We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl, coauthors of Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen. What is a hotel? As Levander and Guterl show us in this thought-provoking book, even though hotels are everywhere around us, we rarely consider their essential role in our modern existence and how they help frame our sense of who and what we are. They are, in fact, as centrally important as other powerful places like prisons, hospitals, or universities. Guiding readers through the story of hotels as places of troublesome possibility, as mazelike physical buildings, as inspirational touchstones for art and literature, and as unsettling, even disturbing, backdrops for the drama of everyday life, Levander and Guterl ensure that we will never think about this seemingly ordinary place in the same way again.
In today’s post, Levander and Guterl share their unique insights into the world of scholarship and coauthorship, and recount how their book and partnership developed.
Five years ago, we sat down in the lobby restaurant of the Hotel ZaZa in Houston and decided to write a book together. Surrounded by the high modernism of the lobby restaurant, we laughingly sketched out a book about the inner political and social life of hotels, a sort of analogue, in a way, to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s institutional histories of the prison and the hospital. Our laughter gave us courage. We weren’t, after all, experts on the subject. We were not established scholars of the hospitality industry, and, individually, our scholarly interests didn’t suggest this as a likely topic. We also weren’t aiming to discard our individual labors.
What we really wanted to do was to carve out a new inquiry space, a space we might both imaginatively inhabit, and to think about something we hadn’t ever thought about—really thought about—before.
We’d been friends and colleagues for a half-dozen years, working in subfields and interdisciplines that were productively overlapping and intertwined. We’d read each other’s manuscripts in draft, sat on conference panels together, given research talks at each other’s universities. Why not, we thought, write something, too? Wasn’t this sort of “high-risk, potentially high-reward” experiment, in the end, what tenure and promotion were supposed to support?
Our decision to focus on the inner life of hotels might seem rather whimsical, but it wasn’t. The truth is, we were looking for the right instrument, for an angle on contemporary life that we could use to materially anchor our ongoing conversations about modernity, power, and release, about race, class, gender, and globalization, about a whole lot of things. Getting to the hotel—and getting to that moment of realization at the ZaZa—took us a year or two of back-and-forth in the off hours. Sitting down that day, ticking off on our fingers those points of shared concern, we finally got it; we simply looked around and recognized that we were surrounded by a weird, fascinating material object, with its own culture and politics, an object that could capture all of these dynamic points. A waitress brought us coffee with a flourish, and a small clutch of brown sugar nuggets appeared on the table, with a small silver spoon. Why not, we thought, try to write about all of that?
This notion of a third way—a collaborative identity that makes a distinctive contribution—is important. One of us is a literary critic, with published monographs on representations of gender, the transnational, and the global. The other is a historian of race and nation, with work in the nineteenth and twentieth century American and international contexts. At the early stages of our dreamtime, we tried to find a single project that matched up with something we’d both already done. But nothing grabbed our attention. Until that moment at the ZaZa, the moment when we decided to take a leap of faith in this untried but compelling idea of coauthorship and, not incidentally, when we decided that the interpretive field for such a venture needed to be somewhere conceptually beyond our respective intellectual comfort zones.
It turns out, looking backwards now, that this emphasis on a third way was a fairly radical exception. Coauthorship is a fairly normal practice in the social sciences and physical sciences, where collaborative work is the norm. But the same can’t be said for the humanities, where the very idea of modern authorship is singular, rooted in dominant ideas about creativity, provenance, and individual genius, and where “the book”—composed by the solitary scribe—is still help up as the gold standard.
This continued commitment to the singular, lone author is surprising—and, we think, counterproductive.