In my last blog post I pointed out that it seemed that monographs seem to be getting shorter and shorter. I am sure that one reason for this is publication pressure although the fact that short books are easier to read and write has something to do with it as well. Some of the recent ethnographies I’ve read, like The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media (best title ever btw) or Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Labs and Second Life are so short that they seem more long long essays than short books.
I suppose that for some this is the a sign of the sky falling, of precious dusty old genres being dismantled in the face of market pressure, and so forth. But I think something else is happening: I think anthropology is naturally a 100-200 page affair and that the long essay is anthropology’s natural genre.
If you look for it, the long essay pops up in several key places in anthropology’s history: just think of pieces like The Balinese Cockfight, Totemism (of Lévi-Strauss), Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture. I think there is something about this length of work that lends itself to anthropological ethnography and data.
I’m not sure what it is about the long essay, but it seems to me it has something to do with the length of the ethnography: more than just an apt illustration or two dotting a journal article, less than a compendium of Practices Of The Natives Preserved For All Time. 100 to 200 pages gives you plenty of time to introduce and to linger, but not enough space to have to go through the rigamarole of a literature review. As essays, works of this length have the ability to suggest rather than prove, imagine rather than measure, narrate rather than dissect.
Although market forces are at work in transitions in anthropological publishing, I think that the trend towards shortness also reflects a sense that a problem-focused monograph (rather than a descriptive tome) fits nicely into the 100-200 page range. In fact I wonder just how much shorter these books are going to become before some tenure committee somewhere starts to protest.
Some may lament the death of incredibly long monographs — particularly the kind which exist only to document. On the one hand, documentation is important. At some level it is the most important thing because it is so fundamental. On the other hand, because it is so basic and doesn’t address specific theoretical questions, it typically gets described as having the least ‘scholarly impact’ because it is not connected to academic debates.
You might think that this means that these sorts of compendiums are going to disappear now that no one will publish them. But is this really true? I mean is the problem of the Internet age that you can’t self-publish to your heart’s content? True, it will get harder to find the staff willing to put the time into high production values, diagrams, figures, and the other stuff which is more important in documentation than it is in problem-based monographs. But the danger is never that your work is unlocatable. The biggest thing holding people back from documentation, in my opinion, is that a lot of contemporary anthropologists just don’t care for it much — a bigger problem than finding a press for the stuff, in my opinion.
At any rate, with the Internet ensuring that long works can always find a home somewhere, I am actually rather bully on the short monograph: I think its a form that is particularly suited to anthropology.