Where’s my collaboration mojo?

Happy March, dear AC readers!

In our last post, Kelsey reflected on a specific collaboration conundrum, and work-life balance in the pandemic. Today, Kim thinks about academic collaboration a bit more philosophically… with help from an amazing artist, Amanda Leduc.

***

Two weeks ago, I attended a book launch on Zoom. Not my first rodeo, either: we’ve been festival-ing and launching and doing all the conference things on Zoom for coming up to a year now. (March 12 is my Zoomiversary; what’s yours, Kelsey?)

But this launch was different.

Sorry if you missed it! The launch for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, was Tuesday 16 February. There is a recording: view it here!

The celebration was for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, an extraordinary work that reflects on love, desire, grief and loss through a lens equal parts magic realism, fairy tale, and disability justice. (I HIGHLY recommend you order it. You can also check out Kelsey’s interview with Amanda, from 2020, here.)

We opened in now-utter-familiarity: the host, novelist and activist for literary equity Jael Richardson, was dropped from her internet connection mid-way through her delightful introduction. Turns out her power had gone off; in haste (though with spectacular grace, it must be said), fellow author Larissa Lai stepped in without missing a beat.

The launch then began in earnest not with Amanda, but with two of her collaborators: Victoria Carr, the musical artist who narrated the audio book (The Centaur’s Wife is the first novel in Canada to be published in all accessible formats simultaneously), and Anne Collins, Amanda’s editor at Penguin Random House. Victoria shared a song and then spoke to Larissa about her engagement with the characters, the process of recording the audio book, and the importance of being part of a small but mighty movement for literary accessibility (thanks to Amanda’s own perseverance). Anne and Larissa then talked about the long, sometimes messy, and always rewarding process of working with an author to bring the kernel of an idea into being as a novel-length work, written and rewritten again over a nearly five-year period.

Finally, Amanda stepped in to receive our applause, answer many challenging questions, and offer clear-eyed and fierce reflections on the work of literary artists (now more than ever).

Amanda speaking about her 2020 nonfiction book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, on TVO’s The Agenda.

I was riveted to the launch, and not just because Amanda is my friend and neighbour. It was compelling from start to finish precisely because it foregrounded literary arts as collaborative writing and publishing as the work of “a community,” as Amanda noted at the end of the event, directing our attention to the acknowledgements at the back of her book and inviting us all to read them.

It takes a village to make a book: we all know this, whether we write novels or nonfiction or monographs for other scholars or books for students or children. We all, in the scholarly publishing community, have our own acknowledgements pages. But Amanda’s launch reflected much more than the basics of this kind of book-as-village feel: it mirrored the fulsome, utterly joyous, depth-of-flavour-process that birthed her new book into being, and as I listened to and then reflected on the discussions about collaboration peppered throughout the launch, I started to reflect on my own collaborative journeys.

And I asked myself: what exactly are we – we academics, in particular – doing when we collaborate? How thick, how deep, are those processes for us? Especially when it comes to making books – books we might call “solo authored” on our CVs – where are our collaborators, and how do we make that process richer and more meaningful (not to mention more visible!) for all?

I’ve been an editor most of my career; I’ve written solo books too, of course, but I have gravitated toward (and, somewhat to my surprise, stayed with) editing in part because of the satisfaction it gives me to support another writer as they try to locate the core of their argument, and then reorganize the skeleton of their work better to support it. This work is often long, it’s often fraught, and – spoiler alert – I don’t think it’s aided in any way by the discursive frameworks that traditionally describe the academic writing process (aka: publish or perish, anyone?).

The scientists are not alone: this cartoon shows a racetrack-style setup, with a scientist with manuscript at one end, the words “paper accepted!” in lights at the other, and a collection of peers with instruments of torture ranged along the route. Save the grim reaper, all the cartoon scientists are white; this does not shock me.

Do you remember the first time you submitted a piece of work to an academic journal? You prayed for “accept”, braced for “reject”, and while you knew that “revise and resubmit” wasn’t ideal, it would be acceptable (after a day or two, and maybe after a good cry).

I remember mine: in the third year of my PhD I sent a lightly revised term paper (later to be published in Modern Drama, and I’ll come back to that) to Theatre Journal, one of the most prestigious venues in our field. I received a fast response: a reject from the then-editor, who had clearly sussed out that this was a term paper and needed a lot of work to be even peer-reviewable. TJ is a big journal, publishing four times a year and loaded down with submissions, so I don’t blame this editor (who was a volunteer!!) for ending at reject (plus a couple of sentences to ostensibly steer me toward revision) – although I do still think about the prof who encouraged me to publish the paper without offering me any further advice on how to do that. (Story for another time.)

