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Ivory Tower Iconoclast

Singin' the Publishing Blues

I like a traveling circus. The American Historical Association’s annual conference periodically sets up its tent at the New York Hilton. Since I live nearby, I subject myself to its clown car of characters every half decade. But this year, I saw the confab’s book fair as an opportunity to introduce myself to the editors of several university presses, peruse forthcoming titles, and gauge the attendees’ interest in the latest offerings. On a cold Saturday morning in January, I limped one block to the nearest subway stop to ride to the big top.

The convention featured hundreds of panels. I attended those touching on the publishing world, but made one exception for the kick-off event, which I was sure would provide both laughter and tears, and maybe even tear gas: “The Nazi Legacy in the Trump Era: Research, Pedagogy, and Public Engagement.” According to the program, the roundtable would examine “the links between Fascism, Nazism, anti-Semitism, and genocide in German and American history”—Trumpian genocide ranking, of course, among the top worries of normal Americans.

The first speaker suggested a better question to consider was not Trump’s fascist credentials, but how the United States ever came to elect such a monstrous candidate. Two other panelists followed with plunges into more unplanned, though not unexpected, Trump hate. One cited recent attacks on Hasidic Jews in New York, noting that the perpetrators were all African-American. Just when some objective data had been tossed to the politicized mob, the speaker added that nothing could please white supremacists more than watching blacks do their dirty work. I instantly emailed Chronicles editor Paul Gottfried, asking him to make sense of this odd accusation. “It seems necessary,” Paul replied, “to perpetuate this ‘misrepresentation’ because the recognition of the truth would weaken the Jewish alliance with the antichristian, anti-white Left.”

Inoculated, I braced for more lunacy. Right on cue, another speaker began reminiscing about her 1960s expulsion from the University of Chicago’s Ph.D. program and her scintillating interactions with Frankfurt School philosophers Herbert Marcuse and Bruno Bettelheim. She really zinged the crowd when she pointed out that those philosophers, German and Austrian, respectively, were evil white men. She then went on to decry today’s lack of diversity in the professorial ranks, despite her own very white skin, before she connected all her observations to climate change. During the Q&A one attendee insisted the panel include “masculinity” in its terminology whenever it invoked “white supremacy.” The concept of borders took drubbing after drubbing from the speakers and the crowd. I checked my program to make sure I was still at the “Trump Is Worse Than Hitler” panel. I was. But apparently no one else was.

To escape the madness, I glanced at other available sessions. One immediately jumped out. What could matter more to mankind’s collective understanding of its past than “Breastfeeding While Butch: Navigating the Hyper-Feminine Discourses Surrounding Breastfeeding, 1956 to Present”? When I’m not teaching or writing, I read works on diplomatic history, economics, and political science. Somehow I’ve missed the crucial academic scholarship that explains how “since the second half of the twentieth century, there have [sic] been an increasing number of individuals who have given birth and sought to breastfeed who do not identify as conventionally female—a group including butch women, genderqueer folks, and trans men.” That grammatically challenged snippet alerted those of us who care—I don’t and you probably don’t either since you’re reading this—that “virtually all the support material available to pregnant people and new parents makes an assumption: the connection between pregnancy/breastfeeding and femininity.”

Children of the 1970s learned the perils we run when we “assume” something, thanks to Walter Matthau in his role as Little League coach Morris Buttermaker in the 1976 hit movie The Bad News Bears. Buttermaker warned his boys that when we “assume” something, we can mistakenly make an “ASS” out of “U” and “ME.” As a result, I have been always careful in my assumptions, unlike the painfully woke “Breastfeeding” panelist. But here the exception does indeed prove the rule: The connection between pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the female sex still stands, just as it has for the entirety of humanity’s existence.

As lacking in intrigue as the book industry might be, the first publishing panel, “Careers in Publishing for ABDs and Ph.D.s,” sounded marginally promising. Four of the five presenters were female, so the crowd could relax; the panel checked off some sort of gender box. More importantly, the panelists provided wonderful insight into the always-precarious state of academic publishing, as well as their own nonlinear career trajectories. One common theme united their remarks. Each started at the bottom rung when she began her publishing career. They told stories of opening boxes of submissions and answering phones. Each learned that her bosses deemed no task too menial, despite the Ph.D.s on their CVs. The routine toil did not meet their glamorous expectations of the publishing life. Quickly, each of them came to understand that no one succeeds in publishing without mastering the nuts and bolts of logistics, organization, and accounting. Pontificating on manuscripts and lunching with authors happens only after one has mastered the drudgery.

The editors also stressed the role of luck. We heard stories of alluring vacancies created after colleagues’ sudden departures, jobs offered after random encounters with competitors, and of health and family matters that detoured careers. Each participant emphasized the importance of flexibility. No publisher cares that you’ve mastered the historiography of early modern France. University presses prefer to hire intelligent hard workers open to challenges and willing to work late. They understand that if you earned a Ph.D. you have the requisite book smarts and discipline to sustain long-term focus. But they encourage those who conflate a Ph.D. with admission to the intellectual elite to stick to academia, or a similar fantasyland where ornamental preening serves as the coin of the realm.

The unpredictability of human events ranks as one of history’s few ineluctable lessons. I saw older attendees nodding as the panelists spelled out these truisms. But then the Q&A started. The moderator called on a young woman seated directly behind me, who introduced herself as a Chicana, first-generation college student, and, no surprise, millennial. As she reeled off each proud identity, her increasing volume implied that the rest of us must sit up straight and listen. She complained about the lack of diversity in publishing (the women on the panel apparently didn’t count) before wondering how she and her besieged generation, suffocating under educational debt, could possibly pursue a career in a field with such paltry wages.

As she blathered on, the panelists became increasingly annoyed. The first respondent warned:

You probably won’t like my answer. My parents both immigrated here. Most of my family barely reads English. We had no money, ever. I graduated from an Ivy League school with a ton of debt and had to live with roommates into my late twenties because I made $18,000 a year in publishing. My suggestion to you is don’t go into publishing. It’s that simple.

Another panelist explained to deaf millennial ears:

Academic presses can’t afford to pay high salaries. We are struggling to stay alive. Our parent universities skimp on funding. So we try to pursue our missions on a financially sustainable basis.

Reality doesn’t take sabbaticals. Let’s hope the millennial attendee was able to book an appointment with a Manhattan therapist to recover from that tough love assault. Yet in her defense, my own generation shares much of the blame. We inflated her grades throughout high school and college, removing any incentive to improve. We “re-scaled” the SATs so that her scores would look as good as those of previous generations. We gave her participation trophies and kept in 24/7 cell phone contact with her to make sure she was safe from nonexistent dangers. So, don’t be surprised to hear overwrought millennial breakdowns like the one I endured.

University presses can’t hire entry-level employees for $125,000 per year to rescue those groaning under self-inflicted student debt. They just can’t. During her maudlin tirade, the millennial moaner suggested only those with trust funds can afford to work in publishing. Sorry, during January those with trust funds are skiing in the Rockies, surfing in Hawaii, or “recovering” at a rehab facility in Delray Beach. Trust funders can’t be bothered with the mindless tasks the panelists completed over the course of their successful careers. So what is the answer? Perhaps our aspiring young editors should look into re-education. “Breastfeeding Studies” promises to be a fertile new field.

Mark G. Brennan

Mark G. Brennan is the books editor of Chronicles and writes from New York.

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