Friday, May 04, 2007
Martha Smith Living
This post is for the English profs who lurk in Roxie's World. Oh, I know you're out there, scads of you, sneaking in here in the middle of the day when you just can't stand to read another student paper, clicking furtively on my URL when you've lost the will to believe that a 42-minute Google search constitutes serious scholarly work, popping back in for one more look before heading off to that meeting you dread attending. Has Roxie updated yet? What on earth did I do with that Learning Outcomes Assessment draft I was supposed to take to this meeting? I wonder how Roxie’s new fish are adjusting to life in the pond. Can I fail a student for using “impactful” as an adjective? Has Roxie taken a position yet on how The Sopranos is winding down?
I know you’re out there, and I love every single overworked, underpaid, too-literate-for-this-world one of you, so this post is just for you. You’ll appreciate as few others can its odd mix of existential angst, the perils of poor proofreading, and academic publishing in the age of global capital. Oh, and of course the subversion of heteronormativity and the hegemony of literary canon-formation. Whatever the heck those are. Moose has been feeding me big words again.
Goose is having a weird week. You might say she’s been having an “out of vitae” experience. The other day she got an e-mail from an old professional friend with what should have seemed like a strange question. “Are you dead?” the friend inquired. “No,” Goose breezily replied before pressing “send” to go back to the all-important task of purging the erectile dysfunction messages from her in-box. Are you dead??!
Backstory: The English profs out there know that in the world of college textbook publishing, a new edition of a major anthology of literature is a very big deal. It’s tantamount to an automobile company doing a major re-design of an old model. There is a lot at stake, because textbook sales are one of the few places where independent publishers can still make money nowadays. Reputations are on the line. Receptions are held. Competing anthologies are mercilessly dissected by friends of the new anthology’s editors in online reviews. Most importantly, before the ink has barely had a chance to dry, free copies of the new anthology are sent out to English profs all over the country so they have a chance to kick the tires on the new model and decide if they’d like to order a couple of hundred copies for their fall classes. Free books are one of the few perks English profs get, so they are delighted when they go to their faculty mailboxes and find them stuffed with bulky boxes from publishers.
This spring, English profs all over the country have been opening up boxes containing an impressive new 5-volume anthology. Just for fun, let’s call it The Horton Anthology of American Literature. Horton is one of the leaders in the field of literary textbook publishing. Their critical edition series is the gold standard for scholarly and textual rigor. The moms are great admirers of Horton and have relied on their books for years. That’s why I’ve decided to offer “Horton” the veil of a pseudonym in the story I am about to tell. They are a fine publisher. Moose has a contract with them for an edition she was supposed to finish. . .awhile ago. And they probably have a team of lawyers ready to pounce on anyone who casts aspersions on their hefty new anthology. They are determined not to lose business to the competing, um, Wreath Anthology of American Literature.
Goose, as my loyal fans and a lot of the English profs know, is a big muckety-muck in the world of Emily Dickinson studies. She’s published a bunch of books and has an online scholarly edition of works by and about Dickinson, the Dickinson Electronic Archives. So, when the editors of the new Horton Anthology were updating the Dickinson section they naturally turned to Goose for suggestions on what to include and how to present one of America’s greatest poets to a new century of readers. Goose, as you might imagine, has some fairly strong opinions on these issues (most of which involve the aforementioned subversion of heteronormativity), which she was happy to share with the editors. The editors, being both gracious and grateful, expressed their appreciation by listing her in the acknowledgments to the anthology.
Acknowledgments are wonderful. They are a civilized custom that reminds you that scholarly publishing is always a collective endeavor undertaken by mostly nice, earnest people who are happy to acknowledge their debts. They can also be a fun way to pick up bits and pieces of academic gossip, such as who is sleeping with whom (or was when the book was in press) or who was whose teacher or who was mad enough about thus-and-such to leave so-and-so out of her long list of thank-yous. English profs read acknowledgments very carefully – but apparently someone at Horton didn’t read the acknowledgments to the 5-volume Horton Anthology of American Literature quite carefully enough.
