Erica Rand on Lauren Berlant’s New Book

Following Lauren Berlant’s death last summer, Erica Rand agreed to shepherd Berlant’s new book On the Inconvenience of Other People to publication. In today’s guest post Rand describes that experience and introduces the book.
Cover of On the Inconvenience of Other People by Lauren Berlant. Bright pink cover features a painted picture of the face of a black cat with one green eye open.

Today Lauren Berlant’s book On The Inconvenience of Other People is out. It appears in the series Writing Matters!, founded in 2019 by Lauren, Saidiya Hartman, Katie Stewart, and me. I’m writing to tell you a bit about the book. Not what it’s about: I invite you to encounter the book for yourself, in your own way and time. Instead, I want to share with you some things I did and learned as I helped move Inconvenience from the completed manuscript—which Lauren submitted, soon before they passed, in June 2021—to the book in print. I took on this project both as a Writing Matters! co-editor and as a close friend, two interdependent roles I mark through the use of “Lauren” and the pronouns “they/them.” Neither corresponds to one of those roles, or to a personal vs. professional relationship; I mean to sidestep the narrative that presents Lauren’s pronouns as an index of intimacy. 

As I indicate in Inconvenience’s “Note to the Reader,” I did the tasks ordinarily performed by a book’s author during the production phase. I reviewed the copyedited manuscript, responding to suggested changes and corrections, and checked the page proofs. I wrote material for the marketing department to work with—much helped by abstracts that Lauren had submitted—and interacted with people at or outside the press as they needed or wanted me and as I needed or wanted them.

My description of the process might be dispassionate, but my experience of it was anything but. Sometimes it was heart-swelling and heart-breaking at once, especially when I encountered lines I could conjure Lauren saying aloud. Like this comment on the common or commons: “The concept is so overloaded you might think that it’s empty, but you’d be wrong.” I could hear a pause after the comma, slightly longer than what a comma versus a period would suggest, then a slight shift. The second part might sound a bit quip-like, maybe with a slightly deepened or higher voice at the end, then a deliberate two-syllable laugh sound, a visible twinkle, a smile with closed lips. 

Then there was the anxiety of copyedits, which I had foolishly expected to be easier to handle than copyedits on my own work. Ordinarily, I respond to copyedits with a mix of deep, articulated gratitude and would-be savvy, treating my responses to proposed changes as components of an invented bargaining relationship. I imagine, for example, that maybe I can keep my beloved “and/or” if I give up some parentheses I liked, or that if I give up “and/or” without a fuss, maybe my desire/desperation to change “butch-femme” back to “butch/femme” will not read as dubious attachment to a slash mark. I have no evidence that anyone evaluating my responses ever thought they were in any such relationship with me, although my perception is hardly unique. When I used the term “invented” in sharing my progress on this blog post with my writing accountability group, everyone protested: No, no, that’s really how it happens! You give some, you get some, especially if you are polite. Say please and thank you. You don’t want to seem like—or be!—that writer who rejects every suggestion.

With Inconvenience, I planned to proceed differently. I certainly wouldn’t bargain away anything I thought Lauren wanted, and I knew that no editor involved wanted me to. We had a mutual, explicit goal: to produce the book that Lauren wanted, lightly edited so as to be as close as possible to the manuscript they submitted. I anticipated that I would primarily be approving obvious changes—deleting an extra space between “of” and “the,” following Duke style about using “19th” or “nineteenth,” fixing a few unintended ambiguities, relocating a stray comma.

I was wrong. Even seemingly small decisions were often far from smooth sailing. For example, the Duke style guide rejects amidst for amid. Me, too. I find amidst needlessly elongated, like cohabitate, and weirdly archaic or up-classing, although I know it’s become more widespread than back when it began mysteriously to appear in my students’ papers, where I thought it represented an attempt to signal academic seriousness or, more interesting, a migrated convention from some time-traveling pop culture I kept trying to ferret out. Lauren’s manuscript, to my surprise, had amidst several times. I had to decide whether their usage was significant or fine to change. Since I couldn’t distinguish amidst’s contexts from the more frequent uses of amid. I went with the latter.

