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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.


  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.

Going Meta: Actively Reading Marc-Alexandre Gagnon

What follows is my annotations on a blogpost by Marc-Alexandre Gagnon (aka Alex Gagnon, Zoetica, JonasThanatos, etc.). I’m having fun and it sounds like Alex does too.

To recap:

  • Been following Alex’s Posterous blog for a little while. Not sure how we “met” but it probably had something to do with Twitter.
  • Alex had a blogpost about quality content: the Web, culture, art, and beauty. For diverse reasons others might guess, I just couldn’t leave it alone. Especially since I’ve been giving some thoughts to what Alex, it turns out, calls “the Search Society” (YouTube)
  • When I tried to post a comment on Alex’s “Google Paradox” blogpost, I had a technical problem and my comment wouldn’t go through. It stalled at “submitting,” probably because of some issue with the way Posterous handles these things (it’s a bit like Intense Debate).
  • I decided to make my comments into my own blogpost. I took the opportunity to add a few links along with a bunch of categories and tags, but the comment itself was left intact.
  • Alex and I interacted through Twitter. Sounds like Alex will Storify that interaction, in which we actually talked about how “meta” it was to respond to responses across diverse media.
  • Alex then followed the conversation through a new blogpost, in which he honours me by focusing on specific points I had made.
  • In the interest of playing even more with these different media, but also as something I like to do, I decided to use Diigo to annotate Alex’s new blogpost with direct comments. Reminds me of some email conversations I used to have, with “interlinear replies.”
  • Via, I posted the link to my annotated version of Alex’s blogpost.
  • What follows is the content of these annotations.
  • I’m assuming Alex and I will follow this up with a face-to-face conversation in a café, so there might be something on Foursquare.
  • I might also edit this blogpost later, to add metadata.
  • 😉

Without further ado (about nothing):

