My Book, My Dreams

What happens when you pour all your effort into a work -- and hardly anyone seems to notice the result?

January 29, 2010

I wrote my first novel, a cross between The Last of the Mohicans and Shane, when I was eight or nine years old. I wrote it on small spiral bound notebooks and illustrated it by hand. Later I tore all the pages out of the notebooks and stapled them together in thick stacks. I wasn’t a literary prodigy, just a kid who loved Star Wars, comics and novels. I was a geek who was not afraid to dream the literary dream. In the years that followed, I continued dreaming that dream. After spending several years writing short stories and hundreds of poems, which I dutifully relegated to hardbound composition notebooks, I wrote my second novel. I was in the ninth grade and I knew how to type. I’ll never forget the thrill of typing up that manuscript. Graduating from handwriting to typed text made me feel like a very serious writer. Before I graduated high school, I wrote a third novel, and a collection of short stories, both of which I carefully typed up, copied and bound at a photocopy center.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I had kept that literary faith after going to college. What did happen was that I majored in literature, went to graduate school and began my career as a literary critic. The old dreams of being a writer of novels and poems were replaced by dreams of being a published literary critic, an author of scholarly articles and monographs that would draw the interest of my peers. My whole life had been about reading and self-expression, and now, as a professor of literature, I wanted – no, I needed – to express myself and be read. I began writing articles and did quite well. It was exhilarating. Then I faced the herculean task of shaping a book from the inchoate mass of my dissertation. It took me six or seven years, and two separate tenure clocks, to complete it. My book, I’m proud to say, was personal, original, and timely. I dreamed that it would be read, that it might matter. I never thought I would wonder if writing my book was really worth it.

There were many things my mentors never told me about being an academic. I was never taught how to write a book (as opposed to a dissertation), or warned about the protocols, timelines and politics of trying to get a book published. No one ever spoke to me about what it might mean to publish in a second-tier university press, get one bad review and not really be read as much as you might hope. I knew that academic writers could be stars, and that some never got published, or published bad books that no one cited. But I did not know about the vast corpus of middling, pretty-good (or better) books and authors, which for a variety of reasons, justified or not, simply don’t make much of an impact or a difference. That’s a special kind of purgatory that graduate students and assistant professors don’t hear too much about. Well, I’m something of an expert in this subject. The story of my first book is not unlike that of a long suffering, sympathetic character in a Dickens novel who quietly suffers a series of slights, injustices and betrayals, but without the cathartic redemption or resolution that sublimates her mournful journey.

The good news was that I got my book published at a university press, not a top one, but a good one with a good backlist. The bad news was that my book would not be published in affordable soft cover, but in a more expensive library edition, meaning that no graduate student would ever buy my book the way I bought so many books as a student. My book would not sit on the crowded bookshelves of a studio apartment in a college town while someone pondered a dissertation or argued the finer points of theory with some friends. But that was OK. As long as it got into libraries, that would be fine. There might not be many notes in the margins but it would still be read. Then my press required me to change the title of my book to something flatter, more descriptive, to help sell copies to libraries I suppose. My tenure clock was running out, what could I do? I let them do it. And I even made my peace with it, believing that "If you build it, they will come." I waited for them to come.

Unless you publish with a top-tier press, and your book makes a big splash, don’t expect much fanfare in the years that follow the publication of your book. There will not be release parties at conference exhibit halls, posters, “buzz” or anything like that. Very few authors get that experience. For two or three years, it was as if my book did not exist. Then three reviews appeared. One slammed me, the other one was somewhat positive, and the third was embarrassingly short and uninformative. Within the echoing silence of the publication of my first book, came the first whispers of feedback, and it was pretty clear: My book was interesting, it had glimmers, but it was mediocre. (I don’t agree with that assessment but I’m just trying to be report events as honestly as possible.) Anyway, that hurt a lot.

