bookended

Yesterday I delivered the final manuscript of a book to the publisher. It represented quite an important moment for me, bringing together the insights gleaned from half a century of research on labour.

The last time I remember finishing a complete book in this way was back in 1981, in that burst of energy that high blood pressure produces in mid pregnancy. That one was never intended as a magnum opus, with a title (‘Your job in the Eighties’) that screamed that it had a sell-by date as well, of course, as a write-by date, imposed by the impending birth.

Little did I realise then how pressured the ensuing decades would be. I published edited collections and wrote an awful lot of book-length reports but the only really serious writing I did was in the form of relatively short essays, produced in the short intervals between the pressing demands of meeting the deadlines for the work that paid the bills.

Thanks to Monthly Review Press, some of these essays, originally written for very different audiences, and with the first dating back to 1978, were published together as a book in 2003, and another collection followed in 2014. But the essay format does not really allow you to build an argument slowly from the beginning and follow it through. On the one hand you cannot presuppose that the reader has read anything else you have written beforehand so you have to go back to square one to explain certain things each time (leading to repetition if they are read sequentially) and the length limit means you cannot go into as much depth and detail as would ideally be nice.

I was constantly urged by friends to ‘write a proper book’ and, indeed, told that I only had myself to blame for any lack of recognition or acknowledgement because I had not done so.

So at last, I bit the bullet and decided to write one, hoping that it might be my last word on this subject that has occupied so much of my time and allow me to move on to other things. I found it quite hard to write in some ways. Partly because, as ever, there were other demands on my time (among others the need to babysit my grand-daughter) but mainly because of the difficulty of avoiding self-plagiarism. If you have been saying something for fifty years (even if this is to very small or uncomprehending audiences) it does not feel fresh when you repeat it. As John Berger memorably said, ‘the first time you say something, you’re discovering a truth. The next time, it’s a little less true’. I would spend hours trying to find a new way to write something only to discover that I had put it much more succinctly, years ago.

Nevertheless, and despite a little bit of (duly acknowledged) recycling here and there I did, I think, manage at least to build a coherent argument starting in Chapter 1 and ending in Chapter 8, with a clear conceptual framework that I hope will be useful to other researchers and students (and maybe even some general readers) in years to come.

But Oh!, as they say, the irony.

However there was one thing I was not prepared for. Even after a working lifetime of playing Cassandra, I was still taken by surprise by one thing: the way that this ‘book’ is going to be published. In a particularly ironic twist, this provides one of the most vivid (and cruel) examples of precisely the kind of fragmentation (of thought processes, of labour processes, of social interaction…) that I have been writing about all these years and, indeed forms part of the book’s subject matter.

Palgrave Macmillan, the publishers, who are now part of the Springer empire, are in the process of introducing a new way of publishing books online, one that integrates them with the way that academic journals are increasingly published. While hard-copy ‘proper books’ printed on paper will no doubt remain, albeit increasingly expensive, they expect the majority of readers to purchase their contents online. And with that in mind they are putting together packages that enable subscribers to pick and mix from a suite of content. Instead of buying a whole book they will be able to download chapters, one at a time, and bundle them together with chapters from other books. Thus, at a stroke, destroying that coherence it has taken so long for me to craft and introducing all sorts of new scope for incomprehension for the reader who comes in at, say, chapter 5.

In this new environment, I suppose that old derided essay format, so criticised by my friends and blamed for my relative invisibility in the academic world, at least in the UK, will turn out to be the best way to communicate after all. Assuming that readers are credited even with the attention span to read 6,000 words consecutively, I fear that the future may be even worse: with the literature made up of individual nuggets, each with an abstract that will be all that most people read, arranged interchangeably in a two-dimensional mosaic in which the genealogy of ideas, the logical sequence of an argument, deep scholarship and, yes, even the quality of writing, are flattened out of existence.

It will be a world where the relationship between reader and writer, that sharing of ideas which matters so much to me, in both capacities, is reduced to a purely instrumental one. Writers are expected to produce a series of discrete, easily explained ‘contributions to knowledge’ (as the reviewers for the academic journals like to put it) which can be harvested as quickly as possible by readers whose only interest is in assembling them, along with others, like so many lego bricks, to produce their own, equally simplified, ‘contributions’. In a process that resembles nothing so much as a dating website – something I wrote about, as it happens, only a couple of weeks ago in my last blog entry.

Researchers, be warned. The fragmentation fairy is waving her wand and you are about to be transported to Academic Tinder. Where, if you have done your homework, you will know that the only successful swipes are those that go to the right.

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