Writing and Audience

Now that my dissertation is approved and I’m working on the next phase of that project, I keep going back to the question of audience. This was actually a common discussion in my early grad school classes at Iowa, where trade paperbacks and other popular nonfiction work were often discussed as “American studies” texts. As I recall, Fast Food Nation and No Logo, among more academic texts, were taught in my theory and methods classes.

But after the introductory classes in my first two years, those kinds of discussions essentially disappeared—as did the grad students who were most interested in having them. (The attrition rate in American Studies at Iowa over the last 8 years is certainly above the national grad school average of 50%.) It became an unquestioned assumption that those of us who chose to stick it out would produce dissertations that would attempt (and inevitably fail) to imitate a traditional, rigorous scholarly monograph.

Recently, I’ve found myself having discussions of audience again, thanks to an email exchange I’ve been having with my newly #altac friend David Morris. Of the many compelling reasons there are to quit academia right now, his is actually kind of simple—he told me that he just didn’t feel like he could write the kind of books that he wanted to write while still working within that system.

I’m still optimistic that I might be able to write the kinds of books I want to write—though I also have no idea what kinds of books those are yet. One of the reasons I’ve been (slowly, hesitantly) drawn to digital humanities work is because of the ability for certain projects to be disseminated much more widely than traditional academic print books. That said, there are also academic print books that are getting play in the mainstream press right now, such as Jonathan Sterne’s book on the mp3, which I’m finally getting around to reading right now.

Anyway, all of this leads to me to these tips from Norton. (I started this post just wanting to share a link! Sorry!). There are two that I like in particular. First:

7) Accept that some subjects are inherently of minor interest and others fall into genres that have become overcrowded. Many talented scholars, particularly in history, have taken seriously the idea of writing for a broader public and still found that their books reach only a relatively limited audience, because, actually, there were a lot of dramatic trials in the 19th century that evoke issues that are still with us, and quite a few books about them, too. For most readers, these were still cases they never heard of that took place long ago involving people they don’t want to know. Most books will reach only a limited audience, no matter how hard the author and the publisher try.

In short: don’t force it. What’s not said here, but I think should be, is that just because it’s not a good popular book doesn’t mean it can’t be a good academic book. I’m not sure if my work on the history of environmental recording would or could reach a lot of people, but I also don’t think that’s the only metric by which to measure its worth. I think there is a good book in my dissertation mess somewhere, if I can pull it out. Secondly:

8) A book should not be one’s first and only attempt to address the public. Essays and book reviews for newspapers or general interest magazines, public lectures, and radio commentary are great ways to cultivate both a public voice and an audience.

I think it’s funny, though perhaps unsurprising, that the author doesn’t mention Tumblr (where the article was originally published), Twitter, podcasting, blogging, etc. Still, I think the larger point stands: engaging with broader publics is not a one-off affair, nor is it merely the “managing” of one’s “online/public persona” (ie, marketing and self-promotion). I think it involves meaningfully engaging with the people and issues that you hope to address.

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