Then something pretty surprising happened. I realized that some of those who really should have read my book were not interested in it. The first such person was a graduate student I was advising whose dissertation intersected with my book’s subject matter. I guess she never cracked the book to notice its table of contents. Then an acquaintance of mine tried to publish a book on the exact same subject without mentioning me at all. Let’s say, for the sake of illustrating my point, that my book was the first ever and only book on hats in literature. This fellow, who knew about my book, had his own book manuscript on hats in literature and he wanted me to help him leverage its publication, despite the fact that he could not be bothered to cite me once. And still, he asked me to write the preface to his book. I said no. But several other scholars (my peers) stepped in to blurb the book. My favorite one praised his book on hats for "filling the void" on the subject matter of hats in literature.

Still, I believed in my book. It was original and different, the first book on hats in literature! I was confident people would find it out eventually, and, in the end, redeem it by mentioning it. I put a few excerpts online, and proceeded to take my scholarly interests in a new direction. It was out of my hands.

A few more years went by. Finally, the tide turned. My book started to make its way into other books and articles, sometimes in surprising, unexpected ways. Most mentions were painfully cursory, an afterthought, a professional formality. Several citations of my work made it clear that the authors had never read my book but only the excerpts I had put online. One clever peer wove together materials from my Web site with a review that was posted online and created a credible paragraph that distorted my original argument. In fact, one or two others came painfully close to attributing my "contribution" to an online reviewer who summarized my book. This is how my bid to use the Web to promote my scholarship backfired. In this age of Web research, even scholars would rather not order a book through interlibrary loan as long as they can pretend they have read it. Who was I to think that in this postmodern age, citations would be anything else than simulacra? But I digress.

There have been two substantial engagements with the contents of my book, mainly in footnotes. I was grateful and felt somewhat redeemed, but was this the best I could hope for? What did I want or need to feel like my work mattered? It’s embarrassing to answer this question but here goes: I needed someone to recognize my work in the body of their scholarship, explicitly, not via Web "CliffsNotes," or a cursory footnote. I did not need a page-long discussion of my work, that’s too much, but just something that would say my Little Dorrit of a book had existed and was deserving of being mentioned out in the open. Four sentences, out in the open would do it, and I could settle for a footnote that was longer than one line long. I could settle for a footnote containing a few lines on what I had labored over for so many years. I think that would do it for me. Really.

I’m luckier than most. My book is appearing on people’s radars. It may just be a blip, but it’s there. There are a few people interested in hats in literature, apparently. I’m not a total failure -- far from it. On the contrary, I got tenure on the shoulders of this book and recently some presses have asked me to blurb other books (like that book on baseball caps and the other one on the representation of heads in literature). It feels like a sham to be treated like someone important when my book is so marginal or superfluous. But that’s fine; I’m not going to turn down such publicity.

So, I’m an arrogant ass, or a narcissist. Let me steal the thunder of the readers of this piece. But someone needs to speak up for all the books that have been undeservedly shunted aside, maligned or marginalized. Someone needs to say what many published authors already know: Being an author is not all it’s cracked up to be. It can be a lot lonelier and painful than you might expect. You pour your life into this thing, you parch yourself dry, and then all you can squeeze back into your sandy mouth is a few drops of moisture.

I’ve moved on. I’ve adjusted my expectations. I’ve done a reality check. My book pops up here and there and my name is out there. My articles are read and cited, sometimes repeatedly. That’s a lot more than what many of my peers have achieved. A little bit of gratitude is in order. I know.

What’s hard for me now is not the reception of my first book, but the motivation to write my second one. For years I’ve been publishing articles and editing books, but the time has come to buckle down and build the centerpiece of my case for full professor. I need to motivate myself to write another book that maybe will not make much of a difference, all over again. It’s hard to work up the gumption to do that. Another part of me, however, sees it differently. Writing a book, even an academic book destined to have very few readers, is no small feat of creation. My second monograph may or may not be important to others, but it will be written with passion and integrity. If I succeed in recovering the smallest part of that nine-year-old boy who could write, happily, for himself alone, I know that my second book will be something that I can be proud of, like my first book. There’s something zen and honest about that. Almost liberating. Now I just need to make it happen, one last time.


Peter Dorchester is the pen name of an associate professor in the humanities at a large university in the South.


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