January 2012

An Editor’s Dating Advice

A new Ph.D. writes,

So here’s the question: My dissertation was on [a literary topic], so how do I even start the process [of turning it into a book]?
Try to remember why you were ever interested in this topic. (Since for years it has been the bane of your existence, you may find that a difficult task.) Then reread your manuscript, always asking yourself, “Would this hold my interest if I were not a college professor?” Conduct this exercise while holding a pen with bright red ink and a wide nib. You will be told not to use such implements on student essays, since you might damage your charges’ delicate psyches, but you needed worry about that with your own work: you’ve been to graduate school, so your psyche can be assumed to have been damaged beyond repair.

Ruthlessly cut everything that strikes your “common reader” alter ego as boring. Kill the references to scholars and theorists you put in only to show that you really had read them. Cut the nouns doing the work of verbs. In fact, cut any noun you cannot imagine the owner of an independent bookstore using over a cup of the espresso he sells because he can’t turn a profit on books. My guess is that he doesn’t pepper his conversation with alterity, herteronormativity, subaltern discourses, and post-post-modernist. Say whatever you want, but say it as a person talking to other people, not as a member of a lodge using some dorky lingo like a secret handshake. 

Once you have translated your work into something like English, read it out loud to your girlfriend, as long as she isn’t a fellow Ph.D. This exercise will have two immediate effects: First, you will break up. That is just as well: you can’t afford a steady girlfriend until you have tenure. Second, you will realize that your prose is still not fit to be let out in public. Mark every sentence you are embarrassed to hear passing your lips. (If you are past the point of being embarrassed to discover that you sound like a pseud, a pedant, or a victim of brainwashing, give up teaching and sign up for a stint in the army or the peace corps and don’t come home until you learn to recognize b.s. when you hear it.) Revise or cut those sentences. Then ask her what your point was. (She’ll feel guilty that she’s decided to dump you, so she’ll try to be helpful.) If you don’t recognize your point from her description of it, try to sell the MS to Peter Lang as is, count on nobody reading it if they take it, and start from scratch, trying to explain to the common reader why you were ever excited about some marks on a ream of paper or a bunch of grown men and women playacting on a stage or in front of a camera. Do not think of proceeding with this project until you have created a first paragraph that you can use as an "elevator pitch.” In fact, don’t go on until you have a first paragraph that makes you sound charming on your next first date. Once you’re happy with that paragraph—i.e., have got a second date—carry on and try to write more that appeals to real human beings. Just remember: editors have read plenty of student papers and don’t want to read any more of them. But we always like to be charmed. Treat us as if you know you have to earn our attention and will be lucky to get it. We all have cab fare and freezers stocked with cookie dough ice cream, so make an effort to please. We’re not going to sit though pages of tedium just to be polite.

Should a Composer Know How to Scan?

I have just heard John Adams’s piece “Harmonium” at the St. Louis Symphony. It is a lovely piece, and the Symphony and Chorus did a wonderful job with it. It sets three poems, Donne’s “Negative Love,” and Dickinson’s “Because I Would Not Stop for Death” and “Wild Nights.” It was a pleasure to hear “Because I Could Not Stop” sung to a tune that had nothing in common with “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” But the setting of the Donne bothered me.

That was not because the music didn’t capture the tone, spirit, or meaning of the poem. I thought this setting was an interesting interpretation of a knotty piece. What bothered me was that Adams didn’t get the meter right.

Here is the first stanza:

I never stoop’d so low, as they
Which on an eye, cheek, lip, can prey ;
    Seldom to them which soar no higher
    Than virtue, or the mind to admire.
For sense and understanding may
    Know what gives fuel to their fire ;
My love, though silly, is more brave ;
For may I miss, whene’er I crave,
If I know yet what I would have.

The poem is clearly in iambic tetrameter: eight syllables per line, every second one stressed (with expressive variations). To read the poem so that it makes metrical sense, there are two points were the reader cannot read it as a modern reader of prose would.

The first is in line four. For the meter to work, “to admire” must be pronounced as two syllables “t’ad-mire,” not three (“to ad-mire”) much less four (to ad-mi-re.) Adams sets it as three.

The second is two lines later. For the meter to work, “fuel” must be pronounced as one syllable, not two (“fyewl,” not “few-el”). Adams sets it as two.

Does this matter? Not much. But saddens me just a bit to see the composer ignoring the poet’s music and not hearing the poem’s rhythm.

A Simple Solution to the Problems in College Sports

The problem is the pretense that athletes in big-time college programs are students. They are not. They don’t have time to be.

The most honest thing to do would be to spin off the teams from the universities. Let the schools own them as investments if they want to, but make them independent, for-profit corporations and treat them and all their employees like other corporations and employees. Let the staff--the players—demand as much as the market will bear, just as their coaches do. And don’t impose on them requirements irrelevant to their jobs, such as pretending to interested in going to class. Those players who want college educations will get them, just as other working students do. Those with no interest in college education will not have to feign it, and colleges will not have to pretend people who don’t meet their admissions standards are fit to be students.

Stanford doesn’t pretend that the people working at the shopping mall it owns are students; why does it have to pretend that the people working on its football team are?