Legitimating Television, Process

This is the first of two planned posts about Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status, the book I have written with Elana Levine (Amazon). In this entry I reflect on collaboration as a scholarly endeavor, and elaborate a bit more about the processes of academic work, picking up where I left off in my last post on the academic summertime. A subsequent post will discuss the book’s ideas.

Like most academic works, ours is the product of years of research. My computer files tell me that I began to take notes on the topic of legitimation of TV about four years ago, fall 2007. But our project began at least a year or two before that moment, which is just the time that legitimation became a concept bringing our thinking about television’s changing cultural status into sharper focus.

We began by collecting research on TV on DVD and what I was thinking of as the cinematization of television in terms of audiovisual style and storytelling, but also in terms of distribution (as on DVD). I’m not sure when this was exactly but it was likely around the time that so much popular press attention was being given to the significance of discs for television’s business model, story forms, and cultural circulation. For instance, between 2004 and 2007 we saw a steady stream of articles in newspapers and magazines singing the praises of DVD as a solution to some of television’s enduring problems, such as:

-James Poniewozik, “Show Business: It's Not TV. It's TV on DVD,” Time, April 19, 2004.

-Scott Collins, “Some Television Reruns Hit Their Prime on DVD,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2005.

-Toni Ruberto, “DVDs offer viewer freedom,” The Buffalo News, September 17, 2006.

-Claire Atkinson, “What to Watch? How About a ‘Simpsons’ Episode From 1999?” New York Times, September 24, 2007.

DVDs (as well as DVRs) were also central to the discussion of television in Steven Johnson’s 2005 book Everything Bad is Good For You, key to his brief in favor of contemporary popular culture as a kind of cognitive pencil sharpener. The repeatability of television made possible by the digital revolution was supposed to have improved television and pushed its place in the cultural hierarchy from disreputable trash to a more elevated level.

Television scholars were remarkably quick to assess the implications of this new development. Derek Kompare and Matt Hills wrote important articles on the topic -- both highly recommended to anyone interested in how TV has changed in the past decade -- just as the popular press was also grappling with the same developments:

-Derek Kompare, “Publishing Flow: DVD Box Sets and the Reconception of Television,” Television & New Media 7:4 (November 2006), 335-360. (pdf)

-Matt Hills, “From the Box in the Corner to the Box Set on the Shelf: 'TVIII' and the cultural/textual valorisations of DVD,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 5.1 (April 2007), 41-60.

But the moment I most vividly remember as having made an impression on me, an impression that would remain as we worked through our ideas and towards the book, was even before these popular press discussions became commonplace. One day in January, 2003, we were wandering around a Tower-records-type retailer (this was in Paris, which is why I remember the date but not the name of the store), and were quite overwhelmed by the television section of the DVDs. It had not been that long since shows were first appearing in season and series box sets, and to see the number of American Quality TV series packaged so lavishly and appealing to our sensibilities so strongly was really shocking, as was, in my recollection, the typical price tag. I remember the HBO titles like The Sopranos, and I’m sure there were cult shows like Buffy. I recall that store’s TV on DVD section was quite large at a time when TV on DVD was still pretty new and exciting.

Season box sets of highly regarded programs produce such a different identity for TV shows as objects of intense consumer desire and significant commodity value, especially compared with the earlier reputation of television as disposable and ephemeral mere entertainment. In this new figuration, television was clearly attaining a newly high value that was quite the contrast against its historical identity as mass culture, as a vast wasteland, as the idiot box or boob tube. Over the span of time between 2002 and 2007, then, Elana and I began to collect research materials and to talk about how we might write something that would engage with this shift (individually or together, I’m not sure when we decided this was something to do together). A lot of our thinking coalesced in a series of conference papers we gave, which developed our project and provided an initial base of evidence and concepts on which the book would build. At the same time, both of us were busy with other things and this work was rarely if ever on the front burner for long (for starters, I had another book to write), which is partly why is took a long time to come to fruition.

In general I believe it’s beter to avoid working up new material for a conference presentation, and to try to present material that’s more or less publication-ready. This way you don’t stress out for three weeks before the conference figuring out what you are going to say, you don’t end up deciding you don’t like your topic after all and trying to give a different paper under the published title, and you don’t give a really rough draft that makes you look sloppy and abuses the audience’s attention. Perhaps more importantly, if you are working up new material, you might end up writing something 12 pages long that never goes anywhere, which seems to me, despite what I’ve said earlier about reconsidering what it means to be productive, like a squandered opportunity.It’s unusual that 12 pages of work all by itself is publishable as is in a journal or book in today’s academic publishing world, though maybe that’s too bad.

