An Open Letter To W.W. Norton
At the top of the pile there?
That’s the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.
I’m pretty anal about caring for my books, especially because I annotate the fuck out of them and losing one is a serious issue. The fact that my NATC doesn’t have a dust jacket is the best proof I can offer for how often I’ve used it, and how many years it’s spent being schlepped around in my bags first as a student and then as a teacher. Let me be honest - my relationship to “theory” is clear from my blog title, but for better and worse it’s the tradition I was taught in, it’s a tradition I still have to teach, and the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism is quite simply the best single-volume anthology in the field. Period. Trust me, I’m a professional and god knows I’ve looked, because I’ve wanted to be free of that fucking book for years. There’s no substitute (no substitute) there’s no substitute (no substitute) there’s no substitute for your anthology, baby.
OK. But here’s why I kind of hate the fucking thing a the same time.
I bought that anthology for my first-ever all-theory course in undergrad. At the time, it was a fucking revelation. I’m the kind of person who reads a lot, for no reason, all the time. So when I got my Norton of TC, I basically read it cover-to-cover, right down to the intro essays and footnotes. I had a huge intellectual hard-on the entire time. I discovered so many thinkers I’d never heard of, and so many texts that still frame my inquiries and syllabi today were first encountered in that book.
Soon, to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism were added Nortons of American Lit, English Lit, Jewish Lit., and various texts of the Norton Critical series, the crown jewel of which is the Norton Shakespeare, the best single-volume Shakespeare available in the world today. Period. The intensity of my relationship to Norton’s anthologies - and my resentment of them - peaked with the GRE in Literature.
If you’ve ever taken the GRE in Literature, you know it’s fucking painful, stupid, senseless, and indicative of absolutely nothing. Now, I absolutely will not deny that the two volumes of the Norton Anthology of English Literature are the single greatest study aid to anybody taking the GRE in Literature. If you’re studying for that exam, don’t save money by buying the concise one-volume edition, spend the extra $40 to buy both volumes in the beautiful and sturdy hardcover format. It’s worth it. Having said that, by the time I finished the GRE in Literature, I had come to hate Norton with a passion.
Who the fuck are these people? Who the fuck do they think they are telling me what literature is and what criticism is and what Jewish means? Fuck you, Norton! became my new rallying cry. Here’s why. As I moved past the GRE in Literature and started my dissertation research, I realized just how much WASN’T in those Norton Anthologies. Those Norton Anthologies, to me, came to stand for ‘the canon,’ in general, and like many queer or otherwise minoritarian readers, the idea of the canon is a deeply painful and offensive one, and I have a very complicated and unhealthy relationship with it.
This resentment was coupled by a feeling that Norton was colluding in a vicious corporate circle by which the dictatorial canons of higher education join forces with publishing houses to literally make many valuable texts not only unknown but effectively unavailable. Having 20 different one-volume Platos on the market means that X number of publishers AREN’T printing anything else that they could be printing. I also assumed that because of their huge market share in the Anglophone anthology industry they must be an evil corporate giant.
Well, here’s the thing.
This past weekend Twitter, and the book exhibit at the MLA convention, brought Norton and I together in a surprising and joyous way. They didn’t know it was me when I visited them at the convention hall, and they weren’t following me on Twitter yet, but that didn’t stop them from being friendly, funny, and awesome as they explained to me some details of their corporate structure. So when my publisher reviews post-exhibit caught their eye on Twitter, I was already very inclined to like them.
I’m going to do something I really never, ever do - I’m going to quote a for-profit corporation’s own ideological positions without mocking them. This is from Norton’s own website:
"W. W. Norton & Company, the oldest and largest publishing house owned wholly by its employees, strives to carry out the imperative of its founder to ‘publish books not for a single season, but for the years’ in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, college textbooks, cookbooks, art books and professional books.
The roots of the company date back to 1923, when William Warder Norton and his wife, Mary D. Herter Norton, began publishing lectures delivered at the People’s Institute, the adult education division of New York City’s Cooper Union. The Nortons soon expanded their program beyond the Institute, acquiring manuscripts by celebrated academics from America and abroad.”
The key thing here is “owned wholly by its employees.” To a Marxian, “owned wholly by its employees” is like “you won the lotto” to the bourgeoisie: it’s the dream they hold on to to help them get through the day, the ideal condition of existence they dream about on the subway. It’s really very simple. The only way to avoid alienated labor is to give the worker a stake in the product of his labor. And the only way to avoid top-down corporate decisions that are not in the interests of the employees is to make sure that there’s nobody in the corporate structure who isn’t, so to speak, an employee. Marx 101. This is not accomplished by outsourcing logistics to consulting companies, by bringing in executive brass from other corporations, or by farting out shitty products to improve the bottom line. Employee ownership. To quote a Tweet Norton sent me, which made me deliriously happy: “Utopian gangsta collectivism is the future of publishing!”
'cause here's the thing: while every other publisher is putting out increasingly shitty, increasingly expensive, increasingly useless products while whining about the cost and profit margin of publishing, Norton, according to what their employees/owners told me at the MLA, had one of their best years ever in 2012. And their products are still good. One thing I can attest to personally: if publishing books 'for the years' means putting out an amazing hardcover anthology which will withstand 10 years of heavy reading, quoting, annotating, photocopying, and schlepping, then Norton does exactly what they say they will. And that's why I'm a little bit in love right now.
Because here’s my new pragmatic take on Norton: yes, they ARE part of a vicious canonical cycle of academic disavowal and repression, and they should be conscious of that. But the market niche they will exists independently of them, and as the work of other contemporary publishers show, that niche could be filled with much, much worse products. So if we have to have a single-volume anthology, might as well make it a fucking Norton.
Because I’m me, and because Norton is a grown-up, they’ll understand if I leave them with some constructive criticism in conclusion. I’m talking to you like I talk to my sisters - you might be annoyed with me for a day or two but trust me, I know what I’m talking about, babe.
- Where’s the Norton Anthology of Queer Anglophone Writing?
- When you do the next edition of the Theory & Criticism, give me a call. The Nietzsche, Deleuze & Guattari, Freud, and Hume selections need work, and there’s no Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Bergson, or Irigaray. Not cool, Norton. Also, can we all just agree to pretend Harold Bloom doesn’t exist and never did? Thanks.
- To my homeboys at Norton Critical: it’s time for a Norton Critical Spinoza’s Ethics. It’s time for a solid, accessible, well-annotated Spinoza, with secondary literature from the tragically ignored epistemological school of ’50s and ’60s Paris, including Deleuze and Gueroult. I’ll do it for free. Seriously. You don’t even have to put my name on the cover. I want it to exist even if I don’t get credit. No-one will have to know, and I can finish it in 3 months. DL/discrete cool, DDF ub2. No pnp.
- Finally, Norton, real talk for you: Stop buying other companies. No, really. You’re awesome, you do good work. Let’s keep it that way. Putting a turd in every toilet is a profitable way to exist, but not a particularly honorable way. Focus on making hot shit for coprophiliacs who appreciate it. You don’t want to wake up one morning from a restless slumber and find you’ve transformed into a monstrous Random House.
The last thing I want to say is that Peter Gay’sFreud: A Life For Our Timesis the best biography of one of my greatest heroes and I’m grateful to W.W. Norton for republishing it.
You do you, Norton. I got my eye on you.