MLA Convention dispatch #2: w(h)ither publishing?

An anonymous MLA convention-goer is sending dispatches, including this one, while Maud is otherwise engaged this week. Unfamiliar with the Modern Language Association? Consult this quick primer.

The keys — well, two anyway — to surviving the MLA are hydration and overcaffeination.

This makes the loooong line at Starbucks a great place to scope the latest fashion trends in academe. Will patterned hose be big again this year? What’s with the longer hair on older men?

Theory rockstar Slavoj Zizek encouraged readers to “enjoy your symptom!” At the MLA, it’s “accessorize your paranoia!” Everyone is practiced in the quick glance at the conference badge — do I know you? Should I? Do you have a better job or affiliation than I do?

And then there are the many unwise shoe choices. For example, one of the publishing reps at Palgrave was wearing stiletto-heeled leather boots — sexy, but not the ideal footwear for eight hours of standing. Also, the academics are more interested in scamming “desk copies” of books they will never include on a syllabus anyhow.

The book exhibit is in many ways the most rewarding aspect of the MLA. It’s a total see-and-be-seen scene. Publish me! Why isn’t my book prominently displayed? Give/send me free/steeply discounted books! Assign our anthology! Come to our author appearance! Free wine and cheese and crudite at 4:30! As I wandered around, I kept thinking of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ wise observation: “There are no problems at the MLA; there are only crises.” Just like publishing!

The big commercial houses take up multiple exhibitor slots, while the small university presses sometimes combine forces in a sliver of a space. For example, Bedford/St. Martin’s took up two spots and brought along a small sofa. If you’re looking for literature among the shelves and shelves of anthologies, classroom guides, and Shakespeare editions, try sitting on the sofa and looking down and to your right. Tucked among the Bedford Cultural Editions were single copies of Chabon, Cunningham, Heaney, and Anita Diamant’s tent. I kept encouraging other exhibitors to maybe try napping on Bedford’s sofa. There’s not enough performance art at the MLA.

The University of Chicago jumped on the coffee table book bandwagon this year with the Encyclopedia of Chicago, referred to recently in the Atlantic Monthly as a “bonbon,” I’m told, albeit one marred by jargon. Yale’s and Rutgers’ university presses have tackled New York City and New Jersey, respectively, also looking to fatten their bottom lines with a dads-and-grads gift book.

Over at Random House, if you signed up for an email newsletter, you could take your pick of six free titles: Barak Obama was on offer, but I scored David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas instead. There was also a discreet stack of purple and white business cards, bearing Haruki Murakami’s site URL on one side and “Password: Kafka” on the other. It’s a well-designed site, too. Less sleek was the publishing conglomerate’s appropriation of the Staples slogan, “Yep. We’ve got that.” on postcards touting its services for academics.

David Barker, the editor of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, was still recovering from his flight from London the night before when I spoke to him. He’s signed titles through 2006, bringing the series total up to 42. When I asked after Franklin Bruno’s forthcoming book on Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Barker said it was supposed to be waiting in his email that very day. Hurry up, Franklin! Apparently, the imprint has also been battling with Warner/Chappell for permission to print the lyrics from REM’s Murmur, an official version of which famously doesn’t exist. The absence of an authorized version of Michael Stipe’s mumbled words leaves the door wide open for Justin Niimii’s linguistic approach to the album.

Remember the hubbub when Merriam-Webster announced that “blog” was the number one online lookup this year? It’s not actually true. The second word, “incumbent,” was actually number one, but who in the press is gonna write a story about that? Also, number 10, “defenestration,” made the list thanks to its popularity in Merriam-Webster’s favorite word survey earlier this year. It also gets the most click-throughs from the top 10 word list.

The people at Merriam-Webster track online lookups every day. “Electoral” was big in November, but the most popular pair day today is “affect/effect.” The rep I spoke with hadn’t logged in that day, but he was confident lookups of “tsunami” and its variant spellings would be off the charts.

And I had one bona fide celebrity sighting. A tall blonde in a yellow winter jacket popped briefly into a crowded panel, failed to find a seat, and left, but not before I got a nametag glimpse: Jenny Boylan!

Still to come: many panels on the future of the humanities in a fractured world [AKA starfucking in ballrooms]….


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