Tuesday, May 31, 2011

50,000 words: the art of the possible

I am being tempted strongly toward what I once considered the dark side: writing an academic book that reads smoothly and accessibly partly because it is deliberately light on theory.  In the midst of my worries that I should be shooting for 100,000 words instead of 50,000, a friend and colleague – call hir Lucifer - confided to me over a beer that zi is going to dedicate hirself this summer to whipping into shape hir first book.  Lucifer plans to keep it to about 50,000 words, which zi guesses will yield a 150-page book.  That, my lovely readers, is very short for a pseudological text.  Not unheard of, mind you, but short.  Lucifer added that zi's thinking of a sexy, flashy kind of title: zi is keenly aware that an easy read with a few theoretical points thrown in for spice makes a great book to assign to college classes.

According to Lucifer, academic presses that deal with pseudology are no longer as interested as they once were in heavy theoretical monographs, but are beginning to think like trade presses about what will read comfortably for large readerships and therefore sell briskly.  I dunno; I can't say I've really followed the business closely enough to hazard my own guess.  Given the way that our discipline has been contracting of late, and how financial pressures in other areas of our professional lives have ratcheted up, this assessment of publishing doesn't sound out of line.

Lucifer suggested that I would be better off focusing on just getting a book under contract soon, and worrying about my major theoretical contribution to the discipline at a later point.  I must admit that I was toying with this idea already.  I must also admit that I am deeply tempted to use Lu's suggestions to structure my own manuscript, if only because I don't see how I can write a coherent book on my current topic much longer than 50,000 words.  It simply won't sustain 100,000 words.  The material is too new, and my theorizations are too early-stage to spin off whole chapters of bullshit about them.  It would be nice to write my 50,000-word manuscript with a clear conscience that that is not only how best to treat the material, but how best to treat the reader.

This is not one of my usual "on the one hand, on the other hand" blog posts.  I honestly do not see any benefit from shooting for 100,000 words with this particular manuscript.  It would be madness: even if I stuffed it with every anecdote that ever happened to me in the field, it would still be a little under that magic number, and it certainly wouldn't read clearly or efficiently.  Maybe my second book (behold my hubris!), which I hope will be a more mature accounting of the phenomena that I'm still tracking right now, will have more room and necessity for a longer treatment, and perhaps that book, then, will be my barbaric yawp of theory that puts me on the map outside the area studies confines of my pseudological subfield.  But my current manuscript cannot serve that purpose, I am beginning to admit to myself.  And if it can't, then there's no good that can come from trying to fool myself and others that it can.

I hope I'm not making a mistake with this line of thought.  I really feel like I'm on the right track.  I've been sketching out some pretty high-theory thoughts about some new research that could go all kinds of twisty-crazy places.  That stuff, I feel, will do much better in a complicated, somewhat heavy treatment that lays out dozens of interconnected phenomena and streams of critical inquiry.  For right now, I need to knock out my manuscript and move on to bigger things when the entry-level book has been put to bed.


  1. So have you just gone down the recent-releases lists of all the presses that pop in your head when you think pseudology and seen what has been published lately? And then checked them out and did some page counts and hefted them up and down in your hand and all that comparative stuff?

    I would do that, and also look at any that won any pseudology prizes in the last couple years, and then model your stuff after a couple of the books that just came out that you really liked the overall feel of. You know, model yourself after stuff that has recently successfully come out and done well in the field.

    And shorter is always better if it means you get stuff published! Good luck.

    PS I made it to your postdoc town! There are lots of good-sounding restaurants there; let me know how they are. (they weren't open for me to try them.)

  2. Geesh, I left a comment before. I KNOW I did. Sigh.

    Anyway a briefer version: I vote for trusting your instincts.