Less Minerva, more Venus

December 1, 1995

Tim Cornwell discovers that sex is contributing to the demise of an American academic institution.

John Rawls's Theory of Justice began life as a monograph; so did Benedict Anderson's "imagined communities", a concept of nationalism that has entered the vocabulary of many scholars. But would Rawls be read on a lap-top?

It has been a fact of academic life for a decade that American university presses are increasingly less inclined to publish traditional monographs, the single-subject, small circulation works of original research on obscure but potentially important subjects.

Electronic publishing is touted as the key to the survival of the "endangered monograph". And an experiment at Columbia University is being carried out to assess its potential. No one ever made much money anyway from treatises on James Joyce or 17th-century ship-building. But funded by a $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation over three years, Columbia staff want to find out what happens when a professor confronts titles such as Genetic Variations in Strains of Laboratory Mouse, or The Supernatural in English Fiction on a computer screen.

"These are classic endangered monographs. We are looking at how people use them, how people react to them," says Columbia's Mary Summerfield. "Most people's gut feeling is that nobody is going to sit there reading Jane Austen on screen."

This month in the New York Times Book Review, Lisa Freeman of the Minnesota University Press raised eyebrows with a forecast that in two years "there will be hardly any monographs in the market". That is an exaggeration, said one colleague. With about 100 US university presses printing 8-9,000 new titles a year, possibly a half to a third are still monographs.

But an editorial in the journal of the American Historical Association, entitled "The Endangered Monograph", reports six different scholarly publishers raising their fear for the monograph's demise.

Monograph purchases are estimated to have fallen by about a quarter in ten years. Meanwhile a new breed of press editors, figures like Niko Pfund at New York University Press, have less patience for marketing the unmarketable. Under more commercial pressure, they aim for larger print runs on books that people may actually walk into a shop and want to buy. "I'm just not interested on an intellectual level in figuring out how to publish tremendously esoteric texts," Pfund says.

A strong undercurrent in the monograph debate is a charge that university presses are abandoning serious scholarship for four other S's - superficial, sensational, sex and synthesis.

Lynn Hunt, a well-known and widely published professor of French history at Pennsylvania State University, observes that sex - more genteelly known as sexuality - is apparently selling well at university presses. Pfund's recent offerings include "Lesbian Erotics" and "Heavenly Sex". Writing a monograph on party formation in the Third Republic, says Hunt, is now an invitation to trawl through half a dozen minor presses trying to get the work printed. Tackling pornography in the Third Republic is a ticket to a quick contract.

In Hunt's field, specialists in the French Revolution are lucky to share their period with the Marquis de Sade. "My stuff is considered hot because it's on sex and the body," she said, but it is not a trend she particularly likes, adding: "There has been an incredibly detrimental emphasis on only publishing things on the edge. Things like gender studies, women's studies, history of the body, history of sexuality."

"But old style topics like a political crisis in mid-18th century France, people say why care about that? I think that's wrong. It seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the work, it has to do with topic."

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