Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
This morning I sent a book proposal to a publisher: The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in Interwar Britain. I have been working on various incarnations of this project for almost a decade now. For much of that time it has felt as though nothing would ever come of all the research. It was bloody tough finishing my first book while struggling to get to grips with my first proper academic job; starting a new project from scratch while also dealing with my teaching and administration has been even tougher. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve also struggled to handle the pressure to live up to the success of Queer London. After being generous with his praise in the American Historical Review, one reviewer commented: ‘As the author’s first monograph, it will certainly be a difficult act to follow.’ That comment has stuck with me — haunted me — ever since. In not writing for so much of the past few years, I have often hidden from my own anxieties. I have no idea whether the new book proposal and sample chapter that I have just submitted do stand comparison with the work that I’ve done before, but the very fact of their existence is progress.
As this suggests, having finished writing the book proposal has made me think about not writing. I have not written in another sense over the past few months — a curious kind of not writing that I don’t quite understand. If anyone has asked me how the book was going, I have told them that it has stalled. I have explained that I have not written anything on it since the beginning of September, when I finished the first drafts of the third chapter and conclusion to The Prince of Tricksters. Yet to say that I have not written isn’t true in the strictest sense: I have finished and submitted three applications for research funding; the synopsis of the book is 15,000 words long — all produced from scratch over the past four months. Why does that not seem to count as writing? What does it say about the intellectual work that we do that these essential building blocks of our research (without which there can be no book) seem somehow different from ‘writing’? Although I have no answers, I wonder if it reflects underlying distinctions between the supposed purity of the labour of writing about the past for its own sake, and the necessary but compromised work of meeting the demands of the academic marketplace. The grant application, in particular, can easily seem like a very different exercise. Immersed in interwar literary culture for so much of the past year, perhaps my ideas of not writing suggest I’ve taken on too much of the spirit of Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot.
I don’t know what will happen to my proposal for The Prince of Tricksters — to be honest I’m terrified now it is out there in the big wide world. It feels bloody good to have got it done though. And now I wait and see. Fingers crossed.