Notes from the Rehearsal Room: Identity Politics

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019, and at Camden People’s Theatre from 7-11th May 2019. This series of ‘Notes from the Rehearsal Room’ documents some of the thoughts and ideas stimulated by the rehearsal process, and by our chats and discussions in the breaks. 

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In the garden of the house I moved into last October there’s a flowering plant — I’m not sure what it’s called, nor how to find out. I’ve never seen anything similar before, but then I’m not in the habit of looking very closely at plants. It grows by the gate, right there on the ground as you walk in, tangled up in itself, like a weed. It has long, pale, straw-like stems that lie almost horizontally, collapsing into the grass — and these explosive purple flowers, velvety and perfect. In the sun, the stems of the plant stand up and the flowers are wide open, turning their faces towards the sky. It is startling and beautiful. Most of the time though, in the almost-coastal English city where I live, it is overcast and the plant is unrecognisable from its sun-kissed self. The stems flop limply; the flowers roll tightly up into their own centres, their velvet faces terrified curls. It looks like a dead thing, or like something very frightened, shielding from the harsh realities of life.

I identify with that plant.

I’ve been thinking about the plant in my garden a lot over the last couple of weeks, as I’ve turned over in my mind the ideas that emerged while shadowing rehearsals for the show High Rise Estate of Mind back in February (some of my other thoughts on that are documented here, here and here). I’ve been thinking about what it means to identify with something.

There in that rehearsal room, I felt deeply that I identified with the performers. The company was relaxed and warm, perhaps that was part of it, but there was a sense also of being able to speak freely; that my anecdotes and experiences would be seen, recognised and understood; that I saw, recognised and understood what I was being told, both in the social moments of the process and in the performances themselves — even though in reality my life is worlds away from that depicted by the play: I am no longer someone living in London, experiencing housing precarity or financial struggle.

It was moving to me, this feeling of identifying with, because in many of the spaces where I now live my life — in university meeting rooms and at conferences, socialising with artists and wealthy friends I’ve met through work and study — there are times when I feel a profound sense of alienation. Not that I am utterly separate from the people around me, or immune to what they have to offer. Many of them I love deeply. Still, often, I can’t quite identify with them. The contours of whoever I am now, grown up and far away from the working class spaces and communities I grew up in, don’t always fit. I think it was Jay Z who said that you never really move on from the past. It is there, all the time, underneath everything you do, threatening to break out, like the troubles from Pandora’s box, or maybe the hope. It’s there in my voice which is too loud, and always talking, and still full of glottal stops. Perhaps, sometimes, being unable to identify with colleagues and acquaintances is a defence mechanism too — an antagonistic way of holding onto a sense of self because I am frightened of being not good enough.

I’m interested in the notion of identifying with as an antidote to the culture of ‘identifying as’. The phrase ‘identify as’ has become ubiquitous, especially in working class studies where, rather than address the inequalities that are literally killing working class people in their thousands, we seem perpetually caught up on measurement, policing and judgement. There is a cultural fixation with proving that our ‘identity as’ is authentic. Often this is because we presume that ‘identifying as’ working class gives us the right to speak for on behalf of others. Or because we believe that if we can invalidate an opponent’s ‘identity as’ working class we can invalidate all they have to say, and dismiss them. The toxic nature of this culture is not just that it encourages divisive and personal attacks in public debate, but that it encourages us to centre ourselves and our own experiences, and to turn away from others. ‘Identify as’ promotes a culture of individualism, narcissism and self-regard, whereas identify with has the potential to fuel environments of collaboration, listening and kindness.

Being able to listen is as important as being able to speak, and is essential to creating environments where those present can find ways to identify with one another. In the High Rise rehearsal room, where I am permitted to speak and required to listen, the sense of identifying with is intensified beyond whatever worlds of experience I share with the performers. Conversation, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, is essential to the human condition, because we can make sense of our experiences ‘only to the extent [they] can be spoken about.’ We close down the possibilities for humanity when we close down other people’s ability to speak because of what we, or they, ‘identify as’.

The intersections between art and sociality, work and ‘real life’ in rehearsal rooms in which artists are committed to finding ways to identify with audiences, and with each other, are undertheorised. In a forthcoming article Rebecca Hillman reminds us of the potential of rehearsals to foster feelings of home and belonging. When we’re thinking about the value of theatre, and fostering that value in our teaching, practice and writing, returning to the possibilities and the urgency of seeing and understanding other people is essential. The rehearsal room is foundational to that process of seeing and understanding, it is a political place where the possibilities of identifying with, beyond the axis of ourselves, are alive and potent.

