On Popularity and Self-Publishing

My wife is a knitter, and she’s explained to me the subtle difference observed, among those in her guild, when referring to someone’s work as “handmade” or “homemade.”  Both acknowledge the difference between the sweater you spent months on and something mass-produced.  The former, though, implies that for the piece in question that difference is measured in care and craftsmanship, while the latter measures it in imperfections.  It’s the difference between, “You made that yourself?!” and “You made that yourself, huh?”

Dan Allosso’s An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy (Stay Outside the Box Publishing, 2013) is somewhere between homemade and handmade.  Allosso is a PhD candidate at UMass who took time off from his program to write a biography of an historical figure he came across during his research.  He wrote the book, and then he self-published it.  In tone and style, it’s written for a popular audience, but Allosso thinks it should have value for academics as well, given that its subject is important and yet under-studied.  I became aware of the book through Allosso’s post to the C19 listserv hoping to “get it in front of an academic audience.”  Because there’s been a lot of talk around here about public history, and because I was curious about self-publishing (and about Knowlton), I wrote and asked for a review copy.

The eccentric Dr. Charles Knowlton is best known as an early proponent of medical methods of birth control.  In 1831, he wrote a guide to the more personal aspects of married life in which he recommended the use of a spermicidal douche after intercourse for women who wished to avoid pregnancy.  Predictably, the public suggestion that people might want to have sex for some reason other than procreation got him in a lot of trouble; equally predictably, the book found an eager audience.

Knowlton has been written about before (by Janet Farrell Brodie and Linda Gordon, Allosso notes), but by all appearances this is his first full-length biography.  Allosso says that he came across Knowlton and felt compelled to give him a full treatment, although his dissertation work focuses on rural family business, something else entirely.  Allosso had previously self-published a young adult novel and a co-authored book on writing, so self-publishing was already something he was prepared to think about (he’s posted some thoughts about self-published histories here).

The results are mixed.  It appears to be admirably researched—the end-notes are in that vague popular-book style where nothing’s numbered, but they’re easy to follow.  Allosso’s style is narrative-focused and approachable.  Allowing that it’s written for a popular audience, the opening bits successfully draw the reader in.  As an early-nineteenth-century anatomist, Knowlton was an accomplished grave robber, and Allosso heads the preface with a long quote from Knowlton in which he describes a moment during his first grave robbery: as he threw the rotting corpse over his shoulder, it belched in his ear.  “I commanded the said subject to be still, and trudged on,” Knowlton writes (ii).  Allosso has an eye for interesting details—the first chapter begins with a young Knowlton delicately splitting shingles, which Allosso connects to his later skill with a scalpel.  Allosso is likewise aware of the entertainingly provocative aspects of his subject: one early chapter is titled “Onanist.”

As the book proceeds, though, it becomes apparent that the entire book is characterized by the stitching together of small scenes with which it begins.  Narrative flow is continually disrupted by the shortness of Allosso’s chapters—the book’s 231 pages of body text are divided into forty-seven chapters; the shortest are three pages long.  Because each small chapter is headed by a lengthy epigraph from Knowlton, the book comes to feel like a series of glosses on Knowlton’s own writings rather than a synthetic biography with its own structure, narrative, and intention.

Secondly, while it’s one thing to write for a popular audience and hold up a subject from the past as a valuable example for the present, Allosso flirts with hagiography.  He clearly feels an affinity with Knowlton—who also, incidentally, self-published – and sees him as a model for the sort of “outside the box” thinking he personally promotes in his other writing (and in the name of his imprint).  Because most of the epigraphs come from an autobiographical account discovered and published after Knowlton’s death, Allosso has let Knowlton tell the story and taken on his subject’s tone with regard to the wider society in which he lived.  Like Knowlton, Allosso and Penn Jillette (who blurbed the book), I’m a “freethinker” myself, but I thought that maybe Allosso could have taken Knowlton’s contemporaries a bit more seriously when they objected to, say, his grave robbing.

Do these issues have anything to do with the fact that the book is self-published?  Unavoidably, yes.  Allosso maintains that marketing is the greatest challenge in self-publishing, that the thing that it’s most difficult to do without is the promotional budget that comes with a publisher.  Traditional publishing also brings serious editing, however, and this is also hard to do without.  Plenty of traditionally-edited books—especially popular ones—have problems like this book has, but it’s hard to imagine that an editor would not have improved a book this thin on analysis.  Allosso’s writing is fluid and accessible—he probably needs an editor for style much less than most academics—but the larger issues of organization, critical approach to sources, and voice are things that an editor would surely have pushed back on.  Allosso did recruit editors whom he thanks in the acknowledgements.  I don’t know anything about their level of professionalization, but the copy is clean. None of them, however, could have had any real authority to force changes on the author, because such authority comes from being backed by a press and being able to place, if only implicitly, conditions on publication.  I wrote the other day about the self-indulgence of academics, and with that in mind an academic acting as her own editor is something like a criminal acting as her own lawyer.

