Monday, 14 May 2012

PhD to Monograph

What are the key differences between a Phd thesis and a book?
I'd love to know your thoughts on this.

For a long time, I didn't quite get what the difference between my PhD thesis "Scented Visions: The Nineteenth Century Olfactory Imagination" and my monograph "Art and Perfume: The Nineteenth Century Olfactory Imagination" would be. I read books like William Germano's From Dissertation to Book and the posts on PhDtoPublished but despite all the great advice I still felt some uncertainity, which made making the transition really hard. Lately, I think, it has started to click into place.

These are the things I am thinking about:

Persuading the reader that my book is worth reading – rather than that I am qualified to write it.

When I was writing my PhD (beautifully written as I like to think it is), I was desperate to prove to my supervisor and external examiners that I was smart enough to be awarded a PhD. But now that I have my PhD in hand (my thesis was awarded Birkbeck's Anne Humpheries Prize and I went on to undertake a 6 month postdoctoral fellowship at the Paul Mellon Centre), I am assuming my readers will not doubt my credentials to write this book. This means I can relentlessly cut whole paragraphs of bullshit, literary review, the less interesting theory and many footnotes and much more can be said in my own voice, rather than relying on quotation of secondary sources. However, whilst I have no need to prove my academic authority there are so many other things my readers could be doing with their time, and for that reason I need to use all the tricks in the book to persuade my readers to keep on turning the pages! 

Widening my scope
Although I am not broadening the dates of my project (c.1850 - 1910), I am including more familiar material than I did in my PhD. In my PhD thesis I was very focused on producing original material to the point that I avoided the more well trodden domain like synaesthesia, Baudelaire and the more obvious smell art works/literature like Alma Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus or Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray. Now I see such works/themes as important for luring my readers and making them feel comfortable, before introducing new ideas/art works to them.

Including stories and developing characters
I am trying to incorporate more narratives, ensure that my chapters start with a hook and to bring to life more of the characters that appear in my research. What was it like to be Rossetti, living and painting in his Cheyne Row, Thames-side studio, during the height of the Great Stink?!

Imagining I am writing for an academic in another humanities department
I am aiming to produce a Uni Press book, but I want it to reach as wide an audience as is feasible, within the realms of possibility for a monograph by an emerging scholar. So I am imagining that my audience is cleverer than I am, but that because they work in a different department they know little about the subject.

Making my audience feel smart
As academics, writing for other academics, we want to appear smart. One way we achieve this is is by excluding from our writing anything we think might sound banal or apparent to our scholarly peers in our discipline. Now that I am writing for a wider scholarly audience, I cannot assume my audience knows anything much about the subject, but I certainly don’t want to talk down to them. This means I am careful not to say things like "The Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti" which would suggest that I think that the reader may not have heard of him. However, I do need to ensure that everyone is with me. So instead I might say something more subtle along the lines of “in common with the other Pre-Raphaelite painters, Rossetti…”  That way, I am suggesting… "of course, I know you know really, but I am just jogging your memory, or adding information as a by the way."
Thinking about what my readers might want me to refer to next whilst not being entirely audience driven
When I tell people my research they will invariably say one of the following:
·         Have you read Patrick Suskind's perfume?
·         Victorian London must have really smelt
·         Are you writing about synaesthesia?
·         I think smell is the most evocative scent

I know my readers want to read more about these areas and so I am aiming to at least touch on all these things within the first few pages. Once again the idea is to make my readers feel more comfortable as we move into less well-known territory.

Audience driven content versus shaping taste is an issue that we discussed at the Emerging Clore Leaders training programme with regards to arts programming. How do you get audiences to come to see art that is completely new to them?

Conveying something of my own character
To some extent, people will be interested in me as a writer. Therefore, I am aiming to make my personality more present in my writing. For example, I am sharing my passion for what drew me to researching smell in nineteenth-century art in the first place, and even including a couple of personal anecdotes about that.

Shedding much of the academic lexicon 
I am increasingly angry with academics who fail to give due consideration to the need to communicate their ideas simply and clearly – whether in an academic article, book, conference paper or when speaking to the wider public. I am against dumbing down ideas but I believe that communicators have a duty to help their readers/audience follow what they have to say.

I am hoping that I am getting better at writing plain English. As Director of Career Services at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and as the former Acting Head of Art History at Godolphin and Latymer School, I have written many A Level handouts and careers "how to guides," which I think have helped me to learn to state things more clearly than perhaps I did whilst I was a student. 

Building my platform
This blog and my linked tweeting (@artandperfume) is aimed at building my profile as an art historian writing about smell in art. In addition to giving conference papers I have also started giving some more popular talks and I will give details of these as and when they arise.  Although I haven’t pursued this I am also mulling on the fact that journalists need stories.

What I have missed?! Am I doing the right things in turning my PhD into a book?