 

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Notes from the Rehearsal Room: In Defence of Rage

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during part of their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019. It will show at Camden People’s Theatre from 7-11th May 2019. This series of ‘Notes from the Rehearsal Room’ documents some of the thoughts and ideas stimulated by the rehearsal process, and by our chats and discussions in the breaks.

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I think rage is my favourite emotion, despite its bad reputation. There is something thrilling about the clarity of it — its power. I like how it appears suddenly, like the tarry, turquoise sheen on the surface of crude oil; its liability to catch the light and cast a rainbow.

The scholar Tiffany Watt Smith, in her beautiful compendium, The Book of Human Emotions, writes that rage is increasingly unacceptable in contemporary culture, particularly in Britain and America where expressing rage is often equated with succumbing to explosive and irrational anger. She points to political theorist Hannah Arendt’s work (On Violence) to suggest that rage is, in fact, not irrational at all, but most often a response to conditions of injustice that could be changed, but are not. ‘Only when our sense of justice is offended’, writes Arendt, ‘do we act with rage.’

In many ways, High Rise Estate of Mind is borne of rage — not only because it explores conditions of contemporary injustice in London’s housing market, but because of the qualities it embodies in its presentation. The language of rage runs through the piece, evident in both the carefully crafted metaphors that create the fictional world, and in the performers’ ‘real world’ stories of their own housing experiences. The confrontational nature of the performance, with the cast standing stark, a few feet away from the audience, on a mostly bare stage (transparent plastic chairs, coloured shafts of light and musical equipment the only scenographic interventions), delivering lines that outline the brutality of capitalism, feels angry, but necessarily so.

The performance also draws on a semiotics of urban rage, often denigrated and misunderstood in the popular press and cultural commentary. They wear black hooded tracksuits, with red armbands and baseball caps — a nod to the so-called street culture associated with council estates, gangs and urban poverty, challenging what it means to be on the edges of society by weaving complex poetry, dressed in the uniform of the reviled other. Their musical influences, in hip hop and grime, draw on a tradition of cultural politics that is often mistaken for mindless violence. So too their choreographed movements are sharp and often aggressive: jabs and punches that spar with the audience, transmitting how it feels to be bound in a social and economic strata that often leaves you fighting for your very existence.

In rehearsals there is no sense of aggression, but anger does simmer under the surface of our conversations. We reflect on how injustice can produce rage, reminiscing about our relationships to the riots that broke out across London in 2011. The riots were a response to the killing of Mark Duggan by police — but were also symptomatic of a (then recently implemented) culture of austerity, in which any sense of a social safety net was stripped away by cuts to welfare benefits and local provision of services. We all sympathise with the rioters — portrayed as irrational, feral criminals by politicians and the tabloid press — and discuss how our initial emotional reaction to the riots was a sense of solidarity in rage: we wanted to (but didn’t) join the rioters in demonstrating our violent opposition to the actions of the state.

Conrad Murray and Paul Cree, who make up the company Beats & Elements (and who are half the cast of High Rise), have described the aesthetic of their previous projects as ‘council estate rage’. A statement that suggests the way class, space and the wider inequalities of our social system can produce particular tenors of emotion. In my book, Social Housing in Performance, I trace the ways this particular iteration of working-class anger has been misunderstood, arguing that council estate rage articulates an ‘insider perspective’. A perspective ‘where [the] presentation of what might seem “anti-social” by middle-class moral standards is revealed as a glass-shield that barely conceals the core of discontentment, fear and pain that often characterizes the working-class lived experience’. In High Rise, the company channel this council estate rage aesthetic again, creating a work that is transparent, yet uncomfortable at moments, and difficult to digest.

Being in the rehearsal room reminded me of the complexity of rage and its potency. People who have ready access the so-called negative range of emotions — anger, bitterness, spite, jealousy — are the people I want to be around. Not because I find that relentless wallowing in negativity is enjoyable — but because of what ready access to the full human emotional spectrum can create. There is political potential in those less pleasant emotions, but there’s something else too. We often think that rage is closest to hate in the order of things; that indulging rage breeds intolerance and misery. I don’t find that to be true. Expressing rage — articulating just rage through art, and violence when necessary — is the only way to survive injustice and remain intact. Rage is not only hatred — it is wit and precision and the sharp end of the arrow that might pierce something vital. Rage is necessary for joy.

