have found it hard—sometimes hard in a productive way and sometimes hard in a way that has made me wonder if it’s the kind of work I really want to do anymore. I was writing a lot of non-academic essays when I was finishing my academic book, and this work made me more aware of style. I hope those essays improved my academic book, maybe made it more elegant—or as elegant as a scholarly project can be.
AL: Scholarly writing can be elegant, of course. Perhaps the most fun I’ve had on the editorial side of the desk was line-editing a scholarly piece by Marjorie Perloff. (What a nerdy thing to say!) Whether I agreed with her point—her aesthetics and interests and mine don’t often align—her sentences are gorgeous. I could feel her mind working—it was felt criticism.
SH: Luggage definitely came out of my scholarly interest in objects and in material culture; my academic book is on armor and nostalgia for past wars and past military models in the English Renaissance. As I was finishing that book, I was surprised to find that my scholarly interest in objects and cultural memory continued to resonate in my non-academic writing. The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek nostos, or home. It is a longing for home, what Odysseus felt, however ambivalently: a desire for a lost place you know and to which you wish to return. So thinking about the materials of travel came out of thinking about objects and a longing for home. There are often productive connections between academic writing and non-academic writing.
CS: Ian and I really hope these books will go on to find new and unexpected audiences that break through boundaries between academic and mainstream audiences, scholarly and general readers.
We never got Harry Brown’s Golf Ball into a pro shop, but we had many discussions of how to do this. We imagined somehow convincing Samsung to buy a few thousand copies of Jonathan Rees’s Refrigerator and pack them into the massive boxes of new fridges, but that proved tricky, too. Christopher J. Lee’s Jet Lag should obviously be at the Hudson News in airports—but those turn out to be incredibly difficult markets to break into. I managed to get copies of Scott Shershow’s Bread into my favorite artisan bakery in northern Michigan—and I was happy to see them disappear over the course of the summer months. Some authors have been successful at doing these types of things on their own: Kim Adrian has talked to a yarn shop near her home about writing Sock, and Matthew Newton told me about an idea he had to do some sort of installation/reading/signing with Shopping Mall at certain downward spiraling malls. Joanna Walsh did a reading at the Freud museum (Hotel tarries with psychoanalysis). Michael Marder has gotten Dust into the hands of some artists who have been inspired by his book.
Did you think about this sort of thing—to put it bluntly, did you think about non-academic or more-than-academic audiences at all as you wrote your Object Lessons book? Or as you thought about promoting it after publication?
AL: While I don’t usually give much thought to audience while writing and assumed that the series was cultivating an audience or niche, I did think about who might be interested in reading this particular book and why. I’ve co-authored a more scholarly book about cancer communication, too, which helped me think about what Tumor might (and might not) encompass and also think about readers. I’m talking with a cancer center about participating in their annual symposium because I very much want oncologists to consider cancer more broadly as a cultural as well as biomedical issue. Going forward, I’d like to do more of that and also connect with cancer patients and caregivers.
One of the most heartening experiences I’ve had since Tumor was published was when a family friend brought with her to one of my book-signings someone who’d been recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’d never met the man before, his prognosis isn’t good, and we talked about his cancer and what it meant. There exist a lot of stories out there, a lot of people with cancer or who know people with cancer and want to talk about what that means in our lives—not only the facts but the meaning or, in Object Lessons parlance, the hidden life of this ordinary thing.
SH: I’m trying to set up a reading in the luggage department of Bloomingdale’s—I used to live in New York and have always loved wandering around its departments—or at the AWAY store downtown, so I love hearing about these past plans. I’m also setting up readings at hotels as everyone in a hotel is thinking about luggage, to some extent. Packing. Unpacking. Moving their bags from one place to another. Watching other people move their bags from one place to another. For now, I’m planning events at the Durham Hotel, which has a sort of contemporary literary/cultural vibe, and at the Greenbrier in Virginia, which is very old-school. Both are close to where I live. And maybe these hotels would want to sell copies at the check-in desk, in case a guest forgot to pack a book.
Object Lessons books can definitely break through boundaries between academic and mainstream audiences, and I like the idea of entertaining people. Engaging them. I have heard academics use that term dismissively about crossover books—“Well, it was very entertaining”—implying that this must indicate that the book is not serious. But that’s not the way I see things. Particularly in the case of stores—either my plans or the sock store or the shopping mall—you’re really in consumer culture. In a world of objects. That’s interesting, and worthwhile. To do a reading in a store or at a hotel suggests what I’m always telling my students (I imagine that we all are): literature is not set apart from life; it is part of it.
Susan Harlan is associate professor of English at Wake Forest University and author of Memories of War in Early Modern England. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Awl, the Bitter Southerner, Public Books, Jezebel, and Atlas Obscura.
Anna Leahy is Director of the MFA in Creative Writing and Professor of English at Chapman University. Her publications include the poetry collection Aperture and the co-written books Conversing with Cancer and Generation Space. See more at www.amleahy.com.
Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English and Environmental Studies at Loyola University New Orleans and founding co-editor of the Object Lessons series. His most recent book is Airportness: The Nature of Flight.