On Truth and Beauty and Other Things part I – Marc-Alexandre Gagnon 

  • riposting
    • I guess my blogpost may have sounded like a salvo.
  • a harangue on High Culture and Low Culture, or High Art and Lowly art
    • It could bring us closer to Adorno and the rest of the Frankfurt dudes.
  • no general theory of culture with principles that apply to all cultures.
    • We’re getting closer to agreeing, here. Which is ok.
  • I see culture as an artist, as a creator of cultural artefacts
    • Quite so. And this is where there might be a tension. On one hand, you associate your craft with the more restrictive notions of culture. But, on the other, you perceive something interesting in cultures. They’re not incompatible, but they create a kind of tension, as with consonance/dissonance.
  • I am not a cultural anthropologist.
    • And you don’t have to be one. Sorry if my claims about notions of culture made it sound like cultural anthropologists hold the key. The opposite is more accurate: cultural anthropologists spend hours on end arguing about the more than 300 definitions of culture which have been enumerated since 1871… (Tylor’s “Complex Whole” definition, followed by a catalogue of definitions…)
  • I can’t say that I really spend all that much time taking a theoretical standpoint on the phenomenon of human culture
    • You really don’t have to. There’s a division of labour, here. But there’s some fluidity involved in that division. You’re allowed to delve into cultural theory as I’m allowed to spend time in “cultural industries.”
  • fluent in a great number of cultures,
    • Which can get us to cultural awareness…
  • I create works of art, there are specific requirements I must fill, very strict guidelines
    • This one is a bit surprising. Or it represents the major point of disjunction. Perhaps because of my Jazz training, I see guidelines and requirements as emergent, fluid, negotiated, conversational.
  • thrilled that you took the time to write
    • All the thrill is mine. I felt an impulse to do something like this.
  • I have a problem with the idea that we can infer the intention one has to convey a certain meaning,
    • So do I. In fact, that’s the major insight people seem to have gained from Barthes’s Mort de l’auteur, and I find it very useful as a starting point.
  • I love semiotics and it’s something I need to consider often when painting or writing music, but to me it’s merely a means to an end, and end which is analytical
    • Agreed. And I was just talking about the fact that I prefer not to be too analytical about things I enjoy, for instance in literature. That’s partly why my comments are usually not about analysis of specific works but about broader ideas. As an ethical hedonist, I don’t want to destroy enjoyment.
  • But analysis is secondary.
    • In more ways than one.
    • Oh! Will have to read this! Especially since I’ve been trying to imagine the post-Web Internet. I understand it’s not just about what’s online, in your case. But I like the notion that there can be multiple worlds involved and the online one is, though real instead of “virtual,” but one of these worlds.
  • information foraging,
    • Very anthropological a concept.
  • I’m not  just singling out Google
    • Some things are still specific to Google. Especially those related to their ethos. In this case, “algorithm or nothing” is very Googley.
  • mise-en-abŷme,
    • We’re back to meta.
  • Quality as a social construct.
    • It was originally my key point, in response to your post. Because of my background, I feel the need to make sure we’re on the same page about this. Sounds like we are, though we’re reading this page in different ways. Perfect for me.
  • Concepts are tools for understanding things, levers for our own sensemaking in the world.
    • Sig!
  • qualities can be defined by the possession in an object of objective traits which make it “beautiful” or “qualitatively of higher grade”
    • Thanks. That’s what I needed. I just don’t conceive of things in this way, but I fully respect your approach. To me, quality is an interplay between “(human) subjects and (art) objects.” Contrary to Molino (and then Nattiez),, I don’t think there’s really a “neutral level” associated with the object itself. I prefer Schutz’s social phenomenology to the version Dujka Smoje tried to push in her musical æsthetics course, back in the day.
  • I have no problem with aesthetic judgments.
    • Fair enough.
  • I have no problem with telling you why such and such a work fits the universally accepted criteria of Truth and Beauty.
    • I do. It might be a matter of «déformation professionnelle» but I do take issue with claims of universality. Nothing personal about people who make such claims but, as a culturalist, I find some deep problems with the claims themselves and, as a person, I just don’t think this way.
  • I’m just a working man, working at his craft,
    • Again, fair enough. And I wouldn’t have said anything about your perspective on quality if you hadn’t opened the door. I’m not attacking your views or claiming that you’re a snob. In fact, I was mostly thinking about the Adornos of this world.
  • my blog called Beautiful Signals,
    • Added to my Google Reader.
  • made much more sense in the 1980s,
    • We’re probably in agreement, here. To me, though, we’re currently going through a significant transition. All these “post-” things are about a shift which has been “waiting to happen” since “Late Modernism.” It’s already happened in anthropology, architecture, and art. It can still happen in xenophobia and zoology.
  • All that is solid melts into air..
    • That works. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we get a Sisyphus/Buddhist cycle, The same matter may go through gas and solid phases, but there’s a point at which we may get a different compound.
  • I have a lot to say about Marx,
    • Sounds like fun. He’s so misunderstood…
  • I don’t think it’s a bad thing for some people to have authority,
    • Neither do I: as you may guess, I don’t believe in absolute bad or good things.
  • anarchism would ensue,
    • «Je suis anarchiste au point de toujours traverser dans les clous afin de n’avoir pas à discuter avec la maréchaussée.» [Georges Brassens]
  • Some structures are necessary.
    • This is probably where we disagree the most. But it’s ok.
  • It depends on what you are trying to do.
    • And this is where we probably agree the most. But that’s ok.
  • immanent feature of the art object”
    • That quality comes from the object itself, in the abstract, and transcends it. I find it very close to essentialism. Because existentialism had a deep impact on me since adolescence, I have some difficulty with this notion. It just doesn’t jive with the rest of my world.
  • I think most people misunderstand the role of an artist in society, and that hasn’t changed since the beginning of civilization.
    • If you haven’t, I’d encourage you to read Attali’s Bruits, especially the part about the birth of the artist as a figure. There’s been a tremendous shift between Bach and Rembrandt. But I agree that there’s not much of a shift between Rembrandt and Lady Gaga.
  • the plague called Modernism,
    • See, I wouldn’t call modernism a plague. It was ok, at the time. And it still dominates contemporary discourse on all sorts of things (like political science and engineering). It’s just that we’re going somewhere else, which fits more with our current conditions as a species. In other words, modernism wasn’t wrong. It’s just tired.
  • Beauty is what it is regardless of judgments.
    • This is what I mean by “immanence.”
  • take you up on that coffee date
    • You probably know where to find me.
  • I’m working on what I call Nouveau Kitsch,
    • Sounds like something I might enjoy, especially with the context provided by your blogposts.
  • What do you want us to do, abandon language altogether?
    • Coming from a linguistic anthropologist? Very unlikely. 😉
  • logocentrism
    • Overemphasis on discourse.
  • Our thoughts are logocentric
    • That’s where Russell and Wim Wenders agree with Radiolab. It’s also where Davidson may have hit something. When I play music, I’m not thinking through language. Given the complex relationships between music and language (per Feld, instead of Kristeva, Pinker, or Lerdahl), I can’t just subsume musical thinking to language-based cognition. Also, as bilinguals, don’t we both notice times when we’re not thinking in a language?
  • We signal.
    • There’s a significant difference between signals and language. And, yes, I use “significant” in a specific way.
  • Cultures are at war with one another in a global marketplace.
    • Wow. Where did that come from? I, I’m… Where to start… Ok, let’s just say we’ll bring that one up later.
  • techno-ethnography”
    • It’s also something I do and it does connect to the ethnography of communication in neat ways. But there are differences. Yes, “significant” differences.
  • anthropology of the senses”,
    • aka “sensory anthropology,” covering everything which has to do with what Howes called “the varieties of sensory experience.” Deemphasizing the visual/aural emphasis in Euro-American (“Western”) contexts. Paying more attention to olfaction, flavours, and tactile sensations, among many other things. They probably have someone working on proprioception but I get the impression that the focus on the “five senses.”
  • Evolutionary Aesthetics.
    • Let’s not go there. A major advantage of that EO episode is that they only talked about this for a few minutes so I didn’t cringe that much. I still had a hard time listening to it, but at least it wasn’t “for crying out loud” impossible.

