With the end of my book manuscript mercifully closer on the horizon than it has ever been (despite being in a state that I could fairly describe as “done,” if not good, for almost a year now) I am beginning to think about the shape I want my work to take going forwards. I won’t ever stop doing proper research that the most stalwart of my colleagues would recognize as such. I do not expect I will ever stop publishing in academic venues. But finished proving myself to the academy, I do want to vary somewhat the form that research will take when I present it to the world. The more I realize that even when I do work that I consider to be meticulously documented and argued many of my colleagues will remain dismissive, the less I care about continuing to try to prove myself in the established academic forums. That’s all a very long-winded way of saying that would like to write for a wider and more general audience than the six people who will probably read the book I’m finishing now.
As a first step, I started out by writing a version of an academic article I had written but with a general audience in mind. It was originally destined for Believer Magazine after some correspondence with one of the editors there, but when she was furloughed (I don’t remember all the details now) and the periodical went from monthly to bimonthly, a bunch of her projects and others were shelved. Around that time, the journal Granta put out a call for open submissions, so I sent it there. It was rejected.
(Just as an aside, I infinitely prefer being rejected by normal-people presses and publications rather than academic ones. They tell you one or two key things that they think make your work unsuitable for them, wish you the best, and that’s that; there’s no masochistic evisceration of your work or denigration of your intellect and credentials all, disingenuously, in the name of helping you improve your work and uphold professional standards. It’s disappointing and it’s a pain, but it’s not actively destructive.)
I was expecting it to be rejected — Granta is a pretty high bar to clear — but I was surprised by one of the comments I got, that the piece “lacked a personal touch.” I don’t think that’s just a question of the misaligned expectations of an academic moving towards writing for a general audience, but rather a question of general readership being unused to writing that is not in a confessional mode.
Essayistic writing shouldn’t always be directly about the author, pace the column by the inimitable Rebecca Schuman in which she managed to take a news story about an alleged pedophile gymnastics coach killing himself in prison rather than facing justice and make it all about her. A recent think-piece explored how women, in particular, are expected to commodify their lives and the most horrifyingly degrading experiences of their lives just to get a break as a writer, in contrast to the good ol’ days when it used to be possible to make a living wage as a writer. Even though authors supposed to have been dead and buried by now, receptive readers are once again compelling them to insert themselves in the text.
Essayistic writing shouldn’t always be directly about the author, nor should it have to be.
Writing — good writing — is intensely personal even when it is not confessional. That everyone participates in the act of writing on a day-to-day basis makes it seem easy and seem like something that everyone can do, and so a general reading public doesn’t quite appreciate what goes into writing . It’s the same flaw as distinguishing between creative and academic writing, when the latter is intensely creative but hung up on a different kind of skeleton.
Taken to an extreme, academic writing is more about the author than the subject, but disguised in historical and disciplinary terms. The most famous example of this phenomenon is biographies of Alexander the Great, which are never just biographies about their subject but also autobiographies of their authors. To shamelessly steal a few sentences from an article I have forthcoming: For example, we hear echoes of Johann Gustav Droysen’s nineteenth-century advocacy for German unification under Prussian rule in his coining of the term “Hellenizing” to describe Alexander’s cultural influence over vast swaths of Asia. Parallels abound in the writing of the historians, travelers and bureaucrats of Victorian England who cast Alexander as the consummate colonial administrator. And in a more contemporary turn Rory Stewart, denizen of the recent Western military efforts in Afghanistan that were defined, at least in part, by a dramatic lack of knowledge of the local cultures, sums up the issue and creates one more example of it when he writes, “The more we produce about Alexander the less we seem to understand him.” Academic writing is the imposition of order upon chaos that refracts the scholar’s viewpoint as much as it is the product of her time and energies. It’s a thing that we don’t like to admit (just as so many academics are loathe to admit that they love their subject lest it compromise the scientific objectivity that we profess, impossibly, to value in the humanities) but by concealing it, we make it harder to share our work with a public that does want that personal touch.
Long-form journalism sometimes seeks a compromise by accompanying a particularly compelling or out-of-the-blue feature with a “how I got the story” featurette. It offers writerly and reporterly context, but crucially without replacing the story or inserting the reporter into it. On the one hand, a fascination with the skeleton of a piece of writing and the process goes a way to professionalizing it and combating the perception that writing is easy because you just sit down and do it like anybody does. But on the other hand, to cater only to that fascination with how the piece of writing came to be sells readers short by limiting their horizons to the world of writers, rather than the worlds that they write about. Confessional writing can help to show how personal other kinds of essayistic and long-form and creative non-fiction is, too, personal and creative; but it shouldn’t be the end of the story.