And what ambiguities were, indeed, unintended?  The copyeditor flagged “Paul leans on the old mattress on the wall” in Last Tango in Paris. The mattress, not Paul, was touching the wall, correct? If so, how about “propped against the wall,” more clear in referent? Sure, why not? Lauren was setting the stage. What about “this clash between wanting to be disturbed in sex and yet simpler in pleasure”? Could I clarify that? I thought I could, but every tweak I tried involved a lot of words and seemed like a gloss—too much of my interpretation.

Plus, I always kept in mind a conversation between me and Lauren early in 2021 after I read the almost penultimate draft of Inconvenience. I asked if they might spell out what they mean by writing through a series of “assays” and “in a parenthetical voice,” two key experimental aspects of the book.  OK, they said, and/but: “Here’s the difference between your writing and mine. When you anticipate the reader stumbling over something, you try to smooth it out. I don’t.”

I rarely needed that reminder to check myself. It functioned usually as an affectionate “that’s Lauren” when I came across a paragraph-length sentence that in a draft of mine might have turned into seven. The comment nagged at me most for small decisions, such as one involving this sentence:

Think of the clumsy physicality sex induces, in the body, the voice, and the face; the confusions and resignations of knowledge even in a scene of delight; the small and large breakdowns of concentration and confidence all throughout any episode, and the work of quieting that down so things can proceed.

The copy editor wanted to change “quieting that down” to “quieting those down.” Hmm. Did Lauren want to designate that the breakdowns added up to one big breakdown-to-be-quieted? In that case, keep that. Did they mean to convey quieting all of that down or want readers to decide what to agglomerate? Then this or those could work. Maybe they had barely thought about it. I finally decided “those” could accommodate “that” and left the correction. Even in anti-bargainer mode, I didn’t want to reject every suggestion. I didn’t think Lauren would want to be that writer either. I did, however, restore a comma after “induces.” Lauren sometimes used commas for rhythm, pause, or speed-up. I tried to listen for those.

I used that last example partly to entice you. Once you’ve read that gorgeous, super-smart characterization of sex, can you really bear to miss anything else? The pleasures of the text are many. So, too, were the pleasures of the process, including the chance to notice habits that I would not have recognized apart from this triangulated relationship with copyediting. For example, Lauren started many sentences “There is” or “There are,” establishing the very existence of something as part of writing about it. They also used terms, such as suicidiation, that are still heading toward Merriam-Webster, and various departures from standard usage: terms or metaphors, including Teflon, portmanteau, and laser, in ways that seemed, only at first, a bit to the side of working; a few words re-tensed or combined to function more usefully, such as beyonding or democracy-under-capitalism. None of that, maybe, is a big deal. But discerning habits as I went along felt like an unanticipated gift of new intimacies unfolding between us. Once I discerned habits I usually worked to uphold them. One exception concerns meticulous guidance in the copyediting away from subtly ableist language. I thought that Lauren would have welcomed, for example, being nudged toward alternatives to “see” as a way to convey recognize, understand, or notice. I now scrutinize my own writing accordingly, too.

That guidance is one of countless labors of editing, design, consultation, and love that went into the production of Inconvenience. Thank you Susan Albury, Andrea Klinger, Aimee Harrison, Scott Smiley, Laurie Shannon, Katie Stewart, and Courtney Berger.

As for the book itself, while I told you that I wouldn’t describe what it’s about, I leave you with Lauren’s summary at the end of the preface. I know it will grab you:  

Looking at sex, democracy, and the desire for life in a better world than the one that exists, the entire book tries narrating from the granular ordinary ways to lose, unlearn, and loosen the objects and structures that otherwise seem intractable. How not to reproduce the embedded violence of the unequal ordinary? People say, “You got this!” “We can do this!” But it’s more like, “Once you let in the deaths, all that follows is life.” A thing to be used.

Erica Rand is Professor of Art and Visual Culture and of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bates College. She is the author of, most recently, The Small Book of Hip Checks: On Queer Gender, Race, and Writing. On the Inconvenience of Other People is available for 30% off on our website with coupon E22BRLNT.

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