Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The companion to the introduction to the handbook

In the past six months, I've been asked to contribute to two different "companions to," or "handbooks of," or whatever the generic term is for those big compendia of not-quite-full-fledged-scholarly essays. This makes a total of three solicitations in two years.

I don't think this is because I'm particularly awesome or a recognized expert in much of anything (though it probably helps that I work on obscurer material). I think it's because suddenly these books are everywhere.

What I don't understand is why. Who buys these things? And for what purpose? And--most puzzlingly--who buys more than one on a given author or topic?

Now, I've always liked the Cambridge Companions, which I take to be the grandes dames of this particular genre. Earlier in my career I picked up one or two a year (on sale, at conferences) for authors I figured I was likely to teach but unlikely to ever research; my campus office contains volumes on figures like Chaucer, Marlowe, and Jonson. I've also taught essays from the volumes on authors I do research, as a way of introducing advanced undergrads or M.A. students to some of the relevant contexts. This spring I required my grad students to buy the Cambridge Companion to Donne, and I've sometimes done the same with the Milton volume.

I understand what those essays are, or at least what they're supposed to be: they're somewhere between undergraduate lectures and works of scholarship in their own right. They allow a nonspecialist or a beginning scholar to orient herself and get a handle on the issues that matter. Done well, such essays meet an important need.

But I don't know how the market can support very many volumes like this, and as they've proliferated I've had a harder time understanding how each series is positioning itself or whom it imagines its readers to be. The volumes with 40 short essays and lower price points are presumably intended for course adoption; the huge $200 hardbacks with vastly longer essays are instead intended for. . . library purchases? Or for scholars who for some reason would rather read those essays than browse the MLA database?

The three solicitations I've received have varied in targeted length (from a low of 3,000 words to a high of 9,000), but the editors have all stressed that they want "original scholarship" rather than just digests or summaries of the state of the field. The best essays I've read in this genre truly do that. (Though for teaching/course prep, I also appreciate essays where a leading light in the field distills, in an accessible way, the kinds of arguments she's made over the course of her career.)

But the more these kinds of books proliferate, the tougher that becomes. If you had something truly new to say about some relatively broad or standard topic (like, I don't know, the Jonsonian masque, or Milton's early sonnets, or Donne's attitude toward death) . . . would you be publishing it in this particular venue?

Moreover, the more there are, the harder it will be to get originality--or the handful of big names an editor presumably wants to lend luster to the project. I'm also not sure how valuable such a line is on one's vita, or how valuable it will remain: the "companion" essay may eventually become the encyclopedia entry of years past.

For the record, I accepted two of the offers and declined the third. They differ in topic and format, but both build on the kinds of things I've published elsewhere while involving enough new work for me to feel genuinely interested in the task. And yeah, okay: I was flattered to be asked.

But two feels about right. I probably won't be accepting another any time soon.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Every five years or so I buy a new companion to "whatever" in Shakespeare, because I focus so, so, so narrowly in my research that it's hard to keep up with trends in things like the comedies. (Shudder. I hate the comedies. Aren't I evil?) I have to teach these things that I don't research way more than I teach my research. And with a 4/4 load, it's much easier to read a companion-to-whatever-I'm-teaching than waste hours scrolling through databases. Plus, the other 4000+ years of western civ literature that I have to teach in Humanities is easier to manage when I've got a companion to something. I think they're useful. But that's just me. I do think they are probably lesser on the publishing hierarchy.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I should say... I do think they are probably lesser on the publishing hierarchy, but I still find them very useful. Just because a book publication adds more to one's reputation doesn't mean that a general essay is beneath the writer. If my book project is ever published, it will probably be read by 5 people in the world. A general essay would be read by hundreds, probably. Still not NYTimes bestseller list, but useful to the world of letters.

Flavia said...


Oh, sure! As I said, I think the genre meets a very important need, and I imagine most people enjoy writing for a more general audience (since we all address such an audience in our teaching, if nowhere else). My point is that the more of these there are, competing for attention, the lesser the quality is likely to become, the less likely major scholars are to contribute, and the harder it will be to find the best or more useful ones for any given purpose. I don't think we're there yet, but I don't fully understand why so many publishers are trying to get in on this game. (Or why publishers like Cambridge that are already so successful in this area are now adding more and more nominally different series in roughly the same genre. I'm not sure what new audiences they're imagining.)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I think there are two motivations -- money of course is the first. The second is that trends in scholarship change often enough that it feels appropriate to revisit a subject every five years or so to tweak for perspective. It feels like close reading, for instance, is making a comeback. Compare a Companion to Shakespeare that is Marxist in its tendencies to one that focuses on a renewed interest in close reading, and you've got justification for a new companion to whatever. But mostly, I think it's just money.

Then again... it could be, now that I think of it, about giving additional venues to people for publication. There's a limit to how many times you can be rejected by your favorite journal. (I have yet to submit to my favorite journal, so that's not me. Yet. :) )

Bardiac said...

I rely on Helen Coopers Canterbury Tales companion every time I teach the CT, but it seems like the newer companions work very differently, trying to work more topically than Cooper did. I also love Russ McDonald's Shakespeare companion for giving background to students.

But most companions these days don't seem nearly so helpful.

Susan said...

I haven't figured out the niche either. I think it's supposed to be libraries, so these are reference books, but they really age fast. I have done three (two out, one still in process). The first two were really hard state of the field type essays (which I hate to write). The third I was given a broad topic, and was able to write a substantive essay which will be useful once the darn thing is published.

But given the squeeze on library budgets,it's not clear that this marketing model works.

Historiann said...

