Perhaps, after all, this Ph.D. is not worth my while . . . The world inhabited by my subjects still seems bright and seductive, and the subjects themselves—the Brownings and Harriet Hosmer and William Story and, above all, Mrs. Gaskell—are still alive to me. The more I know of them, the more I love them. But I couldn’t be further from them, here at my desk in the British Library . . . My research is laborious and rewarding: I am clawing at an enormous cliff face, hoping to tunnel through it, but the rock is unbreakable . . . The enormity of the task ahead—writing 100,000 words of pure, never-before-known knowledge—is off-putting, impossible, preferably avoidable.
Anyone who has read my blog posts on academia and criticism over the years will understand how much I sympathized with Nell Stevens’s frustration at the lifelessness of her academic research—though while I definitely felt this way intermittently during my Ph.D. years, it wasn’t until I was much further along in my academic career that I both reached a crisis point about that and had the professional security to do anything about it. What to do, though: that was and in many ways still is the question!
One of the first things I did to try to figure it out (besides starting this blog, which I didn’t realize at the time was related) was look at what other kinds of writing people did about literature for non-academic audiences and purposes. I explored a lot of “books about books” during this phase and have continued to keep an eye on them, and to ponder how I might someday contribute to that genre. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there are three main ways to “pitch” a general-interest book about books, one of which is not an option and two of which are unappealing: one is to have a “name” that already sells (James Wood, Michael Dirda, Zadie Smith, etc.); another is to package your reading as some form of “self-help” (life lessons from Jane Austen etc.); and the other is to combine book talk with autobiography—the “bibliomemoir,” as in Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (sorry the formatting is messed up at that link – I will try to get into the archive and fix it!) or Nell Stevens’s The Victorian and the Romantic, which I just read as part of this ongoing market research.
I don’t actually have a lot to say about Stevens’s book in particular. I more or less enjoyed it: it’s fine, if you’re into memoirs, which I am generally not. Stevens’s particular take on autobiography in this book strikes me as remarkably niche, which makes me wonder even more about how publishing works. How big can the audience be for a book about a (relatively obscure? I’d say so?) young person’s love life and academic difficulties and preoccupation with Elizabeth Gaskell? Perhaps it was Stevens’s first book (which I haven’t read) that sold this second one? Another way to put my puzzlement might be: how has Stevens earned this kind of interest (a publishable level of interest) in this very odd combination of topics? The book itself does not (to me, anyway) self-evidently answer that question. I came to it already strongly interested in Victorian literature and the relationship between academic and other kinds of writing, and I was not blown away. Or maybe I knew too much and would have found it more revelatory if her topics were new to me? Perhaps I am not just the right audience but precisely the wrong audience for the book. All I really learned is that for Stevens, this odd generic hybrid of intimate memoir and fictionalized biography turns out to be the kind of book she wanted to write. It’s certainly not the kind of book I would ever want to write—which is not a knock against it, though it may be another blow for my own aspirations.
I might be the right audience for this book? I’m not sure — I think I am, although that doesn’t mean I’d actually like it. It’s the sort of thing I have sometimes liked, at any rate. But I think it’s really hard to write this kind of book well — to make all of it interesting and to make it all feel important.
I agree that it’s hard to pull off, and I’m not really sure if she manages it or not. I read Mead’s book with a great deal of initial skepticism and got won over; this book did not have the same effect, maybe because it leans on Gaskell’s biography rather than on her fiction. What I’m most curious about is that it even exists, though: that the pitch was successful.
Trying to create another success like Mead’s book I would guess. One book does well (as least I think Mead’s book did well), and more like it follow (often not as good). And hoping that Gaskell becomes more of a household name? Maybe hoping people want to find another Victorian novelist to love and are willing to try someone new to them.
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There must be a much bigger audience than I think is good for the already-incestuous-literary-writer-who-works-in-academia crowd for books about becoming literary writers. Lily King’s recent Writers and Lovers, for instance.
That’s a really good point: maybe the key is being part of the in-crowd.
It’s too bad sales numbers are such a big secret in American publishing. We can’t test our hypotheses.
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