The Book’s Story

Dave asked how long the book is and I thought I’d take that question and spin it into something more: the story of how the book came to be. It’s a long story—especially for such a short book (the manuscript, including everything, came to just over 300 double-spaced pages; I’m guessing that, without footnotes, it’s around 80,000 words)—but I’ll try not to dilate too much.

I finished my dissertation in 1994: a study of Woolf’s essays, it had no argument and I set it aside to rest for a bit while I tried to figure out how to proceed. At the time, I had a sweet teaching gig, non-tenure track, so I used the four years I was in that job to explore. I wrote book reviews, an article (never published) on theories of the essay, a long piece on D. H. Lawrence’s exasperating psychology books (published much later), and an odd essay on the connection I saw between Frances Yates’ 1966 The Art of Memory and the way Virginia Woolf described the British Library Reading Room. I met my husband and got a job in Indiana—pretty much on the same day—and we moved to the Midwest together in 1998.

In 1998, on a fateful drive from Chicago down to our Indiana apartment, my then-fiancé asked me if I thought, now that I was under pressure to produce a book under some time constraints (with a tenure-track job and a publish or perish mandate), I could expand the idea of the Renaissance essay into a book. Sure, I said, without hesitation, you’d have to do something with Greek literature, and probably something on the 18th century, and I’d like to do something with Romanticism since I love that. I’d skip the Victorian era since that’s been done. It all just came tumbling out of my mouth and that was the book.

At a conference, Julia Briggs told me that, if I was going to do Woolf & Romanticism, I had to do Byron. She just said it like that, with her own special kindness and also with a very English definiteness. I could do no more than agree.

In 1999, my memory essay was published in a volume of essays on Woolf and the Renaissance and, when the reviews came in, those that noted my contribution at all, noted that it was strange: why was I comparing Woolf to a mnemonist, Giordano Bruno, whom she’d never read. Hmm. I thought: an apt question. Now, the chapter that I’d thought of as the kernel was suspect and my confidence was a bit shaken.

We moved to another school in Indiana in 2000 where we could both have jobs. I estimate that each job change costs me a year in writing. When you factor in the fall spent getting ready for MLA interviews, the ruined Christmas break doing MLA interviews, the January spent flying back for campus visits and the summer moving, pretty much all your “extra” time as an academic has gone to the job hunt, not to progressing on the book.

Still, I kept writing. Then, all of a sudden, it was time to send out queries to publishers. In spite of fleeting fantasies about Harvard randomly deigning to publish my first book or a lovely, hip book from Columbia, when I was honest with myself, I knew from the start that the best-case scenario would be Palgrave or Cambridge. As prestigious as Cambridge is, they are also publishing a lot of Woolf books these days. I sent out twenty-some query letters and received eighteen or so nos. The only presses that asked for more information? Palgrave and Cambridge. I went with Palgrave because I think they publish less scholarly, less thoroughly rigorous and more adventurous, more reader friendly academic books. Much as I admire and envy those Cambridge books, I’m just not that kind of scholar—or not now.

Still, it’s hard. All summer as I was revising, I’d read and I would think to myself that my manuscript somehow wasn’t turgid enough. Turgid. That’s the word I was using in my head and it sounded the same to me as I imagine it does to you: blech! So, each time I began to doubt my own voice, I would hear that word, turgid, and remind myself that I was writing my book, not a generic monograph. It’s an eccentric book: a scholarly book but one that could not be predicted by others. That’s what terrifies me about it and that’s what I like about it, too. It may be weird. It is esoteric. But I don’t think it’s turgid.

So, that’s the story.