On the Satisfactions of Editing a Book Series

February 11, 2012, 2:27 pm

Lately my Facebook friends are very aware that I have become a co-editor (with Renee Romano of Oberlin College) of a book series at the University of Georgia Press, Since 1970:  Histories of Contemporary America. Friends (and “friends”) are getting barraged daily with little items from the new author page I set up  last week for Since 1970:  Histories of Contemporary America.  Want to like our page?  Go here. Want to order the first book in the series, J. Brooks Flippen’s Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right? Go here. Want to pre-order Renee’s and my new edited collection, Doing Recent History: On Privacy, Copyright, Video Games, Institutional Review Boards, Activist Scholarship, and History That Talks Back? (Of course you do: go here.)

See, you just started reading and already I have given you the opportunity to order two great books!  Now you know what my Facebook friends must feel like: overwhelmed with opportunities for self-improvement.

I like being a series editor.  It gives me a chance to hang out with Renee, who now lives half-way across the country; and with our acquisitions editor, Derek Krissoff, a former Zenith student who went off to graduate school in history but has long since become a savvy publisher with his own expense account.  Our board members are cool people, and the meals you want to schedule with them at conferences become tax-deductible. This, for those of us who are not Mittens Romney, makes us popular with our tax accountants. Every once in a while I even get a little check in the mail for a book I didn’t write, but did help to shepherd through the process, so I send that off to the Cayman Islands to Toyota Credit Services.

Like everything else about being an academic, series editors are not in it for the money. We’re in it for the fun. Being an editor gives us a chance to help an author make a book what s/he wants it to be, and actually that’s a highly rewarding experience.  We also keep people company, to the best we can, since writing can too often be a solitary and frustrating task. People weren’t born knowing how to write a book, and few people receive any formal instruction on this critical skill in graduate school or after.  Most people try to puzzle it out on their own: if you are lucky, someone will throw you a copy of William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (Chicago, 2005). It also takes a long time to finish a book, even after it is written:  production alone can easily take nine months, and that’s after you’ve gone through the multiple drafts that may have taken you up to a decade.  Having help with all of that can — well, help.

So anyone reading this who has finished a book lately is, I hope, feeling great pride in the accomplishment. But let me just tell you?  Anyone who had a role in helping you get there is proud of you too.

In any case, this week’s special deluxe package from the University of Georgia Press contained — just in time for election year! — Derek Musgrove’s Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post–Civil Rights America. (You can order it herehere, or at a slight discount, here.  If you are a member of the author’s family, you may wish to check that your copy is not already in the mail.)  Musgrove demonstrates that increased scrutiny of elected officials after the Watergate investigations had a special impact on Black politicians, charges of corruption became part of the repertoire of white resistance to the political gains of the civil rights movement.

By 2007, a Democratic official at the state level was seven times as likely to be targeted for a official corruption investigation as a Republican, and many of those officials were Black.  But one of the lessons you might also draw from this book is that official forms of Republican harassment that became common during the Clinton administration (for example, convening endless grand juries, appointing special prosecutors, launching groundless committee investigations and prosecutorial fishing expeditions) were pioneered against Black politicians in the 1970s and 1980s.  Covering harassment with legal processes became a seemingly non-racial way of limiting the impact of Black politicians and their constituencies.  Such tactics sought to remove often powerful representatives who had already been elected, intimidating potential candidates from entering politics in the first place, and securing a permanent Republican majority by tainting all Democrats as corrupt.

So how did we ever get a Black president under these conditions? It’s no accident that Barack Obama is as squeaky clean as Rosa Parks, and that the worst thing that can be said about him in the Republican debates is that he is trying to force Americans to get good health care.  Nor is it an accident that many on the Republican right wing believe, against all evidence, that Obama’s election to the presidency is fraudulent.  Musgrove’s book traces a broader phenomenon than Black harassment, what he calls the “new conspiracism,” or the belief that a small group of people (“them”) are manipulating larger political events that disadvantage the majority (“us.”) Within this frame, he argues that the end to legal segregation and formal disfranchisement created the grounds for a new form of electoral power politics:  ”once in power,” he argues, “Republicans disproportionately investigated black elected officials in their pursuit of party realignment.” (9)

It’s a terrific read, particularly in a year when the Black guy with the long-term mistress was knocked out of the Republican primaries; but the white guy with three marriages under his ample belt, who shtupped the intern while attempting to unseat a President for “not having sex” with that intern, is still playing Whack-a-Mole with the nomination, despite the unimpeachable marital integrity of the Other Two White Guys.

Unlike politicians, books are like butterflies. They perfect themselves over time, little bits of them shed along the way as they become transformed into the lovely thing that the reader — and the author, of course — finally holds in his or her hand.  My memory of taking my own first book out of the post box was of being slightly stunned:  all the phases of work that had gotten it out of my head and into my hand were forgotten as I looked at this thing that had become a reality. (In fact, just the other day I found the seminar paper that became the dissertation that became the book that became the movie — oh wait. There wasn’t a movie.)

If there is anything that is a thrill equivalent to that of getting one’s own book in the mail, it would be getting someone else’s book in the mail and having been part of the project. There is a strong impulse to chuckle and say:  ”Well, well, well.  I knew you when you were just a set of notes on a cocktail napkin!” In fact, I like getting other people published almost as much as I like getting my own work published.


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