Which perhaps explains how my beloved and very much alive Goose came to be listed in those acknowledgments as, and I quote, "Martha Nell Smith (late of the University of Maryland)." (Aside to English profs: Go get Volume A of your new Horton down off the shelf. Remove the plastic covering if you haven’t done so already and turn to page xxvi [though the error is repeated in the acknowledgments to all five volumes]. Goose is listed about two-thirds of the way down that long final paragraph.)
Are you dead? Moose pinched Goose’s arm. “Ouch,” she said with that tone of mild annoyance she gets in her voice when we interrupt her in the midst of deep thought with some trivial domestic concern. “Nope,” Moose declared, “you are definitely not dead.” I licked her face to be sure. Same tasty mix of salt, oil, and food crumbs as well as a reassuring puff of warm, moist air as I zoomed in on the nasal region. “Yep,” I seconded. “You live and breathe.”
How could such a thing have happened? you might wonder. Was it merely a case of mistaken identity that somehow got overlooked in the process of copy-editing a gargantuan manuscript? Or did something more sinister occur – Was this premature burial some nefarious plot to diminish Goose’s influence, perhaps in the interest of saving Emily Dickinson and heteronormativity from her relentless assaults on the myth of the broken-hearted Belle of Amherst in thrall to some male Master? Fortunately, Roxie’s World doesn’t have to involve itself in trying to solve the mystery of who killed Goose and why, but I hasten to assure my legions of loyal fans that her in-box has been loaded all week with explanations and apologies from the red-faced team of folks involved with the Horton Anthology, several of whom are close personal friends. As a manuscript scholar, Goose is sympathetic to the simple fact that errors happen, because texts are produced and edited by human beings. Indeed, one could argue that the strange case of her own death-by-textual-error proves a point she has been exploring professionally for nearly twenty-five years. She has accepted the apologies and urged Horton to examine its procedures for fact-checking.
Meantime, here in Roxie’s World, we’ve embraced the incident as an unexpected spring gift, an opportunity to engage in the kind of sophomoric gallows humor we especially enjoy. As in: Moose bumped into one of the Horton editors at the office yesterday and asked him if he was coming to Goose’s memorial service. As in: We cordially invite all you English profs to send us your copies of the new Horton. Goose will autograph the page on which she is listed as “late,” thus exponentially increasing the value of your free book, at least until that sad moment when Goose actually slips this mortal coil and proves the Horton editors correct at last. Act fast, friends. The error will be corrected in the second printing of the anthology, which will be out in a matter of months.
Are You Dead? A Prequel
Once upon a time a long, long time ago when Moose and Goose were cat-lesbians instead of dog-lesbians, Moose was worried because Goose was showing signs of serious stress. This was in the early days of life on the tenure track. Goose has always been a little driven, but under the pressures of her first real job, she took a turn toward hard-core Type A behavior. She worked constantly, slept little, and considered fast typing a form of aerobic exercise. Moose worried, because that’s what Moose does and because heart attacks run in Goose’s family. Anyway, one night, deep in the middle of the night, Moose woke suddenly (and this was in the time before hormonal imbalance made sleep disruption a nasty fact of Moose’s life). Restless, she rolled over and looked at Goose. (The cats, Spike and Lily, slept peacefully at the bottom of the bed.) In the darkness or the furry-headedness of interrupted sleep, she suddenly became concerned that Goose wasn’t breathing. Her looking became an anxious stare, which became a frantic search for signs of life. Convinced that she saw none, Moose shook poor Goose and shook her again until her exhausted partner finally awakened and said, “What? What? What is it?” “Oh,” said Moose, enormously relieved, “never mind.” “What do you mean, ‘never mind’?” growled the now fully roused Goose. “Why did you wake me up?” “Well,” said Moose sheepishly, “I was worried that you were dead.” Goose took a deep, loud breath, rolled her eyes, and went back to sleep. Moose stroked a cat, closed her eyes, and silently promised never to give in to such silly anxieties again.
Lily explained to me later that this promise was broken a thousand times even before I came on the scene in 1994 with my own set of neuroses and anxieties. For some reason, Goose accepts our eternal vigilance as a small price to pay for our love and companionship. We are fond of pointing out that we have managed to keep her alive so far – which, we can’t resist noting, is more than we can say for certain proofreaders.
(Photo Credit: Moose; Goose -- Alive in Paris, 2006)