Notes from the Rehearsal Room: Marginal Energy

 

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during part of their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019. It will show at Camden People’s Theatre from 7-11th May 2019. This series of ‘Notes from the Rehearsal Room’ documents some of the thoughts and ideas stimulated by the rehearsal process, and by our chats and discussions in the breaks.

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Because I write a lot about people, places and artworks often presented in negative terms in the newspaper press, I often find myself reaching for the term ‘marginalised’. It’s a word I feel uneasy about, because of how it can congeal on the page, clumsy and inaccurate. The things I’m interested in aren’t marginal to me: they do not appear on the edge of the frame of my consciousness, or in some unfocused periphery of the world I inhabit — most everyone I knew growing up lived or had at some point lived in council housing; most everyone  was working class. The area of London where I lived for my formative years was racially mixed, so that you didn’t think of people of colour as ‘other’, they just were, like everybody else (which isn’t to deny the reality of racism in South East London, rather it highlights how, in the place I live now, people of colour most definitely are not, an absence that is acute and dangerous, casting anybody who is not white as excessively visible, and especially vulnerable).

Describing the worlds that I write about as marginal also belies the commercial reality of the contemporary culture, where the so-called ‘marginalised’ are big money. The fact is that the fetishisation of estates and their residents is ubiquitous on television and elsewhere. The fact is that urban performance forms like hip hop and grime, emerging from predominately black working class communities, are some of our most popular, widely played and well-known genres. And still…

When I hesitate to type the word ‘marginalised’ I return again and again to bell hooks’ argument for the power of the margin as a radical space of resistance (1989). hooks reminds us of the dangers of pessimism about marginality, ‘if we only view the margin as a sign, marking the condition of our pain and deprivation’ she writes, ‘then a certain hopelessness and despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way’ (hooks 1989, 21). For hooks, to stay located at the margins when there is a possibility of moving towards the centre is a radical choice; she makes a ‘definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as site of resistance – as location of radical openness and possibility’ (23). I choose to think about the margins and the marginalised conditions that I write about in the spirit of this distinction.

Here I am in the Battersea Arts Centre, and in the studio in front of me the performers (who, I point out again, have developed this work over two and half years, mostly unpaid) break out of the carefully crafted fictional world in which High Rise Estate of Mind takes place, turning off the intoxicating  score that envelops us in the stage reality to address the (at the moment — because this is a rehearsal — imaginary) audience with only the sound of the lights vibrating behind them, and the truth of their stories, told in their own words. This is where it gets real.

‘I didn’t know if the world outside knew that people on the estate existed’, Conrad Murray says, dropping his character to give us a frank housing autobiography, returning to the margins to speak from his experience there.

The performance is punctuated like this throughout, the satirical, fictional ‘City Heights’ apartment complex, where residents must compete in a social contest comprising of hard work and ruthless ambition to ascend to the top, is continually fractured by the real life stories of the actors. At points it isn’t clear where the satire of the UK’s housing crisis ends and the injustices of our social world starts.

Is the dystopia of Mark 1 really so unbelievable, in a world where, as Lakeisha Lynch Stevens narrates in a story of her own childhood, children play in parks covered with needles and used condoms, shaping their own self-worth in the debris left behind by a city that doesn’t see them?

This is marginality, surely? Not just the stories on stage, but the form they take, the spirit that produces them — joyful and heartbreaking in a dynamic, dialectical swirl. Urgent, and yet, not produced for reams of cash in the West End, or for broadcast, but at an experimental arts centre on the edge of the city where Clapham turns into Battersea, for a festival celebrating ‘underrepresented’ voices. You can’t have it, the form is saying, this is ours. If the word marginality does anything, it is provide a frame that describes the ways in which your own existence, and its denial by the material or structural powers that be, creates conditions that produce the energy to resist, to make, to bask in pleasure even in the midst of hardship and pain. The margin is a catalyst, as well as a circumstance.

The music starts again, a frantic vocal whine underscored by a beat laid down live on stage as the performers begin to rap over the instrumentals, dancing, laughing, weaving complex lyrical imagery, enjoying the work they’ve made as much as they hope its audiences eventually will.