In working on Legitimating Television, though, we did a lot of our initial writing for conferences, and these presentations were a great value to our process. Elana and I both gave conference papers that became book material at Console-ing Passions 2008 in Santa Barbara, and 2010 in Eugene. We both gave papers at the one-day Unthinking Television conference in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2009, that found their way into the book. Of the book’s eight chapters, four were to a great extent built around those six conference papers, cutting and pasting parts here and there and integrating different papers together. My 2008 CP paper ended up partly in chapter 4 and partly in chapter 7 (see the book’s table of contents below). Elana’s 2008 CP paper gave chapter 6 its main ideas and some of its examples. Her 2010 CP paper was the basis for chapter 5, while mine was mostly integrated into chapter 4. The book also includes work here and there that first appeared on Zigzigger (this post on widescreen TV lives on in chapter 7), though with much modification. We also included a few bits and pieces from an unsubmitted column I wrote for Flow when I was a columnist (2008-2009). I decided not to submit it because it seemed too much like the introduction to a book and not enough like a column for a web publication. Chapters 2, 3, and 8 are just about all new, but the rest of the book is a patchwork integrating material previously shared in some way with an audience as work in progress.

Some people have asked us how we went about co-authoring a book. It’s not that unusual to see original research monographs have more than one author, but in the humanities it’s still something a bit out of the ordinary, and people seem to wonder how the process unfolds. Our training in graduate school, especially in the humanities, assumes single authorship and offers little guidance in producing collaborative research. Editing a book or writing a textbook might lend themselves more to collaboration than this kind of work, though I haven’t done either of those things so I can’t speak to their finer points.

We might think of collaboration as having greater or lesser degrees of intellectual integration. There may be some projects where work can be divided among collaborators in a way that doesn’t require them to share all of the same ideas and expectations, and to work out arguments and evidence together. Ours is the kind of book that does require that kind of collaboration. We conducted research separately and wrote separately, but we did not divide up the work into discrete sections and each keep to our side of a line. We wrote the chapters one at a time (you work on this one, I’ll work on that one) but they are all still products of our collaboration. Sometimes the ideas of a section come more from one person but the words are composed mostly by the other. I wrote most of chapter 6’s first draft, but the conceptual work was mostly Elana’s. There are parts where the research was done by one of us and the other wove it into an argument. In chapter 2, for instance, I wrote a section of a couple thousand words to be integrated into a longer discussion written mainly by Elana, but she revised my part to make it fit, and I revised hers after that. And in revision, there was never any sense of the words being proprietary. Some parts of the book were revised so many times by us both that they really were written by two people. Having said all of this, there are passages of the book only I could have written, and passages only Elana could have. I would rather preserve the veneer of total collaboration than reveal which parts these are, but people who know us will be able to figure them out. There are also phrases I’m especially happy with that I wrote, and quotes that express a thought especially nicely that I found, and I feel pleased about these. There are similar passages that Elana wrote or quoted, and I admire these no less, but in the way you admire someone else’s good job.

Sometimes I infer that the subtext of the co-authorship question is that for a married couple it might be a special challenge to write a book together. This would depend on the couple, but for us it was undoubtedly easier to co-author a book with each other than it would have been with anyone else. We talk about TV all the time anyway, and our “work” and “life” are continuous. The ideas benefited from the continual hashing out during car rides and over lunches at home, and we could discuss progress bit by bit as each of us worked on separate parts. I think it helps to live with your co-author, though I can see that in other situations it might be preferable to be separated by some physical distance. I like collaboration for many reasons: it solves the problem of scholarly loneliness and isolation, it makes possible synergistic productivity, and it might lead to a multi-dimensionality that one person’s work can never have. I also believe it provides some of the same rewards as solitary scholarship at a reduced rate of labor (though certainly not reduced by half). I like collaborative writing and I want to collaborate more in the future, though a collaboration I might have with people other than Elana will have obviously different dynamics. (I have co-authored one other publication, a journal article soon to appear that I look forward to linking to when it’s out. That experience, writing with someone other than my wife, has also made me eager to collaborate more.)

Most of the book’s research had been accumulated by the time we signed a contract with Routledge in fall 2009, and the writing was done in a sustained effort between the spring of 2010 and the early winter of 2011. It’s definitely easier to write a book quickly with two authors, though having an infant child (born in late 2009) whose care both authors are responsible for providing can add more than a bit of difficulty. It also, however, provided us time away from teaching, which was technically family leave but (now I speak mainly for myself) actually freed up some extra writing time. We wrote the book mostly
one chapter at a time and passed them back and forth through cycles of editing and revision. In the final weeks, once all eight chapters had been drafted, we often worked across a coffee shop table to facilitate discussion of revisions. When the page proofs arrived a few months ago we returned there to pass them back and forth marked up in different colors of ink. We still go to that coffee shop sometimes and sit across the table from each other. Of course we’re pleased that the book is done, but we also miss those days.

Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status
1. Legitimating Television
2. Another Golden Age?
3. The Showrunner as Auteur
4. Upgrading the Situation Comedy
5. Not a Soap Opera
6. The Television Image and the Image of the Television
7. Technologies of Agency
8. Television Scholarship and/as Legitimation

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