“Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait. “
— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
There is a point in most social gatherings where the discussion veers onto the topic of what you do. In liminal places like the inside of a cab, that point of the conversation might arrive quite early. At a party, it might arrive when richer and less personal topics have run dry. My explanation is always, “I work in publishing”. The next question is usually, “oh, what kind?” And then I say “I’m an editor at an academic publishing house.” Then, there is a little pause, while a person fashions or readjusts their expectations. Here is how it should have gone, in their mind. “I’m an editor”, I say. “Oh, really, what house?”. “I work in trade at Faber. I commission novels.” We both smile. Then we could proceed to talk about what they have read recently, which classic novels really deserve to be in the canon, if such a concept even exists, and also, have I commissioned a book they’ve read? Do I spent all my evenings at parties? Do I know Ian McKewan or Will Self? More champagne?
Well, no. I’ve met both of them, it is true: but in passing. I work in academic publishing and I commission in linguistics. Explaining the mechanics of a complicated and varied academic list takes time, and effort, and a knowledge of the UK and worldwide higher education market. And so I take the easy route out, especially with members of my family where we could easily re-route the topic to which cousin turned up drunk at which wedding. “I publish textbooks,” I say. And we move on.
I work in academic publishing though because it is something that I believe in, and something that I think has intrinsic value and worth to society. In a world of ephemera and conspicuous consumption, 80,000 words on a difficult to grasp yet important and salient theoretical point is something that I can get behind. A (good) introductory textbook is something I believe in. And hence the Whitman quote, which I (hope) illustrates that I attend each conference, pick up each phone call and answer each email with a renewed optimism that there will be dialogue, engagement and mutual enrichment. It is of course slightly tongue in cheek – I have at various conferences also ‘sweated through a fog of linguists and contenders’ with more than a passing dread of the next revised PhD proposal. But I have no mocking or arguments. Like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, like the American transcendental, we’re aiming to be the impartial observers and manipulators. One must have been in academic publishing a long time, to understand the A-head, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens. More than just ‘handing content’, I’d like to be there for authors as a person to go to talk through ideas, prose, wording of phrases. In a hurried world where there is always another book to commission, it is nice to have coffee and talk about the progress of a difficult work. And so, a 101 – an introduction – YOUR introduction – to being an academic editor, for those reading this blog. I’ll write the next chapter on proposals, maybe.
Send me an email, call me up – about your own writing plans, your dreams and aspirations. Not everything will be REF-able, or fit into a core text. But the next “Syntactic Structures” is out there and it could have your name against it, if only we preserve the dialogue and stop feeling as if because the work we do is more difficult to grasp than the concept of publishing bestselling fiction novels, that it only deserves to be discussed in 10pt Arial within the confines of an Outlook server. Let us release the concept into the social spheres that it draws its data from, linguists/contenders…