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The Chronicle of Higher Education

Scholars Talk Writing: James M. McPherson

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About a zillion years ago, I was an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, apprenticed to Sheldon Meyer, one of the great editors of American history. Sheldon had exquisite taste and the ability to keep his authors happy and productive by dint of his supportive intelligence, patience, and many-martini lunches. He was responsible for a series of trade books on the history of the United States, to be edited by C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter. The three of them came up with an all-star line up of scholars to write each volume, and contracts were issued.

When I got to the press, in 1984, only one of the books had been published, The Glorious Cause, by Robert Middlekauff. The series, as is often the case with ambitious publishing projects, had gotten stalled. So when James M. McPherson submitted a gargantuan manuscript for what would become Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), everyone was excited. I got to do extremely important work on the proj­ect: cheerily typing up the front matter, numbering the pages by hand, making copies, and having endless discussions about maps.

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Scholars Talk Writing: Laura Kipnis

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Readers of The Chronicle will be plenty familiar with “Troublemaker” Laura Kipnis, a professor of film at Northwestern University. In February of 2015, she wrote an essay about “sexual paranoia” on campuses. A group of Northwestern students protested the piece, and then two graduate students brought a Title IX case against her, arguing that her essay had a “chilling effect.” No one could do a better job than Kipnis herself in describing the whole affair: “Being protested had its gratifying side — I soon realized that my writer friends were jealous that I’d gotten marched on and they hadn’t.” She’s working on a book, titled Higher Education/Stupid Sex, based on her recent experiences.

But many of us were reading Kipnis long before this series of unfortunate events. She’s been writing interesting, provocative, funny, smart, and graceful essays for a long time. I first became aware of her when she published Against Love: A Polemic. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called the book a “ragingly witty yet contemplative look at the discontents of domestic and erotic relationships” where Kipnis “combines portions of the slashing sexual contrarianism of Mailer, the scathing antidomestic wit of early Roseanne Barr and the coolly analytical aesthetics of early Sontag.” Who could resist that kind of mash-up?

 

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Scholars Talk Writing: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

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Not long after I graduated from college as an English major with a jones for philosophy and a love of Iris Murdoch, Milan Kundera, and Robertson Davies, I found a novel called The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein. When I opened it and read the first line, I was hooked: “I’m often asked what it’s like to be married to a genius.” The novel not only was funny and smart, but also tackled Big Ideas. Here was an author I wanted to be friends with. No, I wanted to be her. Three decades later, I got to tell Rebecca Goldstein about my girl crush and ask her some questions about writing.

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Scholars Talk Writing: Camille Paglia

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Not long after she had splashed onto the scene with the publication of her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, and followed that up with an essay in The New York Times claiming that Madonna was the future of feminism, I went to see Camille Paglia speak on a panel about political correctness at New York University. My recollection is of being frisked by armed guards before being allowed to enter the auditorium, but it’s more likely we just had to empty our pockets and go through a metal detector.

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The Better Angels of Our Writing

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I am always shocked when academics complain about being copy-edited, as if the marks that come back on their manuscripts were pesky flies that should be shooed away. My experience of receiving editing, both substantively and line by line, is that it’s like love. Good copy editors see me not just for who I am but for who I want to be, and they help me get there. They point out what I do well, but they also notice my tics and bad habits and try to break me of them.

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Presenting Without A Net

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In an ideal world, whenever I was invited to give a talk or a lecture, it would go something like this:

I would spend a few weeks thinking about what I wanted to say. After a sufficient percolation period, I would sit at my computer and sweat out a complete draft.

Then I would spend months revising it, shoring up the structure, getting rid of ideas that didn’t fit, and dumping whatever seemed extraneous. I would add anecdotes, vivid images, and sparkling, funny phrases. I would hunt down -ly adverbs that seemed weak or lazy, and go on a search-and-destroy mission for needless this, that’s, and there’s. Finally, having driven myself crazy with perfectionist anxiety, I would tell myself I was ready.

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