The Nature of Foul Matter

In a new monthly column, Rachel Toor explores the writing and publishing process in academe

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, June 1, 2007

Not long ago, I ran into an old friend, Reynolds Smith, a former editorial colleague from Duke University Press. He greeted me by saying, “Ah, the Queen of Self-Reinvention.”

It’s true. I tend to leave things — places, people, and jobs — when the learning curve begins to flatten. I’m now on my third or fourth career, depending on how you count — this time as an assistant professor of creative writing.

What I’ve loved about putting myself into new situations and circumstances is having to start over. What I’ve liked less is that all the knowledge I amassed at those earlier points sometimes seems to lie fallow.

The expertise I garnered in my second career — college admissions — gets trotted out when I write or speak about the admissions process, and is put to good use when I work informally with prospective students. But while my dozen years of employment in scholarly publishing — first as an editor at Oxford University Press and then at Duke — was helpful when I needed to find a literary agent, venturing into the world of trade publishing with my own projects felt like going to another country. Good thing I had my agent as translator and guide.

Over the years I have been asked by academic friends to help them travel the long and winding road of scholarly publishing. I’m usually eager to walk along. I’ve kept in touch with some former colleagues in publishing and stayed on top of the major trends. But I’ve always felt that I was sitting on top of a pile of something valuable — not necessarily gold, but not donkey poop either — that could be put to better use.

I have helped friends interpret rejection letters and taught them how to write queries to editors. I’ve talked to people about the differences among university presses, and between academic and trade presses, and about which particular editor might be the best fit for them. I have written in The Chronicle about what an agent can do for academics (The Chronicle, March 19, 2004) and answered scores of e-mail messages telling full professors they probably don’t need one. I’ve written a pamphlet for self-published authors on how to market their own books. I’ve consoled those with “orphaned” books and commiserated about bad copy-editing.

When I was a graduate student in creative writing, I gravitated to courses in history rather than literature. As a writer of nonfiction, it’s more helpful to me at this point to study, say, Henry Adams than Henry James. But what I realized in my history courses was both obvious and sad: Historians — and not only they but academics of all stripes and flavors — are not taught the fundamentals of good writing.

Many professors seem to assume that work on the sentence level is best left to the experts. Clearly they are not reading what is coming out of English departments. They rely on some kind of mimetic, osmotic process whereby ideas about form and style and structure get absorbed by the fledgling academic while she concentrates on the important stuff: content. And if I just spend enough time bird-watching, I will be able to fly.

I once had an author who taught at Harvard University thank me for teaching her how to write. But I didn’t teach her. I merely realized that she didn’t know the basic elements of style, so I gave her a book, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. She had never heard of it. I was happy to take credit for the change in her prose, but I knew I didn’t deserve it.

Recently at a party, I ran into a junior faculty member at another university whom I had heard a lot about. Mutual friends had predicted I would like her. Within three minutes of our meeting, she began to complain that she didn’t know how to write a book, got no mentoring from the senior members of her department, was talking to editors at two (good) presses who seemed to want different things, knew that there were at least five directions she could go with her revisions and she had no idea which was the right way, was convinced she was never going to get tenure, and maybe could I help her find a job in scholarly publishing?

I said no. Not just because no one would hire her as an editor (no experience) and probably no one would hire her as an editorial assistant (overqualified), but because it was crazy talk.

Of course she didn’t know those things. No one had ever taught her. And of course her senior colleagues couldn’t be mentors on the nuts and bolts of writing and publication. It’s not clear that they know how to do those things.

I won the job lottery last year. I was able to snag, right out of graduate school, a tenure-track position teaching in a graduate creative-writing program. But in talking to this desperate, and not unreasonably fearful woman, I realized what I want to do. I want a job that I’ll bet doesn’t exist at any university.

In an ideal world, I would continue to teach creative nonfiction to people with artistic aspirations. It’s good for the soul. But I would also run workshops for academics: for graduate students, for junior faculty members, and even for those rare senior professors who realize that we all need help — and supportive, critical readers outside our areas of expertise. I would be on the premises like an old-fashioned school nurse: always ready with Band-Aids, a box of pills, and soothing words. I would teach courses on writerly wellness in addition to helping those who are ailing. I would have a big fat Rolodex of people — or rather, many megabytes of contacts — to call on for specialized and urgent treatments.

The next best thing is to have a monthly column in The Chronicle where I get to do just that. I want to share the good stuff from that pile that is neither gold nor donkey poop. I want to address the questions I can, and ask my friends in publishing and academe to help answer those I can’t. I want to discuss the books that have helped me as a writer, and ask academics to point out elegant prose stylists in their own fields. I want scientists to know that if they want to attract grant money, they must be understood, and to help them find ways to make their sentences sing with the same grace as their equations. I want to be a Virgil through the inferno of academic publishing.

I hope that I will have some of the compassion and generosity — if I can only aspire to the wry wit and lucid language — of that master of style, E. B. White. While I hope that what I say will be useful, enlightening, and occasionally entertaining, because I’m writing for academics, I will expect to be corrected, critiqued, and called on the carpet. That’s what I love about academe: the spirit of free exchange, the fetishizing of information, and the bravery to stand up for what you believe.

In publishing, the term “foul matter” refers to the stuff that is packaged and shipped back to authors once their book is finished. It’s the original manuscript, the corrected page proof, the blue-penciled index — the iterations that mark the journey. I want in this column to focus on that work, that process; to make fair use of the things that ultimately become foul matter.