Tag Archives: Author Blog

  • Author Copy with Bradley Buchanan

    My first published academic book had been commissioned by an editor of a British series, and once I'd finished that project, I wasn't sure I ever wanted to write another scholarly book. Not that this first experience had been a bad one, but I wasn't at a school that demanded a second book for tenure, and I felt I had my hands full with a young daughter, a 4/4 teaching load, and an incurable penchant for writing poetry. Still, time passed, and over the course of a year or so, I freed up enough intellectual space to re-read my dissertation with an open mind. It had been more than 5 years since I'd even glanced at it, and while it wasn't as bad as I'd feared it might be, I knew it would not make a real book without significant work. It was too long, too diffuse, and too concerned with displaying my mastery of a body of knowledge. Basically, it was an extended and intricate plea for a job, a plea I was lucky enough not to have to repeat.

    The next step was the most important one: I did some research about the process I hoped to complete. I bought and read Eleanor Harman's classic The Thesis and the Book: A Guide for First-Time Academic Authors (University of Toronto Press, 2003) as well as William Germano's helpful From Dissertation to Book (University of Chicago Press, 2005). I don't trust myself to paraphrase the many useful messages of these books here, but in essence they convinced me of the need to shorten my manuscript even more than I'd planned, to distill its essence, to retitle it, and to focus on a single argument throughout.

    This proved easier conceptualized than done, though some changes were no-brainers. For instance, my dissertation was entitled "Oedipus Disfigured: Myth, Humanism and Hybridity in Modernist Anglo-American and Post-Colonial Literature." I had added the topic of hybridity in a late revision of the dissertation because I wanted to address an issue I knew to be central to Post-Colonial Literature (a field I had long suspected, rightly, would be one I would be expected to cover in my first job). The "Post-Colonial" element in the dissertation was a chapter on Nigerian writers which, though it had been valid and useful at the time, was essentially a digression from my main area of interest, which was British Modernism. So I dropped the discussions of hybridity and Post-Colonialism, and changed the working title of the manuscript to "Oedipus Against Freud: Myth, Modernism and the Death of the Human." (I had realized that few would recognize or be enlightened by the allusion to Paul de Man in my original title, and I liked the agonistic and paradoxical sound of "Oedipus Against Freud.")

    Then I got lucky. In the years between the writing of my dissertation and my revision of it, Cambridge University Press had published an edition of D.H. Lawrence's manuscript novel Paul Morel (the unpublished precursor of Lawrence's breakthrough novel Sons and Lovers). I got a hold of this book and soon realized that it would greatly enhance my argument about why Lawrence reacted to Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex by attacking humanism. I knew that publishers would want assurances that I had revised and updated my dissertation before it reached them, and a contrast between Paul Morel and Sons and Lovers would fill that bill very conveniently. It would also set my work even more obviously apart from previous Lawrence scholarship, which was important in my own mind.

    The initial rewriting process took a month or so; I sat in my cluttered office, spread my notes and scribbles on a chair, a desk and the floor and pounded out a number of new thoughts and opinions. I had a built-in deadline in that we had planned a trip to Europe for mid-summer, and by the time we left I had a new draft. It was still far too long, of course, so I offered my wife the invaluable chance to read it. She hesitated, naturally, but she was working as a copy editor at the time, and her professional curiosity got the better of her. She helped me to shorten the manuscript considerably (as she did once again later on after another round of revisions), and gave me a few pointers on how to improve my query letter to publishers. I tend to sound overly diffident in such letters, and she induced me to get rid of the traces of (usually false) modesty that sometimes creeps into my prose. She also urged me to call my particular scholarly intervention "crucial," a claim which I still think is a bit overstated, but have grown to like. Allow me to put in a plug for professional copy editors here: they are worth every penny you care to spend on them (I suppose my wife might be said to have read my work for free, but I have bought her a few presents over the years). I firmly believe that any topic that commands enough of your mental space to fill a book will also make you forget all those good writing habits you undoubtedly try to teach your students. Copy editors will see things in your writing that you will never see and which no academic colleague will want to point out: wordiness, jargon, pet phrases, pointless digressions etc. They will also help you to remember that you're no longer writing for a committee of faculty advisors who have coached and guided you through your research process (which had been unusually labyrinthine, in my case). They will demand the sort of concision, clarity, and vivacity that an acquiring editor will want to see in your prose.