A work like High Rise, complex and frenetic; fragmented and challenging, could not have been created — at least not in its current form — without the pressure exerted by the margin pushing itself against the centre. It’s testament to the human instincts for expression, solidarity and justice denied by our collapsing political and economic system. That’s not to fetishise poverty and hardship, having no money and struggling to find a place to live is only ever shit. But the margin continues to create in spite of, because of.

You can’t escape the margin, it’s what encircles the centre.

Notes from the Rehearsal Room: What’s it Worth?

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during part of their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019. It will show at Camden People’s Theatre from 7-11th May 2019. This series of ‘Notes from the Rehearsal Room’ documents some of the thoughts and ideas stimulated by the rehearsal process, and by our chats and discussions in the breaks.

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It’s taken me a while to start this series, because I didn’t see how I could get to it without diverting to a rant about the state of art and culture like some dusty, out-of-touch, caricature of an academic caught in her ivory tower, convinced by the intrinsic rightness of her own tastes and values. There’s so much happening out there that’s terrifying and wrong that I realise it might be a healthier approach, when I’m writing about art at least, to focus on what’s beautiful and revolutionary and true (we’ll get to that soon enough, I promise). Just pissing over stuff that I hate seems pessimistic and mean-spirited and unnecessarily harsh…and yet…

…There’s something in the air. Weightless and form-shifting. It’s an Instagram account with 500k followers, but you can’t work out who’s behind it, or whether anything in the image is real. It’s a middle-aged man pretending to be a woke teenager on Twitter. It’s a million-dollar book advance because the haiku you wrote about cats got retweeted by Judd Apatow. It’s the sense that no one commissioning art has faith in their own aesthetic judgement, or in the expertise they’ve honed by studying craft at its hot centre …they just…pick up anyone with a social media following and give them a platform to make more translucent, vaporous nothing for profit instead of validation. The sense that if a thing can’t be quantified in numbers, then there is nothing about it that’s worthwhile. The sense that everything I love has become, suddenly, about the money. Or, more urgently, at risk because money is all that matters. The spiritual wasteland of the bottom line.

All this was somewhere in the recesses of my mind when I was invited by Conrad Murray, the visionary artist, director, musician and theatre-maker behind Battersea Arts Centre’s Beatbox Academy and one-half of the company Beats & Elements (with collaborator Paul Cree), to sit in on some of the rehearsals for the show High Rise Estate of Mind – a collaboration between Beats & Elements, the rapper Gambit Ace and performer Lakeisha Lynch Stevens. After a decade of pioneering the British hip hop theatre form, Murray’s work is beginning to garner some mainstream success, notably with glowing 5-star reviews (there’s those numbers again), for the Beatbox Academy’s adaptation of Frankenstein. Riding on the crest of this wave, High Rise Estate of Mind, a show about the state of the UK’s housing system, has received Arts Council funding, making possible a BAC run, two performances in Gloucester (dates tbc), and performances at Camden People’s Theatre from 7th-11thMay.

I’ve loved Murray’s work from the moment I first saw it, in the bowels of a falling down abbey in Torbay in 2016. He was on a tour of DenMarked, a solo autobiographical show developed from a short monologue staged as part of BAC’s London Stories. I loved the mash-up of hip hop and storytelling, the language (there was this one line about wearing his cap low to conceal the windows to his soul that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since), and Murray himself — who possesses a rare kind of talent that manifests as both startling and energising. In other words, rather than intimidating you into despair over your own creative potential, he makes you feel as if you too might be capable of achieving something wonderful, even if he is just nodding his head after a show, saying great, yeah, thanks for coming, glad you enjoyed it, no, I’ll never tell you how old I am Katie, that’s an industry secret.

The rehearsal room for High Rise is stirring with that same kind of energising atmosphere. The four performers, who have written and devised the show over a two-year period, are old friends. They work together the way you’d imagine an ensemble would work in utopia, but which I’ve never experienced so utterly in real life despite being in rehearsal rooms of one kind or another for much of the past twenty-three years. There’s a lot of laughter, there’s chatting about the state of politics, relationships, culture, and there’s the business of rehearsing the show itself. What surprises me is the seamless movement between the social moments and the production moments, there is no ‘we’re going to start a run now’, they just sort of spontaneously gather into the performance, so that I turn suddenly from participant in the action to audience.