Enthusiasm and MS?

Office 2007 is a bit unusual, for me. Been using it for a while (since it became available to Indiana University’s community) and have been enjoying some of the features. Still don’t really enjoy the “tape” interface in Word or PowerPoint but some things seem to have been planned pretty carefully.

For instance, I’m currently writing this in OneNote which seems greatly improved over OneNote 2003. Zoho Notebook seems simpler to use (and, obviously, will be available at no cost) but OneNote is sufficiently better from previous incarnations that it is conceivably a cool tool.

Random Endorsements

Completely unsolicited, of course. In no particular order.

  • Outliners
  • Malian tô millet and sauce dish
  • Chungking Express poetic movie
  • Open-mindedness
  • Lamb sandwich from l’Olivier at Jean-Talon Market
  • Oregon, long-lived and eclectic Jazz band
  • Passion
  • Boris Vian
  • Ripe Brillat-Savarin cheese from Atwater Market
  • West Africa
  • Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories
  • Teaching
  • Mussels marinère with Belgian beer
  • Open Access policies for academic texts
  • French Chanson
  • Quality beer and all-you-can-eat ribs at Redbones
  • Geeky conversations
  • Beef banh mi from Nhu Lan on Saint-Zotique
  • Napping
  • Cultural awareness
  • Flemish Red ales
  • Geek culture
  • Orval tart and bitter Belgian ale
  • Hedonism
  • Peter Sellers’s Being There
  • Free/Libre Open Source Software movement
  • Reblochon cheese from Migros
  • Myst-like adventure games
  • Lactancia My Country unsalted butter
  • PalmOS (GarnetOS) devices
  • Le Paltoquet French theater-like movie
  • Mort Subite gueuze on tap at Pianissimo
  • Mountainous regions
  • Sleep
  • RJ Coup de grisou buckwheat ale
  • TuniZika Tunisian music podcast
  • Pieces of dry beef («rebibes») from Migros
  • Apple computers
  • Hiking
  • Ripe avocados from Atlantic Superstore in June 2003
  • Calabash Music "fair-trade" music store
  • Hunting Island, SC
  • Freshly-baked bread rolls from Doré mie
  • Well-Rounded Radio open-minded music podcast
  • View of Lake Leman from the BFSH2 building
  • Friendship
  • Sea scallops