by Steven Weiland (Professor, Department of Educational Administration, Michigan State University)
Written by Steven Weiland based on a written response from Marina van Zuylen, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Bard College on September 25, 2020.
Marina van Zuylen is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York. She is the author of Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Life in Literature and Art (Cornell University Press, 2005) and The Plenitude of Distraction a short book published in 2018 by the Sequence Press (NY) a specialized press that deals with philosophy and the arts and is distributed by the MIT Press. She is now writing Good Enough, a short book about the unsung virtues of classical and modern mediocrity.
For van Zuylen, the academic book can be a sign of professional habit. “The long book certainly satisfies our puritanical work ethic. The pride of holding a huge tome is certainly not there when carrying a short book between your thumb and your index finger.” Length can be confused with achievement. Van Zuylen speaks plainly about what many scholars appear to want: “Long books (at least for those who wrote them) can give a great sense of accomplishment. ‘I just finished a 500-page study on Jane Austen,’ one of my colleagues might say. Under the mask of modesty, you know that the person is thrilled by the heft!” Van Zuylen herself had a different goal in mind for The Plenitude of Distraction. “What inspired me to cut down a very long manuscript and turn it into less than one hundred pages is that I really wanted my students and friends to take pleasure in something that wouldn’t seem daunting at all. Considering that the subject was ‘distraction,’ it would have seemed a cruel joke to keep it at 400 pages. So, I lopped off 300 pages off and never regretted it.”
Being more concise in her writing was not easy. Van Zuylen believes what has been said about it being harder to write a short book than a long one. “I can’t even begin to tell you,” she says, “how much I revised, rewrote, cut, to produce a short book. Every line counts so much more if the book is under 100 pages.” Inevitably, perhaps, academic colleagues didn’t all appreciate the virtues of a short book: “Some of my friends were aghast that whole sections of the manuscript were tossed into the fire.” An analogy helps her to capture what she was after: “Aphorisms would also be very hard to write. Much harder. You can’t be heavy handed and certainly have no right to bore your reader when you write short books. If you are boring in an aphorism, then you better give up. I have written in defense of boredom, but I might have to revise my views when considering short books.”
Van Zuylen’s advice to those contemplating a short book follows from her experience. “I think you have to be ready for very hard work when you embark on something short and scholarly. I’m writing a book on mediocrity and even when it seems to flow, I am brutally severe with every line. I know that I’ll end up cutting out a large number of pages. I want to write another short book because one gets spoiled when people actually read your words and respond. I also want to write about serious, scholarly, even philosophical topics, but in a conversational way. Being serious and conversational at the same time is a real challenge. But also, it keeps you on your toes; it protects you from the urge to posture.” She adds a note about the rigor that goes into using resources when space is limited. “You can’t be facile when you write short books. You have to be rigorous. Each example or quote has to hit your reader in the heart.”
Of course, knowledge matters most in scholarly writing. But van Zuylen urges attention to the distinctive demands she faced. Writing a short book is an exercise in discipline. “I’m really feeling this right now, paring down many pages about mediocrity for what hopefully will become another short book. When I wrote The Plenitude of Distraction, I wanted to impart unfocused focus. And with The Good Enough Life, there are similar paradoxes that have to be resolved in the concision itself. It’s very stimulating.”
There are models for the kind of concise composition van Zuylen admires. “Montaigne is one of my all-time favorites. Even if The Essays end up being a long book, each essay can stand on its own. Many have been published separately, as lovely short books that you can put in your pocket and read on the bus.” Her new project presents familiar difficulties. “You can just imagine the challenges that come with writing about mediocrity — the mixture of self-doubt and self-congratulation — gloating about accepting a good enough life while being merciless about ‘good enough’ writing.” And there is the nature of the academic year to consider. “It’s hard for me to write during the semester, so when I go back to the book after a gap of a few months, I like to reread and re-edit from the beginning, change things, look at the text with fresh eyes, restructure.” The short book format helps. “If this were meant to be a long book, I couldn’t do that. So, there is an incredibly therapeutic pleasure going over paragraphs, adding, integrating new ideas. It feels so full of potential.”
Still, van Zuylen is skeptical about what some publishers and authors see in the digital potential for short books with “enhancements,” as they are sometimes called, via linked audio and video. “I don’t think one needs to include technology in these little jewels. In fact, it’s so wonderful to just grab one (they are cheap) and immerse yourself into one of them on a park bench. A lot of the appeal is the pleasurable format. Honestly, the last thing these books need is an Internet presence. Once they make it onto Kindle, bless their hearts if they do, they would be indistinguishable from other books.” Her position is suitably pliable. Despite her print only practice in The Plenitude of Distraction, van Zuylen welcomes the access offered by digital publication.
Van Zuylen recognizes the uncertain status of short books in the academic reward system. Alas, “It is no secret that many academics are rewarded not for the delight and learning their book inspires, but because they have engaged in years of arduous research, toiling away, accumulating lines on their CVs.” She recognizes what has allowed for her interest in short books. Thus, “I was lucky to publish my distraction book after I was a full professor. I can guarantee that it would not have cut it for tenure.” Her candor about the academic system is refreshing: “I can think of some atrocious tomes, weighing more than a boulder, that got someone promoted. And I’m sure many never read the whole thing.” Again, van Zuylen’s favorite model comes to mind: “It would be wonderful if a short book could be, as Montaigne might say, the moelle [marrow] of somebody’s vast knowledge, boiled down to its essence.”
Looking broadly at scholarly communications today from the perspective of an enthusiast for short books, Zuylen favors tradition and innovation at the same time. “I’m not sure,” van Zuylen says, “that everybody is ready to embrace digital over paper. Not to be cynical, but you can size up the length, the prestige, the aura of the press, just by looking at the published product.” But things are more complex with the ubiquity of digital formats. “Books pretty much look the same online.” But many people still value print. “I totally fetishize my books” Van Zuylen confesses. Yet, she adds, “I am also a fan of audio books, and have read my share on the likes of Kindle. I’m still pretty old school insofar as reading novels and poetry ‘in the flesh.’” She offers this contrast: “It makes so much sense to have scholarship digitized, made available for all. If people really care about content, then they shouldn’t care about where they are reading it. But things are never that simple. It’s still important for me to read Oblomov, the novel that you kind of have to read in bed, in paperback. So, even though most scholars thank and bless JSTOR every day of their lives, they still want that book in print. Short or long.”
Van Zuylen suggests a strategy, favored by some publishers but not enough: “One of the greatest pieces I’ve read in years, Zadie Smith’s Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction is the perfect article that should become a short book. Why not cull from different sources essays, manifestoes, and even short novels, and grace our checkout counters (not only bookstores, why not cafés, even supermarkets) with short books. Short books should be everywhere!”