This isn’t to imply that I feel outside of the process — although I technically am. The company treat me generously, an equal participant. When a colleague at the university where I work hears I’ve been shadowing a rehearsal he commiserates, his experiences of observing rehearsals for professional productions have been literal: sat at the back of a darkened auditorium with a notebook, everyone pretending he isn’t really there. But this isn’t like that at all. The company seems to actually want my input into the show, they are keen to share their ideas with me, to include me in the spirit of the ensemble, and even just to enjoy my company in the breaks, the way you hope people might.

The word I come up with when I search for a way to describe the quality of the rehearsal room is care. A quality that extends to the show itself, over which the group work in painstaking detail, merging the music and lyricism of hip hop, grime, and the freestyle techniques that I equate with old skool garage MCing, to create a theatrical language that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, but to which I feel totally connected — perhaps because of the cultural references and inner-city upbringing that I share with the performers, perhaps because this work just does connect to an audience. Certainly, High Rise asks a lot from the audience too. The gap between the listening mode necessary for the enjoyment of hip hop and the critical ‘audiencing’ mode needed to appreciate postmodern theatrical form will no doubt be difficult for disciples of each.

There isn’t much talk in the rehearsal room about critical reception, although we do wonder whether the ‘industry’ will get the show. I’m not sure that it matters, although of course it does matter because the success of this production in commercial terms will dictate how and whether the company can continue to make theatre. It is worth highlighting that these are all artists with significant bodies of work and clear creative visions — though fewer than 5k followers on Instagram. They’ve developed High Rise over a two-year period, mostly unpaid, working around part-time jobs. When the first day of rehearsal I attend finishes, at 10pm, one member heads to a night-shift cleaning job, before arriving back at the theatre at 9.30 the next morning for another 12-hour rehearsal stint. In these straitened conditions, and until very recently with only each-other as scaffolding, they’ve managed to produce something strange, innovative and true.

But what’s is it worth? I think, sitting in the cold rehearsal room, with these people, coat wrapped around my shoulders, body moving involuntarily to the beat of the narrative, feeling more alive to the possibility of a creative life than I have in years.

I’m not sure you can measure it in numbers.

Cheryl Cole, Mark Duggan, Andrea Dunbar, hip-hop, social realism and yearning: What’s inside my book on council estate performance.

Social Housing in Performance: The English Council Estate on and off Stage is published next week. It explores the representation of English council estates on stage, screen, in the news media and in visual arts practices. It is the only book-length study to focus solely on analysing the representation of estates. Below is an overview of the book, which details in succinct summaries what you can find in each chapter. I’ve written these brief summaries to provide a quick gloss for those wondering whether the book, or parts of it, will be useful to them. I hope this post might both whet your appetite for the volume and help you find the bits of it most relevant to your own interests.

Introduction: The council estate, definitions and parameters

Here, I give a working definition of the term ‘council estate’ and offer a brief history of the evolution of the estate and its place in the British public imagination. I think through how ideas about estates intersect with discourses of class, race, crime, poverty and survival.

I develop a taxonomy of council estate performance, mapping out the different ways twenty-first century performance and performative practices have engaged with estate space.

I also map the theoretical territory in which the book intervenes, using Edward Soja’s ‘trialectics’ to explain my rationale for the use of three case study examples in each of the following chapters.

Key theorists include: Henri Lefebvre, Lisa McKenzie, Edward Soja

Key words: Crisis, council estate, complexity

Chapter 1: Quotidian performance of the council estate

In this chapter I explore what I call ‘quotidian performance’, looking at how the estate has been performed in the ‘everyday’. I examine poverty porn television, newspaper coverage and discuss the culture of what I call the ‘authentic real’, where the term authenticity is often used to infuse council estate representations with ‘truth’.

Developing Imogen Tyler’s method of ‘figuring’ I explore representations of three ‘real’ council estate residents across different media: Karen Matthews, Cheryl Cole and Mark Duggan. I look at the ways these figures authenticate ideas about estates and working class people.

I also argue that the council estate can be understood as a local articulation of the ‘global hood’, emerging from popular understandings of urban marginality in inner-city US neighbourhoods. I trace how influential hood forms such as hip-hop are adopted and appropriated on the English estate.

