I’ve been thinking a lot lately about books as material instantiations of negotiated interests. That’s the short version, of course, but it’ll do for now. I’ve been especially interested in how specific interests (like readers, authors, publishers, genre expectations, etc) affect a book’s physical form.
This morning, I ran across this blog entry from Charles Stross. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. What it lacks in documentation and research, it more than makes up for in clarity and first-hand author experience. His reflections and speculations range from the historical impact of supermarket wire racks, to differences between binding conventions (hardcover/softcover) in the US and the UK, to reading habits related to plot structure. Stross overtly and explicitly reminds his readers that his entry is only intended to apply directly to fantasy and/or sci-fi fiction. Here’s a quotation that represents the entry pretty well:
The mass market for paperbacks prior to 1991 was dominated by wholesalers who supplied retail stores — not bookshops, but local supermarkets with wire-mesh book racks. The wholesalers knew their markets intimately, and would match mass-market titles to the supermarket customers on the basis of their clientelle — SF/F was popular near technical schools, for example. When the inflation of the 1970s and 1980s forced publishers to raise their cover prices, the distributors pushed back and demanded that if the product cost more, it had to be bigger — not taller or wider, else it wouldn’t fit the racks, but fatter.
But as I read it, I kept wondering how his piece might inform my own understanding about the length of scholarly texts. I’m specifically thinking about journal articles, edited collections, and scholarly monographs in the humanities (most interested in Rhetoric and Composition Scholarship, though). Why do scholarly articles in CCC or College English or JAC tend to run to about 17-25 pages? Is it attention span? Is it a certain number of rhetorical moves necessary (minimally, anyway) to make an argument in our discipline? At first, the possibilities are really wide open to speculation.
One thing I don’t think is a major factor is the cost of printing. This is likely a huge factor when it comes to edited collections and monographs, but it seems less important to article length. For instance, if a journal issue is going to run to 175 pages, and there’s room, in theory, for an article of 150 pages, or two articles of seventy and eighty pages. Or seven of twenty pages each. So where does the 20-25 page number come from? I don’t have an answer. (Do I ever?) But I would like to introduce a relatively non-material concept into this reflection.
I’ve heard Cindy Selfe often mention the idea of a text’s “specific gravity.” Usually, she mentions it in response to a question about the length of a digital text. How long should digital texts be? Even the phrasing of the question reveals its inadequacy. Length is a measurement relating to a linear text. One of the huge advantages of digital texts over print texts, though, is that digital tools make possible non-linear arguments in ways that that print can’t possibly offer.
So what is this specific gravity? I haven’t found anything about it in print (and I’ve been poking around for a while), but I think I’m getting a working definition together for myself. As someone who purports to think about and produce digital texts, I have to really stay mindful of… well, basically… when to stop.
There are all sorts of factors to consider with this question, and just as many pitfalls to considering any of them in a specific way. For instance, the twenty-five page article I mentioned earlier. What does length actually have to do with the content? It is certainly possible to an article to run for thirty pages and still have little value. Absolutely. But is it possible for an article to run for ten pages and offer something of substantial value? There are so many subjective factors. What’s value? What’s substantial? To whom? Over what period of time?
My sense is that scholars, editors, and readers all have an intuitive sense about their own answers to these questions. Is this a good thing? Yes and no. In one sense, it’s a lot better than some alternatives. Who’s going to define “substantial” or “scholarly value”? How are we going to agree? What forms will be demanded for scholarship, and which will be excluded? These sorts of questions suggest to me that I hope we don’t answer them. There’s a part of me that is thankful for the flexibility and variety currently inherent in humanities scholarship. But it’s a mess, too. Not good for the OCD part of my brain. Nope. Think hiring practices. Tenure and promotion guidelines. Contract negotiation. Scholarly accountability within a tenure system. So messy!
And I think the worst part about this mess is the way that it affects graduate students and scholars new to the field. How are students supposed to know this stuff? I guess we’re not really supposed to know. We’re student, after all. We’re here to learn it. But how? Where are the guidelines for scholarly participation? “Don’t send an article to a journal unless you…” or “You know your article is complete when…” These sorts of statements just don’t seem to make any sense.
And I’m glad about that. I’m not usually all that fond of aphorisms (unless they’re folksy!), but I do believe this one: knew types of knowledge require new textual forms. Some projects require 400 pages (yay, Bourdieu!) and some require only a few pages (woohoo, Benjamin!). Some are best suited to print and others are best suited to certain digital tools.
But this still doesn’t get at the question about when a text is done. Or when what it accomplishes is “substantial. Or if it’s specific gravity is high enough. And that’s where I want to end today’s post. Hanging on the term “specific gravity.” I’ll return to it in my next entry.
(image: “speed reading” courtesy of pfig’s Flickr page, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license) (another thanks to Alan Jacobs at Text Patters, for pointing to Stross’s entry)