Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oh, this can't be good

It arrived last night in a little Amazon box, alongside the cacao nibs I had ordered for Willow's baking. A brand new book. I hadn't heard of its author before the ASTR conference last November, but the mention got my attention, and I found that I had two essays by her in various collections in my office, both essays I had been meaning to read.

Let's just say (to poach the metaphor from Ianqui. Really I'm just doing this because I like the metaphor, not that I am actually hiding my work) that I do work on Photographs of Trees, specifically evergreen trees. My book (the one I'm working on) has three sections: Photos of the Insides of Evergreen Trees, Photos of the Outsides of Evergreen Trees, and Photos of Forests.

The book I got yesterday? titled "Photos of the Insides of Trees." It has a very short section on Photos of Forests. The author's focus is primarily on Evergreen trees, because they inevitably seem to yeild the most interesting photos. And it's pretty good: hits all the right trees, clearly knows the arboreal arts, etc. Even worse, it's from the first press I was planning on contacting in September. Uggh.

Last night, I sort of flipped out a bit--I'd been scooped, or at least a third of my book had been scooped. I knew it could happen. The iron was hot for a book like this. Three collections had come out since I defended my diss, but no coherent statement had been made in the form of a monograph. Yet here it is, in my hands.

My first impulse was "crap. now I won't be able to sell my book. I'll have to chop it up up into individual articles and send them out all over creation, and hope I can get tenure based on a series of articles." It might not be that bad, and I had a sense even as I was going into full panic that perspective on the issue was only an hour or so away.

The good news? One: It's on only one section of my book. Two, the section on Photos of Forests quotes me twice, fairly substantively. Three, it doesn't at all engage the work of the theorist that forms the center of my book's inquiry. In fact, I am shocked to find that I am quoted more often in this book than is Judith Butler (who knew that Evergreen Photography is performative?). So my central argument seems not to be touched on in this book.

So how big a deal is this, really? I don't know. I suspect that it may mean that I can't really expect anything from this press, even if I solicit another series that might be appropriate. I also have to grapple with this book pretty seriously in places, because there are some very important parts of her argument that speak directly to fairly important pieces of mine, and I can think of at least one argument that she's making that was an original argument when I first wrote it out.

If anything, this is my impetus to write write write. I've got some reading for the grad class to do this week (one of the articles is actually by this author, and now part of this book), but Friday morning, I want to pull out the manuscript and revisit the introduction. Start from the ground up. The time is now. Or it was a year and a half ago.


Sisyphus said...

Fret not! I think this is still do-able. You may have to shrink down the section that overlaps and expand on the other sections, but I don't think you've been scooped in the crippling sense we usually mean it in.

You could also think about where you're getting the trees --- maybe you could refocus this as a thing on global evergreens? Or evergreens on both sides of the atlantic?

Whichever, keep calm and keep working --- all will be well in the end.

Dr. Virago said...

You're right that this probably means that particular press might balk at your book, though you never know -- they might see it as a good companion to the other. It depends on how they're seeing their product, as focused or diffuse. I know that in my own case, I was rejected by a press that though my work was too close to another book in the same series, even though that book was a history book and never addressed the literature I was addressing. Our works were merely thematically similar (to use your example, I was writing on a specific sub-genre of the Literature of Trees and Gender, she was writing on the broader cultural history of Trees and Gender).

But this book is brand new. Get your proposals out there to other presses and they won't necesssarily have seen this book yet. Scale back the section that overlaps or revise it to take on her account, or whatever it needs. You should see this as part of the conversation of your subject -- adapt your work so that's it clear that it's contributing to the conversation and not overlapping with it. In fact, you can even use that to your advantage in proposals by pointing out that there's a market and conversation already.

There are positive ways of looking at this (though I totally understand the momentary panic it provokes). A quick story to demonstrate the positive spin: I heard a talk at Kalamazoo by a PhD student whose work I knew dovetailed somewhat with mine, and so I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say and maybe talking with him, asking questions, etc. When he gave the paper, my heart started to sink, not because it was bad, but because it was almost the *exact* same argument I'd made in my concluding chapter in my book (which at the time was two months away from being released)! Oh no, I thought, how do I break the news to him? I was literally shaking when I went up to him after the panel, because I felt like I was about to deliver a death blow. But his reaction totally surprised me -- he got all excited and said, "Yeah! I'm part of a conversation! I have someone to talk to!" And in his case, too, the chunk that overlapped with mine was just one part of his whole argument, the rest of which went off in different direction, though complementary to my own arguments. He'll have to adjust that chapter -- or get rid of it in the book if not the dissertation, but together our work (he has articles out) says, "Hey, pay attention -- something's going on here that more than one person is seeing and talking about."

So see, this could be a good thing.