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Semi-Academic Nonfiction

It’s been such a long time since I last blogged and I have so many potential blogposts in mind, that I almost don’t know where to start or where it’ll lead me. Of course, I have many other things to do. But, coming out of a cold, I find it hard to just “get back on the saddle”. Besides, I’ve often noticed that blogging was an efficient way for me to ramp up towards more productive work.

The topic I’m considering now is related to the issue of “public intellectuals”, which has often preoccupied me in the past. This blog has never had a clear focus, hence the “disparate” title. But issues pertaining to the social roles of intellectuals have constituted something of a core thread, in my blog writing. In a way, it connects several themes that I like to explore, including some functions blogs may fulfill, in some people’s lives.

My “latest” blogpost on the topic (from August, 2010!) probably provides an adequate summary of some of my key thoughts on the issue.

An extension of these thoughts is found in the sphere of book-length publications. While I’ve been on the record with my dislike of longform texts, I do occasionally read them. Not frequently and not necessarily with positive results. But it’d still be inaccurate to say that I just “don’t read books, anymore”.

For better or worse, I do go through full book-length “content”, once in a while. And it’s starting to feel like those film studies people who can’t enjoy movies anymore because they know the structure of most movies by heart.

Apart from a few textbooks for classes I teach (a topic for another day), I mostly end up with books of a specific genre: “semi-academic nonfiction” (SAN, hereafter). SAN books are frequently written by academics but are meant for a “general audience”.

This genre has a clear definition, in my mind, whether or not publishers would agree with this genre definition. Since “genre theory” was part of my training in ethnomusicology and folkloristics, I find it amusing to think about this genre.

The reason I mention that publishers may disagree with my genre characterization is that it sounds both too broad (encompassing such disparate things as “popular science”, “philosophical essays”, and “business books”) and too specific (not all nonfiction books are “semi-academic”). My genre characterization is based on the observation of similarities at formal and structural levels between books which are likely to be found on different bookshelves in bookstores and libraries.

Some features common to SAN books are also found in other genres. For instance, a rich blend of anecdotes and facts is as likely to be found in a biography as in a “popular science” book. I still perceive a difference, though, in the way narrative and statement are integrated. In SAN books, personal narratives engage the reader on the path toward the core rhetorical devices in these books: statements of facts. Biographies work almost the reverse way as it sounds like factual section provide support for the personal, anecdotal, “lived”.

In SAN books, support for statements of facts is provided in a popular analogue to the academic citation. It has a bit of the “superlative tone” found in journalism (“Dr. Smith is a distinguished scholar from a well-known institution”), but it provides a more direct way to find the original statements than most journalistic references.

In other nonfiction books, there might be more of a tendency to present “documentation”. In this sense, these books are closer to the standards of academic history. In strike contrast with history, though, these books do little to encourage critical thinking. In a way, it’s almost as if providing a document is sufficient evidence and the reader should look no further. “There were 53 passengers on this boat. See this receipt from the shipping company as proof of this incontrovertible fact.”

An obvious but significant trope found in SAN books is the difficulty to understand academese. “Don’t worry! Though this book is based on academic concepts, we won’t use scary words.” Even if other nonfiction books use academic references and provide as much depth as SAN books, they appear to be immune from accusations of flirting with academese so they are unlikely to contain direct statements related to that trope.

Which connects to the fact that SAN books are significantly different from academic books. In some bookstores and libraries, both book genres may be found on the same shelves, especially if some academic book has received some notoriety in the general public. But most academic books are rarely found outside of specialized libraries and bookstores. Academic publishers typically have a very specific approach to distribution, distinct from the mainstream publishing houses which release most SAN books. Which is not to say that academic publishers exclusively release academic books. In fact, most university presses have “general” books, meant for a broad audience. But it still sounds like academic publishing is its own “game”, especially in terms of distribution.

At first blush, it’d seem that “readability” is the main differentiating factor between academic writing and what I call “semi-academic nonfiction”. To outsiders (including academics from another discipline), lack of readability is almost a defining feature of an academic text. To some, this unreadability comes from the complexity of the material itself. To others, it’s a sign that academics are unskilled writers. In such a context, the increased readability of books which “aren’t too academic” is probably welcome.

In my mind, there’s a lot more than readability at stake when we talk about SAN nonfiction.

Which might lead me to introduce a dimension I have yet to bring up but which has been on my mind. The genre I’m describing here is “culture-specific” in the sense that it relates most directly to a single cultural context: large English-speaking publishing houses in North America and Europe. Sure, there are equivalent genres in other contexts. But I still perceive differences between these genres.

For instance, Francophones may recognize several PUF books as bearing some similarity to what I call “SAN books”. Through the lens of “literary genres, though”, one could easily identify differences between the most popular of the PUF books and a typical SAN book. After all, PUF remains an academic publisher and its mainstream offerings would likely rate lower in readability than many academic books published in English in the United States. Flammarion and Les Éditions de l’Homme are other Francophone publishers which release a number of popular books which may resemble SAN ones. In fact, they offer French versions of some key SAN books originally published in English. Among their original offerings are books written by academics. Contrary to PUF, though, I would argue that these books are even more readable than SAN ones. Or, at least, they appear less “ambitious” in tone. They’re also marketed and distributed in very different ways, which has to do with the differences in book markets.

Of course, much of this is subjective in that I may perceive differences that others might find irrelevant, unrepresentative, or even inexistent. But part of genre work relates to the reading subjects, the “reception” of the books. Even if these books were identical, their place in their respective contexts would still distinguish them.