Key theorists include: Chris Richardson and Hans Skott-Myhre, Bev Skeggs , Imogen Tyler 

Key words: Class, race, ‘the real’

Chapter 2: Class and the council estate in mainstream theatre

In Chapter 2, I look at three productions performed in building-based, subsidised theatres: Out of Joint’s 2000 revival of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (performed in tandem with Robin Soans’s A State Affair), Simon Stephen’s Port, revived at the National Theatre in 2013 and Conrad Murray’s DenMarked (Battersea Arts Centre 2017).

The focus in this chapter is on class and its relationship with what I call ‘mainstream’ theatre forms. I argue that although class has, until recently, rarely been named in arts policy and theatre scholarship, class relations and their attendant power dynamics have played out through representations of estates and significantly influence the ways estates are produced and received in the public imagination. I critique social realism, arguing that the form often works to further ‘authenticate’ troubling representations.

Key theorists: Elaine Aston and Janine Reinalt, Paul Murphy, Raymond Williams

Key words: Realism, authenticity, rage

Chapter 3: Located on the estate

In this chapter I examine three site-specific works that took place on estates: SLICK, by the National Youth Theatre (2011) at Park Hill in Sheffield, Roger Hiorns’s installation Seizure at Harper Road in Southwark, London, later moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2008/2014-) and Fourthland’s ‘The Wedding to the Bread’ (2017) ceremony at the Wenlock Barn estate in Shoreditch, London.

I explore how these works are implicated in so-called artwashing, often becoming complicit in gentrification processes: but also their capacity to resist such processes. I examine ideas of utopia, beauty and mythmaking in light of these works.

Key theorists include: Jen Harvie, Grant Kester, James Thompson

Key words: Artwashing, site-specific, ambivalence

Chapter 4: Resident artists

Here, I explore how artists who are also estate residents have used the space of the estate to ‘speak back’ to dominant, negative representations of estates in one way or another. I discuss grime music, the Focus E15 campaign and look at three estate performances by resident artists based in East London. These performances (Jordan McKenzie’s Monsieur Poo-Pourri series, Fugitive Images’ film Estate: A Reverie and Jane English’s show 20b) take us through the process of estate regeneration: an artist still living on an estate in a rapidly changing neighbourhood, residents in the process of being removed from their homes and a resident trying to recreate her estate after its demolition.

I analyse these works by framing them as examples of broader ‘strategies’ – of subversion, yearning and nostalgia — that estate residents use to resist reductive ideas about their homes from the bounded estate location.

Key theorists include: David Harvey, bell hooks, Laura Oldfield Ford

Keywords: subversion, nostalgia, yearning

Conclusion: Three thoughts

I conclude  by offering three thoughts that draw out the main findings of the book, exploring the themes of authenticity, ambivalence and hope that recur throughout earlier chapters.

Key theorists include:  Paul Crowther, Mark Fisher, Chantal Mouffe

Key words: Capitalist realism, spatial ecology, hope

You can hear more about the book and my thoughts on estates, class at culture on this podcast, produced by the New Books Network, click here.

You can pre-order the book here, although before you click be warned it is very expensive. I explain why here. Perhaps you can order a copy for your local or institutional library. If you can’t afford a copy and don’t have access to a library but would like to read the book please email me.

Why is your book so expensive?

Embed from Getty Images

 

My book, Social Housing in Performance, is available for pre-order. It is, as you will have noticed if you clicked on the hyperlink in the last sentence, prohibitively expensive at £67.50 (and that’s with a discount). Almost immediately that I tweeted news of my forthcoming publication, I received replies going, ‘Gah! But the price!’ The high price is especially an issue because of the subject matter of the book — the fact it deals with class injustice and its cultural dimensions — and because many people who will (hopefully) want to read it won’t have loads of money, or access to a university library. So I’ve written this to a) explain why it’s so expensive, because I feel that needs justifying. And b) to tell you how you can read it at a much cheaper price, or for free.

Why is it so expensive?

Academic books are expensive. The reason for this is because they are very niche, and publishers don’t expect to sell more than a few hundred copies, if that. Because they have to make their money back, and because these books will mostly be purchased by university libraries, who are much better off than the average human household, they are priced very high. That way, the publisher makes their money back on their investment in the book.

The academic who wrote the book typically makes very minimal returns on any sales — totalling in the tens, or if we’re lucky, hundreds of pounds. Considering academic books take years if not decades to complete, we do not win financially in this model (see here for a rant about that).

