|Highway 58 Revisited
10/13: Highway 58 Revisited
For everyone who has read the magnificent All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, you know of the almost unwieldy third sentence of the novel, which goes on seemingly endlessly about Highway 58 leading into Mason City. And if that isn't enough, Warren manages to squeeze out four more dense paragraphs about Highway 58 and its surrounding landscape.
If Robert Penn Warren tried to publish that today, every editor in the world would tell him to prune that opening to help the "pacing" of the novel.
I mention this because the single most difficult thing for me to do with It's All Academic was change an opening chapter that consisted of 50-60 pages of Mark Carter's first meeting at Boan. People who read early drafts thought it was good material, but that it needed to be broken up so that the reader could "see natural stopping points." (My paraphrasing. Who remembers "exactly" what they said?) While I understood their logic, I challenged them to understand that I wanted the reader to be completely immersed in the life of academic administration: not a sense-surround, or a smell-o-rama, but a sort of despair-surround experience, a hopelessness-o-rama.
Yes, the average reader wants to know that he or she can stop reading at a natural break and go take a restroom break; on the other hand, I and many other colleagues around the country aren't given that opportunity when a meeting goes into hour three about budgets, or assessment, or, god forbid, whether the semester after winter should be called "spring," "spring/summer," or "summer." (Don't think I merely jest here.) We simply get up quietly, walk out, take care of business, probably scream in frustration, then quietly go back into the meeting room and do our best to get caught up. (Like Carter's meeting, one can probably miss fifteen minutes and not miss much, maybe just the updated harassment policy.)
I'm sure in the long run, turning one chapter into four chapters will help readers, but I wonder what Warren would have done. Would we have stood alongside Highway 58 and wonder if we would ever get to Mason City? Would we have understood that a loss of concentration there would lead to a fatal accident? Sometimes we just have to endure.