Wednesday, March 7, 2007

What exactly are you up to, Mr. Barnes? The outline of an answer

My friend Brenda Clough decided to venture an interpretation of what I am doing. Over on Usenet (I'm quoting this with her permission) she said,

"From this restriction it is obvious that Barnes intends the ultimate owners to be institutions (libraries, universities or big collectors) rather than the common or garden fan. A major university's research collection is well able to accomodate visiting scholars.

"Since the material does have research value (if not now then in future when Barnes' work will be better appreciated) it would be a mitzvah for the new owner to indicate, somewhere, a disposition of the manuscripts. Leave them to your alma mater in your will, for instance. At the very minimum, keep all the stuff together in an acid-free box in a dry room, and label it clearly so that your kids or grandkids don't just toss it after you die."

Well, alas, this isn't quite the way things are. I've mentioned before that I did academic cultural history for a long time – I was a theatre professor and taught theatre history and my research interests were in popular theatre, i.e. the stuff people went to as opposed to the stuff that was admired. Cultural history types in the various arts tend to mix and mingle a lot – because it's all one culture and it's all one people, and the same people who went to melodramas are the ones who bought broadside sheet music and penny dreadfuls and all the rest.

And here's something I'm very painfully aware of: libraries, archives, and museums are very dangerous places for pop culture collections, and can pretty much be counted on to destroy them at the earliest opportunity. There are shining exceptions – in theatre, there's the British Museum, the Harvard Theatre Collection, the Huntington, and the Musee des Arts du Spectacle – but for the most part, a collection donated to a library is going to be rather quickly either tossed or "edited" in a way that loses most of the information.

Yet if I'd just sold it through a private collector (an option I did explore), I'd have been cutting off some very important aspects with regard to my writing career, which is probably only about halfway through (I just turned fifty, my first story was published when I was twenty-five…)

Anyway, here's sort of my outline for what I'm thinking and what I'm trying to do.

