Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl: A Third Way

'Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen,' by Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt GuterlWe 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.

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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.

Simple things like email and cloud storage make coauthorship easier and easier, and new ideas and new knowledge can spring from these partnerships. Edward Blum and Paul Harvey, coauthors of the widely reviewed The Color of Christ (2013), worked in a parallel fashion on chapters, but then broke up the book and reorganized it chronologically, and saw new things when they did. They worked a thousand miles apart, but the end result of their efforts is distinctly different—and better, they insist—than what either of them might have written alone. Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, authors of Caring for America (2012), took turns as primary authors and editors, working on a chapter-by-chapter basis. They worked on transitions and introductory sections together, sitting in the same room or working over email or on the phone, using their different time zones—Klein is at Yale and Boris is at the University of California, Riverside—to their advantage. The manuscript would move from west to east, as one would write in the morning and the other would revise in the evening.

We also hadn’t given much thought to process before we settled on an object. We cobbled together an outline—really a collection of themes and foci, at first—over email and in a series of phone calls. We used the drafting and redrafting of a book proposal as a means to narrow, to sharpen, and to clarify. And we’d start each chapter in the body of an email message, passing it back and forth—with revisions unmarked and untracked—until we reached a critical mass, at which point we shifted the text into a word document, and continued the circular process. We rarely used “track changes.” We didn’t divide up the labor. We saw each other just three or four times over the five years it took to write what eventually became Hotel Life, and we never once wrote a word together in the same room.

As we each traveled around the country, we wrote in airports, on trains, and in hotels. We shared brief ethnographies of the bar scene at the Algonquin, where one of us sat for hours, writing a careful description of the movements and intrigues enabled by the social stage. We wrote a lot of the book in transitory spaces—hotels, airports, airplanes, subways, and the like. Because, like many academics, we were regular guests of the hotel, we used every overnight stay and conference meeting in one of these boxy, rented spaces as research. We sent photos randomly to each other whenever we each noted some distinctive detail of the room, or the lobby, or the elevator, or texted each other about the grit and grind of spa culture.

The result was that everything—from figuring out the book’s structure down to the level of font choice—was a collaboration.

When we took up the project, we weren’t worried at all about tenure or promotion—and this disinterestedness gave us a necessary bravado.

The ease with which collaborative projects can be imagined in a digital age does not, though, translate into widespread official recognition and acclaim for the practice. Grant and fellowship opportunities can be hampered by a refusal to recognize coauthors as equal partners, and not as “Primary Investigator” and “collaborator.” Tenure and promotion in the humanities can hinge on single-authorship, with coauthored manuscripts counting as “50%” of a book, meaning that they don’t count the same as something written in the usual, lonely way. Professional organizations may be scrambling to accommodate digital publications, but they have no official or comprehensive position on how to count a coauthored manuscript towards tenure or promotion. Indeed, there are real consequences for a collaborative practice that seems fairly established, but isn’t, especially if the jointly conceived result is a departure from the areas of expertise over which either person is supposed to preside.

In an age when tenure is under assault, and when so many university leaders bemoan the failure of academics to develop a more public face, it is worth pausing here to note the ways in which we have unwittingly created many different structures to inhibit even the simplest and most obvious form of creative collaboration. And to acknowledge, too, that these structures persist not because talking heads complain about our prose and the costliness and comfort of tenure, but because we’ve also unwittingly stymied innovation. Making space for coauthorship in the humanities is, in the end, up to us.

This sort of thing isn’t easy, we note. Coauthorship requires not merely collaboration, sharing workload equitably, and similar work habits, but, as importantly, demands authors to develop a sense of shared style, a keen awareness of comradeship. It isn’t turf-sharing, which is what you’d think, if all you knew was the film about Woodward and Bernstein. Instead, it is about the creation of a new, shared writing identity, a collaborative affect that is distinct from each author’s individual persona, but draws on the best of authors’ writing strengths. Success, in this context, is about respect and friendship (as much as risk-taking), and about the profound enhancement of both over the course of the work.

The risks and rewards of working together doesn’t just irrevocably change what we write, it also changes how we write.

Caroline Field Levander is the Carlson Professor in the Humanities and professor of English at Rice University, and Matthew Pratt Guterl is professor of Africana Studies and American Studies at Brown University. Their book, Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen, is now available. 

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