I was devastated. But I was also aware that I was supposed to be devastated: only the best get published, right? You are clearly not good enough yet, Kim! Work harder! Graft alone to make that paper better! When it reflects that you are smart-smart-enough you will get the royal “accept”, and then you can feel like less of an imposter!

When the imposter syndrome expert realizes she has imposter syndrome… #realtalk

What a high, barred gate those three options, “reject”, “revise and resubmit”, and “accept” make together, yes? They keep out those who are not in the know; those who don’t have sympathetic mentors; those who do not come from academic or cultural privilege.

I learned this unspoken fact of academic life only through my connection to Modern Drama, where I was an editorial assistant: I was lucky enough to be working with then co-editor Joanne Tompkins on my research “day job”, which meant I could approach her for advice. I shared both the TJ editor’s note and my draft with her; she then took the time to teach me the difference between a term paper and an article (something every graduate student needs to learn sooner or later, btw, because it is not knowledge that sprouts unbidden from your degree certificate).

She guided me gently through a rigorous editorial process, then sent the paper for peer review at Modern Drama. It remains today one of the most downloaded papers in the history of the journal, and one of which I’m most proud.

Joanne is my editorial mentor, as I am mentor to others now. I’m not saying this to suggest that Joanne and I are special; we were/are able to do this kind of mentoring work because our work circumstances are fortunately such that we have the time to do the actual labour of editing – to undertake the kind of process Anne undertook with Amanda, a genuine, durational collaboration between author and editor, writer and curious, informed, but detached eye.

Penguin Random House editor Anne Collins.
Kim’s editorial mentor, Professor Joanne Tompkins (Queensland)

As Anne put it during the launch, we editors are privileged to invest in the work of authors for whom the piece under construction is owned, held dear; this allows us to hold and support them, cheer them on and push them harder, all the while letting them know that if the roof caves in someone is there with a fix, a hug, words of encouragement and a path forward out of the muddle. (I really like this metaphor of investment; it captures what I feel as an editor.)

In the academy, though, who really has this kind of investable time? Editing work is considered “volunteer” work among us profs, and detrimentally it often valued as such: I had to fight to make my editing labour “count” when time came for me to go up for promotion, and only one of the three external examiners of my portfolio made explicit note of my editing’s proper, collaborative value. We’re usually told not to bother editing: monographs or high-profile journal articles “count” for more than “edited” volumes, as though there is no work done in those projects. (HA!!!) Editing a journal? Be prepared for nobody at your institution to notice or care.

In other words: what (still) most “counts” in the publish-or-perish landscape is the labour you are expected to do alone, isolated, terrified even that the result will never be good enough.

Of course your finished book/article will bear the hands of others, and sometimes (rarely) those hands will be very hands-on, the hands of a supportive editor with the time and space to share. More often, though, they will be the hands of outsourced copyeditors paid a pittance, and publishers whose interest extends to “get the damn thing in on time”. At many crossover book publishers (Routledge, Bloomsbury Methuen, I’m looking at you), traditional peer review isn’t even guaranteed anymore, depriving us (when the reviewer is kind, when the reviewer recognizes their responsibility) of what little thoughtful third-party advice we could count on when it’s needed most.

This is a catastrophe. Editing labour is arduous but urgent and needs supporting and rewarding, at all levels of publication and among both academics and career editors. (When I talked to Amanda about this, she noted that Anne is herself a rarity in the world of fiction publishing.)

Further, sending graduate students out into the academic work world equipped with the belief that their careers stand or fall on the things they write while isolated, uncertain of their worth, and filled with anxiety is genuinely cruel and a recipe for ongoing exclusion and white-washing in the ivory tower.

Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that Amanda’s brilliant new book is at bottom about disability justice, about making space for others in worlds that demonize difference; it was made possible because Anne held Amanda, and Amanda worked with and for Anne, and through Anne’s support, over a period of years – culminating in a triumph.

How many of us can say that about even one piece of our academic writing? I’m genuinely curious.

What are your stories of collaboration in academic labour, friends? What are the highs? The lows? Is it getting better from where you sit, or worse? Let us know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s