Something close to an argument, in the background of my thinking about semi-academic nonfiction: this genre is partly based on references to key exemplars. The “inspiration” for a SAN book comes as much from other SAN books as from the topic. Between SAN books, there is an “intertextual dialogue” (to use what some may consider academic jargon). After a while, the structural characteristics of a genre can give way to a “formula”, a “recipe”. The phenomenon has been discussed at length by movie critics, about film genres. It seems to me that something similar happens with some book genres.

It probably wouldn’t be controversial if I were discussing “self-help books”. The genre is known enough to have its clichés and parodies. Something similar could be said about other “recipe-like” book genres, also giving way to spoofs.  In these cases, it seems easy to identify what makes the genre “stick”, even if it’s at a superficial level.

For SAN books, there may be some clichés, such as the subversion of a well-known advertising message. And, certainly, “gimmicky” names are common. But these features are unlikely to help in identifying SAN as a genre, distinct from other parts of “nonfiction”.

A potentially easier way to describe the genre is to take one of its key components. In this case, “popular science” is perhaps most appropriate. To me, mainstream books written by academic scientists on topics pertaining to their area of expertise are at the core of the SAN genre. Depending on how far one may want to extend the concept of “science”, this could potentially include the majority of books that I’d label as “semi-academic nonfiction”. Wikipedia makes it sound like “popular science” could be the equivalent of French «vulgarization», which has long kept my interest.

But, then, there are features of popular science books which may distinguish them from other members of the SAN genre. The reference to the scientific method might be one, as other SAN books can borrow their methodology from humanities or other fields with infrequent claims of “scientificity” (including philosophy, mathematics, and theology). The relationship to a given discipline is another, as it’s quite possible to build SAN across diverse disciplines. I’m sure there are people who would label these other SAN books as “popular science” but, for one thing, the purpose of these books may be less about popularizing a science than about developing a special type of rhetorical device. And, clearly, there are many “popular science” books which deviate from the core model in that their authors are writing outside of their fields (or, at least, in surprising extensions of their fields). On some occasions, going outside of one’s area of expertise is a recipe for disaster. The point, though, is that it might be useful to separate “popular science” from other types of writing.

At the same time, it might not be so important to distinguish subgenres within the SAN genre, since my main concern is in describing the core of “semi-academic nonfiction”.

Business books are a special case, since many of them eschew any relationship to academia. However, I still perceive some similarities between books written by business school (and other) professors and SAN.

Maybe these books aren’t that easy to differentiate from other business books, though. And that’s part of what got me thinking about this genre. To me, nonfiction books written by academics tend to resemble some key business books, even if they have little to do with business. There’s something about tone, rhetorical devices, structure of the argumentation, status of proofs, handling of citations… There might be little in common between Musicophilia and Good to Great, yet somehow, I get the impression that popular business books have served as a model for SAN publishing. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of the authors’ writing. But in the way these books are selected, edited, presented, marketed, distributed, promoted, and sold.

I’ve already linked to a few SAN books, some of which I haven’t read (including one of the last two I mentioned). Much of my thinking about these books comes from just a few examples.

Chronologically,

  1. Good to Great (listened to the audiobook in a friend’s vehicle, on the way back from South Bend, IN)
  2. This Is Your Brain On Music (bought it, using a gift certificate, in view of a course I teach)
  3. The Most Human Human (listened to the audiobook after hearing interviews with Christian, used a chapter in a coursepack)
  4.  Now You See It (been listening to the audiobook, might use a chapter in a coursepack)

So, just four books, giving me a strong impression of belong to a specific genre. From there, I’ve been thinking about other books I’m either aware of or have read in part. And, at list in my mind, the picture is clear enough that there’s something there.

Much of the time, my awareness of SAN comes from podcasts. After all, as an aural guy, I tend to do a lot through “spoken word” and it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve listened to audiobook versions of three of these books. But there’s more to podcasts and nonfiction than the audible aspect.

In fact, the relationship between nonfiction and podcasts is quite interesting as podcasts may be an ideal channel for the promotion of these books. Some of these podcasts are also broadcast on the radio, but the fact that I can listen to them at my leisure, stopping at will to take notes, means that I’m more likely to pay attention to these books.

At the same time, my approach to these books isn’t about “consuming content” (don’t get me started). It’s more about using them for a specific context. Frequently, I pay attention to these books because I think that they may be useful to other people. Most specifically, I’ve been paying attention to books that I could use for coursepacks.

Speaking of coursepacks. Brian Christian’s book on artificial intelligence is the only SAN I’ve used in a coursepack (in “cyberspace sociology”). I wasn’t able to use Levitin’s work on music cognition in a coursepack because I haven’t taught about music since I’ve read the book. If I get to teach about “cyberspace” again, which sounds likely, Davidson’s approach to educational technology will offer a nice complement to Christian.

That specific course on “cyberspace”, which I just finished, has been the context for something of an experiment. Apart from a chapter in Christian’s book (and other SAN texts), several texts may sound like strange choices for first-year university course, including a chapter from Tara Hunt’s The Whuffie Factor. What I noticed the most, in terms of genre distinctions and students’ reactions, is that even when readability is the feature students may discuss most explicitly, they’re able to do appropriate work across diverse types of writing. In other words, popular, SAN, and academic material can productively be integrated in the same coursepack.

As a kind of addendum… I haven’t discussed another book category which bears some resemblance to semi-academic nonfiction: pseudoscience and pseudo-academic writing. In fact, I had in mind the case of an author I’ve frequently discussed in a negative way (on- or offline). I could even use a rather damaging review of that author’s work by an academic I’ve already linked here. But pseudo-academic writing may not represent a genre. It may be an improper (and often journalistic) approximation of semi-academic nonfiction and, as such, can show the genre’s limits. But my main reason for mentioning it here is to point out that the “semi” in “semi-academic” shouldn’t be interpreted as pejorative.

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