A Brief Inquiry Into the Paradoxes of Academic Achievement

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)When I started writing what was then a biography of Crockett Johnson (back in the late 1990s), I thought: When I finish this, I really will have achieved something. Even as I wrote other books, I continued to think of the biography — which became a double biography of Johnson and Krauss — as The Big Achievement. Sure, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (my third book, published 2004) was OK, and, yes, the media attention it received was certainly flattering. But the biography would be the Truly Important Work.

So, you might (or might not) be asking: (1) Why make this distinction between the biography and my other work? (2) Do I still make this distinction? (3) And, now that the biography is published, does it feel as “Truly Important” as I thought it would?

1. Why make this distinction?

The degree of original research required far surpassed that needed for my other books. I interviewed over 80 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books. I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, and Johnson’s FBI file. If I hadn’t gathered (some of) this information, it would be lost forever. Coping with the mortality of one’s sources is a big challenge for the biographer. Maurice Sendak, Remy Charlip, Syd Hoff, Mischa Richter, Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), Mary Elting Folsom (author who knew Johnson in the 1930s), Gene Searchinger (filmmaker who knew them both), and so many others taught me much about Johnson and Krauss. They have since passed away. If I hadn’t recorded their stories, that information would be gone.

The biography has been more challenging than any other project I’ve tackled, bar none. As I’ve observed before (probably on this blog, and certainly in the talk I gave last month at the New York Public Library), a biography is a jigsaw puzzle, but this puzzle has no box, missing pieces, and no sense of how many pieces you’ll need. There are also the challenges of creating character, knowing which details to omit, and finding a narrative structure. Life has no narrative, but biography has to have a narrative. I have no training in creative writing, but — for this book — I had to try to think like a creative writer.

In sum, there are reasons that a biography takes so long to write….

2. Do I still make this distinction?

Dr. Seuss: American IconSort of. The distinction reflects a tendency to devalue the discipline in which I was trained — the sense that Dr. Seuss: American Icon, though it does draw on considerable original research, is ultimately “just interpreting texts.” In contrast, rigorous historical research, actually uncovering new information, is much more important work. But I say “sort of” because of course there are truly insightful ways of interpreting texts, illuminating formal strategies, transformative critical approaches — Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is one such book. It’s a paradigm-shifter. As I’ve noted before, I don’t have the kind of mind that writes a paradigm-shifting book.

My strength is that I work hard. A biography plays to that particular strength — and perhaps this is one reason that it interests me. It interests me for other reasons, too (the “detective work” part, for example). But it is one intellectual arena where I can do something well: work really hard. Superior intelligence may elude me, but I can put in the hours! So, in some ways I still make the distinction (the amount of research, the box-less puzzle, etc.), but in other ways I do not.

3. Now that it’s published, does it feel like such a Big Achievement?

The response (mostly positive) has been a good feeling. In addition to nice reviews from Anita Silvey, Roger Sutton, Maria Tatar, Kirkus, and the Wall Street Journal, other Notable People Whose Work I Admire have been very complimentary. With apologies for the name-dropping, those people include Chris Ware (who also created the beautiful cover), Dan Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik, Lane Smith, Susan Hirschman, George Nicholson, and Michael Patrick Hearn. Given that Maurice Sendak even responded positively to an early, detail-clogged, incomplete draft, it is of course possible that these folks are simply being kind, and forgiving the book’s many infelicities (as I expect Maurice was). But I’m accepting their kind assessments as genuine because, well, it makes me happy to do so!

That said, as I’ve documented on this blog, the editing process was not entirely harmonious. Some cuts were good ones; others were not. My copy-editor was an historian by training; I needed a writer of fiction. My changes to her edits resulted in some errors, including (as one audience member pointed out at the NYPL last month) a typo in the first sentence. The press refused to change some errors I found in the page proofs (though it did change others). The paperback is priced not at $27, as I had originally been told it would be, but at $40 — this makes it harder to schedule signings because who buys a $40 paperback? These problems make me not want to think about the book at all.

I realize that I should let this go. Publishers introduce errors into manuscripts. Bureaucracies do not always function smoothly. Humans are prone to error, fatigue, and failures of judgment.

Fortunately, despite my irritations, the book does feel like an achievement. Given how long it took to write (I started in 1999), it is thus far my life’s work. It is a big deal.

But there is little time to dwell upon one’s achievements. There are new projects (such as The Complete Barnaby, volume 1 of which is due out early next year), tenure-and-promotion letters to write, letters of recommendation to write, (other people’s) book proposals to review and manuscript to edit, (my) conference abstracts to create and talks to write, planes to catch, meetings to attend, syllabi to revise, syllabi to invent, papers to grade, classes to teach, students to meet. Being an academic is a great job, the work is rewarding, and I feel privileged to do it — even though I rarely have the time to notice those rewards or recognize that privilege. It’s one of the paradoxes of being a professor.