So why publish with an academic publisher?

There are two reasons. The first is that I genuinely didn’t believe there was anything like a market for the trade publication of an arts criticism book about estates, class, arts and culture. My experience of unsuccessfully trying to sell a non-fiction book to trade publishers in the past had taught me that I would need to convince commissioning editors that the book is likely to sell (tens of) thousands of copies. In order to publish a trade book, you either have to be writing about an extremely hot topic, or else you have to be famous. The public interest in class and the arts is extremely current, and five years ago when I was working on the proposal for this publication I didn’t know how to articulate the market for it, indeed I didn’t think there was a market for it. No one was really talking about this stuff. I know there are some academic books, particularly sociology ones and arts criticism by well-known writers, that sell very well. But as I am a) unknown to the wider public, and b) writing about a very specific subject, it seemed unlikely that a trade publisher would bite.

The second is a career progression reason, and therefore selfish — but I don’t apologise for that. Every six years or so, UK academics have to submit our work to the Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly RAE), where its ‘quality, significance and rigour’ is graded anywhere between 1 and 4 stars. In my current job, I have to evidence that I am capable of producing 4* outputs (yes, even though I am an ‘early career’ scholar), in order to pass probation and be promoted. Although the REF panel are not supposed to take where an output is published into a consideration when assessing, there are still good reasons to choose an academic publisher if you are hoping to submit a book to REF. Most obviously because with an academic publisher your book will be subject to a rigorous peer review by someone in your discipline, which means there is quality control and you can have some confidence the academic world thinks your work is worthwhile. Additionally, despite the rules around not using publishers as proxies for quality, I don’t doubt that many of the REF assessors do factor some element of publication prestige into their assessment (they have to read thousands of submissions in a few months, they must make shortcuts somehow).

But I still want to read your book!

Thank you! I have been working on this material for nearly ten years, and I really want it to reach as wide an audience as possible. My contract says that it will be available in paperback at some point, which will reduce the price to somewhere in the region of £20, which is still a lot, but will be affordable for some. I’m not sure when that will be. In the meantime, you might like to request that your institutional or local library orders a copy, you can ask the librarian how to do this. The more hardback copies that sell, the more likely it is that the book will receive a timely paperback release.

There are a couple of ways to get a free copy: For those of you who teach and hope to use the book on a course, you can request an inspection copy from the publisher once it’s out (click here for details of how to do that). You might also like to write a review of the book for an academic journal, or for a newspaper or blog — in which case you can email publicity@bloomsbury.com or academicreviews@bloomsbury.com after publication and ask for a review copy.

Once the book’s out I’m going to arrange a launch where I’ll hopefully have discounted copies. I’m also happy to share any discount codes I’m given, and to send out digital versions of chapters once I have them, especially to those who need to read the book for research or study purposes. You can find my email in the contacts section of this website.

 

 

Rights, copyright and exploitation: Five things academics can do to improve the experience of publishing

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This is written from a UK arts and humanities perspective, and may not be entirely applicable outside of that context

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This week, I was presented with yet another shitty contract by an academic publisher, and it was the final straw. The breaking point as I snapped under the weight of resentments that I’ve been harbouring towards academic publishing culture for the past eight years. I am 34. I have been writing and publishing academic papers since I was 26. I have, to date, published well over a dozen articles, chapters and book reviews, have edited journal special issues and have just submitted my first book. Some of my stuff is very good. I say all this not to brag, but to point to the fact that even with this relatively wide experience and despite my dedication to my work and eagerness to please (maybe that’s part of the problem), my publishing experiences are still unsatisfactory. Indeed, once it comes down to the contract, publishing has almost always left me feeling exploited, cynical and played.

Having been handed yet another contract where I’m expected to sign my worldwide copyright and all other rights, save the ability to actually share my work, over to a very profitable company, for no remuneration whatsoever, at massive personal cost in terms of effort and energy, I’m feeling extremely cross. Not only, and not even primarily, at the publishing houses — who after all are only following the ‘profit no matter what’ business model that has now become the prevailing morality in our culture — but at myself (for not challenging the culture sooner) and at my colleagues and mentors. Literally none of whom have ever discussed copyright, subsidiary rights, contract terminology and negotiation, meaning I have willingly signed rights to my work over to publishers on almost every academic paper I’ve ever written.

