On Second Book-Writing

 

 

Today we are happy to present a guest blog post from Duke University Press author Nick Salvato, who is Associate Professor and Chair of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University, and the author of Uncloseting Drama: American Modernism and Queer Performance, and our recent book Obstruction. Here, Salvato discusses the privileges and un-obstruction of second book-writing.

obstructionLast year, colleagues at Williams College, participating in a reading group on affect theory, invited me to share material from my then-forthcoming book Obstruction, which has since been published by Duke University Press. As expected, we discussed affect, its relationship to sensation and intellection, and the role of each of these key terms in my book project. What I did not expect, but was grateful to have an opportunity to consider with smart fellow travelers in the humanities, was how to respond to an invitation posed by one of the reading group’s organizing members, who said pointedly, “We need to talk about the fact that this is a second book—and that it couldn’t be a first book.”

Let me zoom out from that splendid provocation and offer a context in which to situate it. Obstruction is not only a specimen of scholarly writing but also a book about scholarly writing. It takes up the experiential stuff of everyday academic life that we suppose to be bad for projects like book-writing—embarrassment, laziness, slowness, cynicism, digressiveness—and turns each of these phenomena on its ear in order to disclose its unexpected, paradoxical value. Neither naively embracing the productivity demanded of professors in the corporatized, neoliberal university nor proposing an abandonment or supersession of work, Obstruction walks a fine line by asking its readers to acknowledge negative or impedimental conditions precisely as impediments, yet at the same time to generate out of them some things of promise or hope: whether as small as a sentence or a close reading of a cinematic scene or as large as an argument about contemporaneity and global capitalism.

So why couldn’t Obstruction have been a first book? A number of speculations were tested in the conversation at Williams. A scholar has to have traction in the profession, which the first book helps signally to provide, in order to write a meta-professional book in whose legitimacy anyone will invest. Authors of first books are not as likely to be encouraged by editors and peer reviewers to tackle big questions of potentially general interest (what exactly is embarrassment? why might cynicism not only be toxic? how could it be that a lot of hand-wringing over the ostensible speed and distraction associated with contemporary media is misplaced?). And readers may question the chops of a young scholar who tackles a very varied archive, as I do in Obstruction when I survey popular music, experimental theatre, independent film, cable television, and journalistic blogging; the first book is expected to establish one’s narrower bona fides as, say, a theatre historian or a media theorist—certainly not as both, at once.

In other words, it is an extraordinary privilege to expect to be taken seriously in writing reflexively about writing, in supposing that the reach of one’s work may surpass disciplinary specialization, in aiming to demonstrate that one can rigorously interpret many different kinds of objects—let alone to do all three under one cover. But there is a further matter of what we could variously call authorial persona, voice, or style that I would be remiss not to address as well in trying to understand the second bookishness of Obstruction. Trusting the basic stability and credibility of my voice (it took in part having written the first book to enjoy such confidence), I wanted to see what would happen if I stretched it in various ways: risking more confessional asides, more sly humor, denser clauses, stranger lexicons. And, it will at this point be little surprise, the best models I identified for such writerly experimentation came in many instances from the second books of some of my favorite scholars: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings, to name a few. A certain boldness and eccentricity, which is also to say a certain difficulty, is a luxury to which second book writers may find that they will have greater access, permission, or indulgence.

But does it have to be thus? Why do various forms of professional gate-keeping and policing, including but by no means beginning or ending with self-policing, make some scholarly moves ones that I mark here as forms of privilege or luxury? In chewing on that question, I have been thinking a lot about a passage from Sedgwick’s 1993 essay, “Queer and Now,” which I quote in one of Obstruction’s longer, more discursive footnotes but which ought to be shared more emphatically, hence its reinvocation here: “It is not a simple fact…for the facilities of creativity and thought to represent rare or exorbitant privilege. Their economy should not and need not be one of scarcity.” I could not agree more with Sedgwick’s still-timely assertion and the alternative intellectual economy, one opposed to scarcity, toward which she gestures obliquely. How to make such an alternative economy obtain is a question for which Sedgwick did not, in “Queer and Now,” have a direct answer. And I am not sure that I feel any closer to one in turn.

Or at least not to a systematic one. I can inhabit, and imagine many others inhabiting, and imagine advocating that many others should inhabit, a consistent position of critical generosity and indeed expansiveness when advising junior colleagues how to think about what forms and terms are possible for their work—and especially when evaluating that work. But that position, however consistently adopted, feels nonetheless too nonce and incremental to me. A more radical, wholesale reorientation of our scholarly expectations and norms, pushing our more vulnerable writers past the current can’ts and shouldn’ts, is a goal for whose realization I am impatient. I don’t want to wait for the authority conferred on the third book, or on any individually written book at all, to help make more wholly un-obstructed who ventures to write beyond the rules.

You can order Obstruction from your favorite local or online bookstore (print and e-editions available) or order directly from Duke University Press. Use coupon code E16NSALV  to save 30%.

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