5 Comments »

  1. Charles Hatfield Said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

    Good to read this, Phil. I empathize in certain ways. But I bet you ain’t done with major achievements. Not at all.

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

    Thanks, Charles. Suspecting that the post might be more than a little self-indulgent, I sat on it for a few weeks, before deciding to revise & post it. Glad to learn that that (self-indulgent though it surely is) it resonated with you.

  3. Joseph Thomas Said,

    November 25, 2012 @ 3:04 am

    I certainly understand what you’re saying, Phil. And, man, that typo: that’s got to hurt. But you finished the thing, and I’m sure you have some material from the research that deserves to be shared, even if it didn’t fit into the book. Don’t let all that cut material go. It’s the result of a lot of hard work, and there are many scholars – and fans – (but certainly scholars) who would benefit from work.

    Congrats on the book. The vagaries of publishing are frustrating – and I understand (I think) what you’re implying about that 40 buck price point (namely, if it’s already 40 bucks, why not fatten it up, include more of the groovy details you felt you needed to cut but maybe didn’t want to cut, and produce a fat doorstop of a bio they can charge 60 bucks for), but when many scholarly books are 90 to 100 bucks, 40 really isn’t too bad a cost.

    And I’m with Charlie: you’re not done with the major achievements. You can count on your friends and colleagues to pester you about your Next Big Thing. We’ll keep the pressure on you.

    Much love,
    J

  4. Philip Nel Said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 12:47 am

    Thanks, Joseph. I feel also that I should say here that I didn’t intend this post as a cry for help. (Perhaps my intial impulse not to post this was the one I should have followed. Hmmm.) I’ve several projects under way, none of which should take me a dozen years (I hope!) but all of which I’m excited about. Next out of the gate will be The Complete Barnaby Volume 1, which looks fantastic — I’ll have a definite release date on that as soon as we get the final cover art from Daniel Clowes. (His design of the book’s interior is beautiful. Can’t wait for people to see it!)

    I should also say here that some of the cuts (to the bio) that I was advised to make were necessary ones. It would have otherwise been too bloated with detail. But other changes — such as the introduction of passive voice (more common in history texts) or the removal of the new paragraph for each new speaker (in a conversation) — were, to put it simply, bad. So, the editing experience was mixed. Some definite improvements, and other changes that were not. My mixed feelings about the book derive, in part, from a mixed experience.

    However, the good news here is that most readers’ responses to the book have been positive. They see more merits than demerits, and that’s a good thing. Another piece of good news is (as I’ve noted previously on this blog) is that I have the Fantagraphics Barnaby volumes (5 in all!) in which to share some of the information that got cut. So, I’m not done with Crockett Johnson yet!

  5. Joseph Thomas Said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    Of course we know you weren’t crying for help. Still: I at least like a little positive encouragement, and in this business, it’s all too rare. And though what Charlie and I wrote above should go without saying, I know I like saying what should go without saying. Namely: you do good work and lots of folks – myself included – are looking forward to new stuff with your name in the by-line.

    One more thing: you’re a sweetheart to give in on the passive/active voice thing. I wouldn’t have been able to. But since so much of my work is a kind of con depending on a cheeky yet somewhat seductive and all-too-informal narrative voice, writing in passive voice would utterly kill my writing style. My style is not for everyone (one of my peer reviewers for the Shel essay the Quarterly published last year – the one with the long, long title – complained vociferously about the style and the authoring “I” which s/he HATED), but when I submitted the thing, I told Kate that I’d do just about anything the peer reviewers asked me to do to make the essay better BUT change the style. Luckily, 1) she agreed to that stipulation, 2) the other two reviewers dug it, and 3) she told me to ignore the less-than-excited reviewer (who’s suggestion was, basically, “Boring the thing up a bit!”)

    I dig your more personal style – the atmosphere you produce so effectively in your talks – and hope that next time you fight, fight, fight for that I! Despite your self-effacing “I’m not a creative writer” talk, all good writing is creative. And you have a convivial, easy, and compelling authorial voice when you give yourself the freedom to stretch out a bit. (And yes, I realize that just as your blog wasn’t a cry for help, it damned sure wasn’t a cry for writing advice. But how else am I going to avoid the work I desperately need to do tonight if I resist weighing in on matters I have no business weighing in on? There’s only so much Twittering and Facebooking a boy can do!)

    And with that: thanks for all the great work, man. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: you’re an inspiration. An intimidating inspiration, but an inspiration nonetheless.

    Much love,
    J

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