Perhaps my feeling annoyed at colleagues is unfair. So far as I can tell the conspiracy of silence (try asking someone about the terms of their publishing contract) is not so much because people don’t want early career researchers to know their rights, but because even many senior academics are unclear about those rights, how to protect them, how to enforce them, or what a standard academic publishing contract actually means in practical terms. After all, very few of us will ever directly make money from our academic writing. (For those of us signed up to ALCS, we should be aware that signing over copyright (and other subsidary rights) means we are not entitled to collect to royalties from secondary uses). Added to which the fact that we feel so relieved after years and years of painstaking research, more months or years of working through drafts, responses to reviews, edits and so on, to have finally completed the article, chapter or book, that we just want our work out there as soon as possible. We don’t want to delay the process, risk our relationship with editors, have someone else publish similar work, have our work pulled at the last minute, or (and I think this is especially the case for women) be perceived as difficult. So we shut up. (Perhaps we are also embarrassed that, as people whose job is ‘being clever’, we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing in this regard). (Perhaps there are also those of us who cling jealously to our ability to negotiate fairer contracts, figuring that it’s a skill that’s basically a finite resource we’d like to keep for ourselves).

However, I’m not willing to continue participating in a system where virtually nobody openly discusses our writing and its monetary value, or talks about how to protect it. So I am writing this blog for two reasons. The first is to raise the issue in a public forum in the hope it generates conversation and sharing of stories. I am especially interested to hear about how academics have protected their work, and about any initiatives colleagues are involved in around training postgraduates and ECRs to better understand their rights and how to negotiate with academic publishers. The second is to relay a series of simple strategies that I suggest we take up to start pushing back against unfair publishing conditions.

For anyone confused about what publishing rights are please click here for more details (this is a North American perspective, and much of it deals with trade/fiction publishing but it’s a good overview). On UK copyright law specifically, see here and here.

We have to ask for better terms when we are handed a contract that is blatantly exploitative.

The terms we are willing to settle for will obviously differ from person to person, but I’d say at the bare minimum giving up copyright and all subsidiary rights is an immediate no. Instead, ask whether the publisher is willing to publish with a licence to publish agreement. Also check book contracts for unhelpful clauses such as those where the publisher has first right to first refusal on your next monograph. Because ECRs and those with precarious contracts arguably need publications more than established and senior researchers, the onus is on permanent staff to push for better contracts every time we publish. We have to do this so that we start to make it against a publisher’s interests to offer the most exploitative contract as standard. (Advice on how to negotiate here, and here).

It is worth remembering that many of the big publishers, such as Taylor & Francis, will present you with a copyright assignment request as standard, but have a policy of allowing writers to switch to licence to publish when asked. So ask.

If the publisher can’t give you satisfactory terms, go elsewhere.

We have to be willing to do this. Maybe it means you don’t get to place your monograph with a prestigious University Press. Perhaps it means that publication will be delayed while you look for another journal, or submit that book chapter as an article. Remember the quality of your work is in the work and not the publisher (this should also be how REF panels approach it). Going elsewhere simply means you get to publish without feeling compromised and perhaps even see some money if your work is a surprising commercial success.

Lobby from positions of power.

Editorial boards, series editors and others in positions of influence with academic publishing houses should lobby in the strongest possible terms to have contracts presented to their writers meet a minimum standard of fairness. No copyright assignment and access to percentage of subsidiary rights, for example. Where appropriate, editorial boards should take advice on this from e.g. Society of Authors, UCU or similar.

We have to educate ourselves and our communities.

This means we have to start getting a grip on understanding rights, permissions, etc. and we have to share and disseminate strategies we have used to negotiate better contract terms with our colleagues. We should also create opportunities for training in contract negotiation for ECRs and postgraduate researchers (and others who might need it).

Use and share available resources. 

Those of us with agents, membership to the Society of Authors, or with other means of having contracts vetted and scrutinised by experts should routinely do so and should, as above, share insights from the process with colleagues, students and postgraduate students.

On a final note: is it an absolute madness for me to think about setting up my own publishing imprint, with a central aim of establishing an ethical contract model for academia? Would anyone else be interested in thinking about the feasibility of this, or gathering to discuss academic publishing rights issues? If so please email me at k.beswick@exeter.ac.uk and I will try to arrange a meeting or gathering where interested parties can discuss.