HA-hahahaha!!! Just this year, I got asked to write two of these sorts of essays (the history version), one due at the end of this month, and the other next winter. I said yes, mostly because 1) I really am the perfect person to write these essays which are both very particular (one, the "colonial era" essay for a companion on gender & the U.S. military, and the other an essay on gender and violence in early America for an anthology on the global history of violence), and 2) it gives me an opportunity to highlight my work in this field. A lesser reason I said "yes" is that it's pretty easy for me to bang out 5-7K words on this topic, so why not?

I will probably stop writing these kinds of essays because next year my second book will be out, and I think I'll be done with being the girl who writes about guys-n-guns. But I've been warned that one always remains best known for one's first book--that it's the one thing that defines your professional identity, so I may not get as many requests to write essays on female monasticism in early America, for example, or on Catholic history in early America as I get to write about the guys-n-guns.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I've done some similar work via another part of the supply chain: as a freelancer for a subcontractor supplying a major reference publisher with works that are aimed more at students than at professors, but for which the ultimate market is undoubtedly libraries. I've done a bit of searching around for the final product (because my name is on the works -- short encyclopedia-style entries for the most part -- so I figure I might as well list them, as a group, in the non-refereed works section of my c.v.; I did them mostly for money, but I also spent time on them that I otherwise might have spent writing actual refereed articles/books, so at the very least they serve as evidence that I've been writing regularly, if not perhaps in the ideal form). I've come to the conclusion that, although the official "products" are physical reference volumes (which are listed on the publisher's site, and on Amazon, at an astronomical price, with ISBNs et al.), there are probably very few of those sold (e.g. they don't show up in any of our local consortium libraries). Instead, I suspect the actual intended product (and the associated source of potential profit) is in the ability to slice and dice the volumes in various ways to make digital products such as reference databases (and/or the ability to license works to major reference databases such as LION).

At the very least, if you're going to accept such assignments, I'd suggest reading the digital rights part of the contract carefully, and striking the best deal you can.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Are these legitimate publishers with a real market for the publications? Because in the natural sciences there is a mothefcucken FLOOD of fly-by-night so-called "predatory" on-line publishers who exist only to extract publications fees from hapless authors. I receive probably at least two or three of these solicitations *per day* to submit articles to these journals. And people like me they offer to publish for free, so they can get credibility sufficient to rope in people who will pay fees. The solicitations are all in abysmal English and include goofy shit like "Dear Esteemed Professor".

Flavia said...

CPP: we get those too, but this is something different. These are major, reputable publishers putting out a product that's more akin to a textbook, or a work aimed at explaining astrophysics to a smart layperson--but written by a practicing scientist who knows his shit. (You can Google "Cambridge Companion" and "Moby Dick" or Melville and find one relevant to your own interests, I'm sure!)

Comradee PhysioProffee said...

If they every ask you about Moby Dicke, you should send them my way!

Miriam said...

Given how many of these companions come out of England--Oxford, Cambridge, Blackwell--I wonder if the explosion of this particular genre is in part driven by the publication requirements associated with the REF (which certainly explains Routledge's traffic in conference proceedings). Obviously, that's hardly the sole explanation, given that we Yanks publish in them too, but UK academics need outlets for article-length publications, and companions cater to that captive market.

random grad student said...

I think Miriam might be right about the UK connection: I remember reading a Renaissance Quarterly review of one of the Oxford Handbooks a couple of years ago that commented on the Britishness of the publication, both in terms of the included authorship and who, exactly, is cited in it (I can't recall the reviewer off the top of my head, but I could look it up if anyone was interested): the reviewer basically said that good as the collection was, the coverage was slightly skewed British, probably because of the REF.

I find these kinds of handbooks most useful, research-wise, when I'm dealing with an author that's infrequently taught, or when I'm starting with a project, though I've found some distinctions between the publishers. So the Oxford Handbook to Holinshed's Chronicles is useful partially because there aren't that many publications which focus on Holinshed itself, or draw together a lot of work on it; by contrast, the Cambridge Companions seem to be pitched a little more generally, and I might recommend the Cambridge Companion to Milton to a senior undergrad, or use it myself when I'm teaching something for the first time or if I haven't taught it for a while. They're useful starting-points for a topic.

Flavia said...

Sorry, all! Away for a few days and belated in getting back to this.


Yes, definitely: I think these are attractive in part because they allow one to highlight one's prior work in the field, and hopefully attract some new readers of that more substantive work. (All three of the requests I fielded are connected to stuff I did in my first book, and it was nice to feel "known" for something, in whatever limited way.)


That's a good point, and also raises another part of the equation: the editors of these volumes and what's in it for them. The editors I'm familiar with, for all the volumes I've ever used or considered, are pretty big deals: scholars whom I admire, often immoderately. I assume they get sole royalties, and that may make the enterprise a nicely remunerative one (in addition to whatever the value is of the line on the vita). I presume, though, they usually aren't seeking out the editorship of such a volume, which has to be less interesting and less a labor of love than a normal edited collection; I suspect but don't know that they're chosen by the press as a big enough deal, and someone with a big enough Rolodex, to bring in other well-known scholars and plausible up-and-comers.


That's a good thought, especially for the higher-end ones. And even for us Americans, it's not a bad publication line, depending on the tenure standards at a given institution. Still, I'm curious how these will look in five or ten year's time.


That's a good point, though I also wonder how an "Ox Handbook of [highly specialized topic]" differs from a normal edited collection--that is to say, I think there was already a niche for such work, in a way that there wasn't (originally) a niche for more popularizing, undergrad-or-non-expert-friendly volumes like the Cambridge Companions. But if the Ox Handbook provides a scholar who really wants to bring all that material together in one place a more ready path to publication at a better press, then I suppose it's all to the good.