Quill and Quire

Authors

« Back to
Quillblog

Personal Essay: How are books that defy traditional generic categories to find a home and an audience, asks Mavis Himes

FrontmatterSeptember_PersonalEssay_MavisHimes“You have to shed your academic personality,” the literary agent said. “Your manuscript is not suitable as a trade book. You have to imagine you’re writing for the man or woman on the street. Can you do that?”

You are asking me to dumb it down and I refuse to do that!

“Sure, I can.” I responded politely and hung up the phone.

When I set out to write my second book, motivated by both a professional and personal interest in the topic of names, I made a deliberate choice to write something that would be accessible to the general public. As a psychoanalyst, I knew that my writing would be informed by both my clinical practice and theoretical orientation. Yet, I decided to divest myself of that authoritarian pose and write in a more personal style. Using the relationship with my own name and history as a through-line, I attempted to interweave the personal and the professional by blending snippets of research with clinical vignettes and personal anecdotes of friends and strangers who had shared their stories.

As a reader of literary non-fiction, I have always been attracted to books that are informative, intelligent, and entertaining. As a writer in my professional field, I am well-versed in the practice of writing academic papers for journals and presentations. However, as a writer of non-fiction books, I struggle to find the right pitch or voice to express my ideas more creatively.

Now here was another agent making the same comment about my manuscript that all the previous readers had: too academic, too  scholastic for the general public. It was clearly time to revisit the project with another set of sensibilities. So began the arduous process of re-editing: the slice and dice of passage extracts, the modifications of citations and chapter headings, the paraphrases and rewordings.

A few weeks later, I resubmitted the new draft to the agent in question, Robert Lecker. I waited with bated breath for the feedback, feeling that my precious “baby” was in the hands of a stranger who wanted me to sound less intelligent than I knew myself to be.

Finally an email arrived. No giveaway, no clue about impressions or reactions. Just a few words: Let’s arrange a time to speak.

He was pleased with the finished product. I was thrilled.

“However …”  and my mouth went dry. “You realize that we will be submitting this to academic presses, as I think we will have more success that way.”

Frustrated, I pleaded my case for a chance at a larger readership. In the end, the manuscript was submitted to a combination of academic and high-end trade houses. The general feedback: too academic for the trade publishers and not academic enough for the university presses.

Professionals derive status and credibility from their colleagues in the publication of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. The procession of books lining the bookcases of academics rarely reach the public domain. By contrast, trade books are marketed to “the man or woman on the street,” as I had been told. So where does that leave those of us who have an interest in reading or writing an informed book on a specific topic written by an enlightened individual in that field? Certainly such books exist, but I would suggest that most are written by well-established authors whose reputation and notoriety guarantee high book sales.

To be wise or to be commonplace is a sarcastic dichotomy. Yet it poses the question of books written in a genre-defying style. Where do we place books that are neither fish nor fowl? How do we convince publishers to take a chance on books not easily categorized? How do we market books that do not easily fit on pre-existing bookstore shelves? And most significantly, how can such books continue to be written when they are criticized from both sides for coming up short?

In my case, the questions resolved themselves in a positive manner: my second book, The Power of Names: Uncovering the Mystery of What We are Called, was picked up by Rowman & Littlefield. Not surprising that this book, my hybrid, would find a home with a press that announces on its website that it publishes “entertaining and informative books for general readers, and professional and scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences.”

For the past decade at least, the performing arts have been moving in multi-disciplinary directions with exciting results. Boundaries are exploding. Perhaps publishers need to broaden and expand their own horizons to encourage writers of hybrid books that push the traditional understanding of the stock and trade of the publishing world.


Mavis Himes is the author of The Sacred Body: A Therapist’s Journey. Her second book, The Power of Names, is available now.