    Then came the hard part: sending off all those query letters and sample chapters, and then waiting for a response. In my case, I got a relatively quick nibble from a British publisher for one, and then another university press also nibbled then said no, and I knew I needed to make some changes. Part of the problem, I realized, was that in trying to "sex up" my book's title, I had created some unwarranted. Some readers seemed to feel that, since I had mentioned the M-word in my title, I had to offer a comprehensive summary of all other theories of Modernism before I could address my own topic. I disagreed, but soon realized that they were trying to tell me something, albeit in an unhelpfully destructive way: my book wasn't really about Modernism as a whole. Yes, its argument explained a certain feature of Modernism (i.e. the anti-humanistic rhetoric of people such as Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, and T.S. Eliot), but that argument worked equally well to account for the Oedipal features of pre-Modernist works such as H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, or of Postmodern texts such as Christine Brooke-Rose's THRU and Zadie Smith's White Teeth. So I ditched "Modernism" and arrived at the book's final title: "Oedipus Against Freud: Myth and the End(s) of Humanism in Twentieth-Century British Literature." This gives readers a much better sense of what to expect from the book itself, though I will confess that I miss some of the alliterative magic of "Myth, Modernism etc."

    After that, things went much better, though there were still some twists and turns to navigate. I was lucky enough to attract the attention of Richard Ratzlaff, my wonderful editor at University of Toronto Press, who inquired as to the availability of my manuscript. I told him it was unavailable, but I quickly withdrew it and offered it to Richard. He found two willing readers almost immediately, they responded with helpful, positive comments and a few suggestions, and another (much more hopeful) revision got under way. It was a great relief, and very inspiring, to react to constructive, thoughtful advice from readers and an editor who understood what made my book unique and valuable. Thus, I was perfectly happy to spend another few months effecting another overall reduction in the manuscript's length, as well as doing some new research and writing some new sections on the "Posthuman" (a concept I had briefly dealt with, but which the UTP readers had encouraged me to expand upon). The book is both much richer and much more unified as a result of these final revisions, and I'm very proud of the final product.

    I enjoyed the process of selecting an image for the cover. The Assistant Editor contacted me to ask if I had any ideas about the cover, and although I hadn't given the matter much thought, I embarked on a quest for the ideal image. As it turned out, the Oedipus story has inspired many disturbing and memorable images; Francis Bacon and Max Ernst created some especially powerful modern takes. We ended up settling on Henry Fuseli's Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices in part because of the sheer dynamism of the image, and in part because the confrontation it depicts reflects the antagonism suggested in the title of my book. The final design for the cover is very effective, in my opinion, though I'm no doubt rather biased on this subject, since I have been told that the basic idea stems directly from a suggestion I made to Richard Ratzlaff about featuring the words "Oedipus" and "Freud" in prominent juxtaposition to each other, with the unexpected addition of "Against." I love the newspaper column-like effect achieved by the designers' take on my unrefined idea, and the idea of putting "Against" in a red box was brilliant, in my view.

    So as you can see, UTP couldn't very well have a more enthusiastic author than me, though I think my positive attitude is warranted: they successfully shepherded my manuscript through a long but salutary process of readings and revisions, and have produced a fantastic-looking book. Although the glimmerings of my next book-length scholarly project are as yet very faint, my experience working with Richard Ratzlaff et al has motivated me to try and find ways of shaping my raw materials and ideas into a form which might be worthy of UTP's attention sometime in the coming years.

    -Bradley Buchanan

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