On the other hand, is it possible to imagine a self-published book that avoids some of that self-indulgence?  I think so; it’s possible to imagine willfully subjecting oneself to the right editor.  Moreover, I think the value in that would be something like the value that Allosso sees: the wider telling of narrow stories, more immediacy in scholarship, and in bringing important parts of the past to popular audiences.  What I find most compelling about Allosso’s book is not that it’s self-published, but that it’s aimed at a popular readership. Allosso believes passionately in public history, and I’m sympathetic to that feeling, but I’m not at all convinced that writing popular history means abdicating a critical perspective.  I don’t think Allosso is either, but in this case the combination of popular intent, devotion to a subject, and the freedom of self-publishing may have allowed that perspective to be lost.

3 comments on “On Popularity and Self-Publishing

  1. Dan Allosso says:

    Hi Seth,

    Thanks for reviewing my book. I think you make an interesting point about the ability of publishers to “force change on the author” because they’re “backed by a press” and able to put “conditions on publication.” Since you say the copy was clean and the writing fluid and accessible, I suspect the editorial contribution you were advocating was directed more toward the “thin analysis.” And there’s the rub.

    I was able to write Knowlton’s story because he left a fairly big chunk of writing behind him, which I thought presented a quirky, but important and seldom-seen view of his times and the issues he faced. The people he was directly involved with did not. As a result, I would have needed to oppose Knowlton’s point of view with the voices of much more elite characters, and I didn’t want to do that. Although I do think there’s a story waiting to be told about early medicine in America that would pit characters like Amos Twitchell and Nathan Smith against the opponents of medical education, I didn’t choose to insert long (and previously published) passages from Timothy Dwight in a story focused on a non-elite perspective.

    The most likely “analytical” change an editor with gate-keeper power would have tried to force on me would probably have been a more sympathetic treatment of religion. This would have resulted in the book never seeing the light of day. The whole point of writing from a position very close to Knowlton’s own skin was to try to show what it felt like to be a free inquirer in a hostile, orthodox world. This doesn’t produce a balanced view of the situations Knowlton found himself in, of course. But once again, the other side of the argument has been so thoroughly covered, and the arguments of the other side have been so universally taken for fact, that I thought a little bit of upset (and just a touch of hagiography) was required to start balancing the scales.

    Criminals do sometimes act as their own lawyers. Knowlton did, when the judge in Taunton told him he could not use the attorney he had paid to defend him. So in my defense I’ll say that I agree with you to a degree that history should engage in analysis and in a dialog with previous analysts (biography slightly less so). Doing critical analysis in popular history presents dangers — readers are generally looking for a whole lot less of that than we historians — but I think that critical perspective will be useful in helping general readers understand the degree to which the dominant narrative has operated to mold the stories they’ve been told, especially in American religious history. There’s a reason, after all, that William Ellery Channing and not Charles Knowlton has a statue at the entrance to the Boston Public Garden.

    Regarding the other questions you asked about self-publishing and how I think it effects my opportunities in the academy, your readers can see the answers I sent you on my blog, (http://freethoughthistory.com/blog.html ).

  2. This is a fascinating and timely discussion! First off congratulations Dan! I cannot wait to read your book. And I applaud what you are doing and the questions that that endeavor raise. The idea that I took away from this discussion is that I see what I do as a community-based endeavor not an individual one. The capitalist culture in which we live in some ways emphasizes individual commodity production. As an artist I remember lamenting the loss of an artistic community in New York replaced by individual “geni” in separate studios living out some kind of Baudelairian mythology. How wide an intellectual community does this book represent? Does this work in essence represent a dialog between Dan Alosso and Knowlton? This is certainly excellent, but is it the best way to produce history (or art for that matter)? The excellent point made by Seth is this: the peer review process of academic publishing, coming in a long line of community-based intellectual engagements for an academic including prospectus, seminar, teaching, one-on-one dialog with advisers, creates a book in dialog with thinkers of the past and present. As someone who is going through that process right now, I can see no sign that that it has diminished. It has been enlightening, difficult, and rigorous. Of course, “the gate” and the “gatekeeper” could potentially symbolize this process rather than the open dialog, but that is and has been part of the community-negotiation of what we do since the beginning. As someone who came from the “outside” of the mainstream academia (the art world), I can honestly say I have a lot of faith in our community to engage in this gate-kept dialog honestly and generously. That said there will always be a place for outside thinkers and outside means to enliven, challenges, and enrich standard practices. Thanks for this great work both Dan and Seth.

    • Dan Allosso says:

      Hi Taylor! Nice to hear from you. I think you were at the first talk I gave based on this research (on Calomel & early American medicine @ SHEAR), so I’ll be interested in your thoughts on the final product (drop me a line at dan@freethoughthistory.com). I think you ask an important question about the extent of the dialog. Seems to me there are several conversations, each going on in their own silos. The one I’d be having if I’d tried to publish through an academic press would have been substantially different from (and largely irrelevant to) the one I’d have had at a trade press. I was approached by a niche (freethought) publisher, but decided to go out “on my own hook,” as Knowlton would say. And then there’s the DURATION of such conversations (which I mentioned in my blog). For better or worse, I can get two or three books out in the time it would take a publisher to release one. So there’s gotta be an overwhelmingly convincing argument, to slow the process that much. I don’t see it.

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