Right now, I should be celebrating. Just before Christmas, my first book was published.
I don’t have anything more to say about the contents of the book. (You can read the blurb, and buy copies for everyone you know here. That’s as much self-publicity as I can manage.)
Instead, this post is about publication sadness.
Sadness is not the emotion I expected to feel at this milestone. Shouldn’t I want to celebrate? Where is the joy in finally seeing this research in print?
Perhaps I’m the problem. Perhaps it’s the depths of winter, and a difficult and busy time, or perhaps I’m not getting enough exercise, or enough vitamin B12, yoga, chocolate, sleep. Perhaps I’m sleeping too much.
What if it isn’t just me?
I really am not looking for reassurance that the book and my ideas are – after all – brilliant. (Oh go on then, just a little bit, I won’t hold it against you).
Nor am I writing to blame others. This isn’t about peer reviewers, editors, or my publisher. (All were professional, all made the book much better than it was when I started). The feeling I’m exploring is sadness, not anger or resentment. (Although: who hasn’t heard the horror stories?)
But I wonder: does the sadness come for even the cheeriest and most successful academic writers? What feature of academic publishing has this magical power to transform passion and dedication into cynicism and melancholy?
I will speak of my own experience.
I am in mourning for the ideal of my book.
Academic writing is surprisingly similar to how Ben Lerner has characterised poetry: everyone hates it. Not just the general public who recoil at the thought, but even the insiders. Every six to eight months or so, academics on Twitter reignite the same tired debate: is all academic writing shit? Or do lots of academics already write really well and everyone just hates what we have to say? Does anyone apart from us even care? Lerner:
What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artists aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it? An art hated from without and within. (The Hatred of Poetry, 9)
Why is poetry hated both from without and within?
Lerner argues that it is because ‘The poem is always a record of failure’ (11). As soon as the poet commits themselves to an actual poem, they must necessarily abandon the ideal of poetry, to get beyond the here and now, to something greater, some evanescent meaning.
Ask an academic in an optimistic moment why they write, and they will tell you they write to change the world, to cast new light on burning issues. Now ask them to show you the work that brings them most pride. It is hard to meet our own ideals.
It is a cliche of postgraduate training to tell students that a good dissertation is a completed dissertation. How many of us are still in mourning for our great work, the uncompleted and uncompletable? The completed work is just a reminder of what never came about, and it’s a reminder freighted by years. All those years gone.
Right now, I’m meant to be telling you how important and interesting my new book is, but I can’t see past the book it never became.
And to be confronted with the book itself is also to be confronted with my own mortality.
When you think about it, this is a horrendously cruel trick.
It is easy to see that all historical research is a furious and impossible crusade against mortality itself. Historians commemorate the forgotten. We think of ourselves as bringing the past itself ‘back to life’, and we absorb ourselves in the details of research as a displacement activity. It gives us a paradoxical sense of purpose to see the past as our future. Who can forget the feeling of starting a new research project, when everything is possibility?
So the book is not just the death knell ringing for my once-cherished future. It is also a record, a new archive that I myself leave behind, as a dead object. I’m the one person who can never revive it, because to me, it is now detritus, like the cast-off skin of some reptile. Only others can perform the work of the historian on it, finding possibility in its pastness.
For me, it marks the end of a period of great happiness and joy in my life, like a gravestone.
I probably should have just written a better book.