1. University libraries are run by academic librarians, and for the last two generations, their focus has not been on archival of cultural materials, nor even on the support of research, but on "service," which is defined approximately as getting as many undergrad cans into as many comfy chairs as possible. Archives take up space that can be better used for desks with computer terminals so that students can check their email, or couches where students can pretend to study. As a result, there's an immense amount of throwing away even in the regular collections. Just to cite some examples I've witnessed:
a. At one time it was standard to maintain copies of older editions of books for scholars to study the changes over time. For example, when I was writing the article about lighting in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, and wanted to see how Stanley McCandless (the inventor of modern stage lighting) had changed in his thinking, I needed copies of all four editions of his basic book on lighting. This turned out to require interlibrary loan and a good deal of time, because nearly every library had thrown out the earlier editions. Furthermore the interlibrary loan people kept helpfully bringing me the fourth edition when I had asked for earlier ones, because "look, there's one that's more up to date." A friend of mine studying the thought of some recent economists tells me that situation is even worse; he's given up on libraries entirely and uses aLibris and various used book stores to try to locate earlier editions. What do you suppose that mentality will do when it finds it has six successive drafts of a book?
b. Large libraries that are the alma mater of important theatrical designers are well-known for keeping the (often not important) writings and tossing the (vital) blueprints, working drawings, renderings, and so forth; librarians are a logocentric bunch. In one case I discovered that where a collection of materials by Frank Napier (one of the developers of modern sound effects) had been donated, the library had retained a copy of the manual he'd written (which is still widely available) and of all the playscripts he'd worked from, but thrown away all his machine diagrams (utterly irreplaceable and vital to understanding his work). Now, as a science fiction writer, I find myself thinking about the table covered with butcher paper that Heinlein used to plot the orbits for Space Cadet. Do you suppose that, say, the Truman State Library would have kept that butcher paper, had it been donated there?
c. Increasingly large libraries have a policy of trashing "obsolete media" – LPs, 78s, 16 mm film, and so forth – even when there are no equivalent replacements available. I know of one collection of early opera recordings – 78s dating from the 1910-30 era – where a music school library simply noted down the titles as they threw them out, put a line into the budget for replacing those 78s with CDs, and happily pocketed the difference when many of them turned out not to have been available on CD. My department chair once spent several days dumpster diving because the library had decided to throw out all the movies-on-film, even though picture quality on VCR was of course much worse and for some movies there were no VHSreplacements available; he was sternly warned that he was "interfering with library policy" by rescuing that material, since the library had determined that VHS was just as good.
d. Or, in short, librarians often don't know what they're discarding, don't understand it, and don't want to. Maintaining archives is not "service" and service is what you get money for.
2. I need these collections to be more than just kept. I need them looked at and sought after. This is a career move, folks. Let me just explain how things look to me:
a. Over in the commercial side of my life, where I do unprompted response studies (yeah, I know that's an oxymoron, but to survey analysts a "response" is the raw data, so that's what we call spying on blogs and other e-communication), I've concentrated for a couple of years on the study of Gen Y (as marketers call them) or the Millennials (as they prefer to be called), the giant generation born 1978-95 (boundaries are always in some dispute, but those are the years I use). Now and then I get to look at their reading habits, and here's the main thing I observe:
i. For older generations asked to name favorite books, writers, etc., for example on dating sites, the list tends to be of bestselling writers, mainly commercial ones, as you would expect for any group of people that aren't professors or critics.
ii. But for gen Y, the most frequently cited favorite books, authors, etc. coincide with eerie precision to various English-teacher association lists of most-assigned books. (Certain exceptions noted, because there are some widely assigned books almost no one likes).
iii. This jibes pretty well with the observation that gen Ys who say they like to read – i.e. the actual readers among them – cite "class assignment" as the most common way they found their favorite author.
b. So, I said to myself, "Self, what causes a contemporary book to get taught, at least at the college level where you know much of anything about it?"
i. And now I shall let you all in on a small, not terribly dirty secret. Professors very often are assigned to teach classes outside their areas of expertise, and when they are, the first thing they do is go to the scholarly literature to see what the main lines of thinking about the subject is. This saves a great deal of time – you find out who you absolutely have to read, and also you avoid falling for various nut theories, and just in case your students ever do study with someone who actually knows the subject, you haven't loaded them up with things they'll have to unlearn.
ii. So the quick answer is that the ones that are assigned, to a great extent, are the ones of whom studies have been done.
c. Now, each of those collections I have been auctioning off is effectively a master's thesis or a journal paper in a box. "The search for an ending in John Barnes's THE SKY SO BIG AND BLACK." "John Barnes's planned deployment of Elizabethan theatrical tropes in ONE FOR THE MORNING GLORY." "The Evolution of Teenage Slang in John Barnes's Century Next Door series." "Barnes's stock cast goes on the road: how his sci fi characters played in men's action adventure." "Elements of oral storytelling in John Barnes's FINITY and GAUDEAMUS." And so forth and so on. Any decent grad student or junior faculty member could derive half a dozen papers from any of the collections – it would be easy. And what I'm betting is that if I make it known that the collections are there – and that they are easy paths to something publishable, with everything you need in one place – that the occasional desperate-for-a-paper master's or Ph.D. candidate will give it a whirl.
d. Which means, in very brief, I get written about by scholars, which means professors looking to teach a sci fi class (that's what they'll call it, gnash though the fans may) will find my work referred to in "the literature" (by which they mean, not literature, but things about literature), and I shall be forcefed to the next generation – which seems to be the main way that writers are reaching them nowadays. (Even Harry Potter came in through the classroom initially – via the Scholastic Book Club).
3. Okay, you can argue about the effectiveness of that as a strategy, but it's not necessarily any dumber than going to conventions and trying to be charming, or logrolling to get awards. And there's one more aspect to this worth mentioning. Collectors in general profit by having the subject matter of their collections written about. Scholarly articles are a big part of why some artists are more collectible than others
a. Just to cite an example I'm familiar with, pre-World War 2 theatrical posters are insanely valuable nowadays, but in many cases fine works in better than average condition fetch less at auction because little or nothing is known of the artist – the few surviving posters are locked away in collections, so no one has ever studied them to find the achievement and significance of the artist.
b. On the other hand, of course no collector wants the inconvenience and risk of opening up the collection to outsiders. The real ideal would be to have the artists you collect be heavily studied in other people's collections.
c. This of course is the classic tragedy of the commons or n-person prisoner's dilemma – what's best for everyone is slightly more costly to the individual. And one way to solve such problems is simply to impose a rule from outside.
4. So originally I imposed the scholarly access rule out of pure self-interest, but I've been delighted to discover that the collectors who have bought various collections from me are so far unanimous in wanting to make things available to scholars, in wanting to see the materials studied. Whether I like it or not, I seem to have run into a little vein of human cooperativeness and sharing, and I treasure that experience.
a. And thanks to the web and the internet, the scholar, critic, fan historian, or whatever who wants to look at the history and development of any of my works will be able to find out where the source is quickly and easily; in some ways this is better accessibility than in many museum collections, which tend to have archaic card catalogs referring to "Box, Author Smith, paper materials, 4 of 7." (This happens even to famous people; there probably was never a set designer more famed than Gordon Craig, and the Musee des Arts du Spectacle is justly proud of their Craig collection, but even they have things cataloged as "box, papers, Craig.") With final versions of letters of provenance posted on line, along with contact info, which I'll be doing as soon as the auctions are complete, the scholar will be able to find the collection and will know what's in there.
b. And in a real sense, the collectors I've found are exactly the ones I would want to have found. They genuinely want it and will care for it and promote it. I really don't think it could be in better hands. I know Gary Thompson (your source for Meme Wars and for One for the Morning Glory, now) has expressed disappointment that the collections didn't go for more money, and I certainly like money myself, but mostly I'm overjoyed that the collections seem to be finding genuinely good homes. Certainly much better homes a university library (apt to be abusive) or mine (apt to be neglectful). For the writer who cares about preservation, anyway, this is the road I heartily recommend. I've found nothing but good on it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you mr. Barnes, for that chilling description of today's libraries... Brrr!

Though, what would you call people that read lots (as in: reading-addicts) but: not the popular stuff ('cause that have to be bad, it's popular after all), not the assigned stuff (not all are students of literature), and aren't in fandom ('twould steal time from reading!) My younger brother is a gen-Y btw, he's always leeched on my collections.

John Barnes said...

Well, it's a big universe, and there are lots of different sorts of people. I seem to do fine with the really intense readers, the book-or-more-a-week people, but then so do a lot of writers (that's a big demand to satisfy). Commercial success, however, comes from the book-every-couple-months market, which is much, much bigger. And that, again, seems to be highly influenced by what is assigned, at least among younger readers. (And it's important to cultivate younger readers. Every year some of my older readers stop reading, sad to say, generally because they stop moving and cool to room temperature; they must be replaced with fresh ones, and the more recently born are among the most valuable). So my short answer is, you're simply a voracious reader, which is not really a generational thing. There have always been voracious readers, but there have rarely been enough of them to support a writer.