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Reviews of Pyramids and Nightclubs: gracefully written, academically constipated

19 February, 2009

I haven’t made much of an effort to talk up my own book, Pyramids and Nightclubs, which was published at the end of 2007.  I do mention it whenever I can, and my colleagues will all confirm that they are totally sick of me boasting about how I got the phrase “sex orgies” into the subtitle, but I haven’t written here in Culture Matters about the writing and publishing process, even though I keep meaning to get around to it.  I think maybe that’s because by the time you get a book published, you’re pretty sick of the whole thing — I must have written 30 versions of that book — and it’s hard to make the effort to do the PR legwork that you really should do to promote your book.

But I’ve been thinking about Pyramids and Nightclubs recently because I’m mentally working on my next book (thinking about it in the shower is work, right?) and trying to figure out what sort of audience I want to write for.

Pyramids and Nightclubs is a version of my 2003 dissertation.  Anyone who knows me knows that I have a casual style in both speech and writing — in my opinion, one of the great virtues of Michael Taussig’s writing is his liberal use of contractions — and my dissertation was no exception.  (You don’t want to know how many errors there were in the bibliography.) But for the book manuscript (aside from fixing all those errors), I tried to make my writing even more informal, with the goal of reaching a wide audience.  I wrote a chatty preface about my own experiences in the Arab world that led to my decision to work on that particular research project, and I pared down the literature review considerably and embedded it within a discussion of what I and my fellow grad students were reading at the time.  So, for example, instead of just citing Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, I wrote about how I thought that book was the bee’s knees, and how writing about mobility was the cutting edge of anthropology, only to return from the field to realize that everyone was writing about mobility and travel, and to have my dissertation advisor remind me that it was nothing new: Levi-Strauss had scooped the whole hybridity/mobility genre a half century ago with Tristes Tropiques.

Oh, and following Larry Rosen’s advice, I gave my chapters snappy titles.  Whereas chapters of the dissertation were titled “Arab tourism part I” and “Arab tourism part II” (catchy!), the equivalent chapters in the book were “Transnational dating” and “Sex orgies, a marauding prince, and other rumors about Gulf tourism.”

The result was maybe a more accessible book, but possibly also a schizophrenic one. Now I’m seeing the results, as reviews start to trickle in.  So far, academics have mostly been generous.  James Jankowski reviewed the book for the Middle East Journal, and he wrote that

The sprawling title of this work is appropriate; it is a sprawling book.  Yet it is not unstructured.  Its main focus, a comparison of the differing nature of Western and Arab tourism in Egypt and how contact with each group contributes to the Egyptian sense of national identity is original in conception and by and large well executed in practice.  It is also an enjoyable book: the work’s personal tone, its reliance on the vivid narration of Egyptian experiences and of popular opinion as gathered in interviews, and its lavish use of photographs, all contribute to making the work an evocative portrait of contemporary Egypt.

So far, anthropologists have also been kind; the book was named the Leeds Honor Book by SUNTA (Society for Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology), and Robert Rotenberg described it in with superlatives that even *I* wouldn’t use if I were writing an anonymous review of my own book on Amazon:

Gracefully written and theoretically astute, Pyramids and Nightclubs is an extraordinary ethnography… Multi-layered and fabulously textured, the book weaves meticulous ethnographic accounts of cross-cultural encounters with history, images and the anthropologist’s own experiences.

Sounds good, right?  So, speaking of Amazon, how has the general reader taken my attempts to write accessibly?  They’re somewhat less impressed.  Here’s a take from an Amazon.co.uk reviewer:

Unfortunately Wynn’s frequently entertaining text makes for frequent heavy reading because although it is presented as a ‘book’, in reality it is rather obviously still only a slightly retouched innocent and endearing university doctoral thesis by a serious young Texan (?) lady…. In fact the book sometimes suffers from a rather academically constipated style, formally repeating the same things ad nauseam, acceptable perhaps in a doctoral thesis but not in a book with the catchy title and the “bestseller” subtitle she or her editor has chosen.

He ends by judging it a “worthwhile read.”  Four stars!

So what I’m trying to decide is: just how academically constipated will my next book be?

–L.L. Wynn

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Costa permalink
    19 February, 2009 3:28 pm

    ha lisa, I dont think its “academically constipated!” Its hard to write for a wider audience and I am sure that your next book will be an improvement of an already entertaining and complex ethnographic piece.

    Although I must say that to every person that I have subsequently loaned the book: they seem rather “disapoited” that no sex orgies were actually described! That said, I still think great title, and all the chapter titles describe its content.

  2. 22 February, 2009 9:23 am

    Listen, the fact that anyone on Amazon actual reviews your book at all is nothing short of a triumph. There are so few academic books, even by big names, that ever get “customer reviews” on commercial sites!

  3. Virginia Greenbird permalink
    16 April, 2009 4:18 am

    The idea of academic constipation brings some images to mind that I’d rather not entertain.
    Also, are you really Texan?
    At any rate, I’m guessing that amazon reviewer had to strain a lot, him/herself, to come up with that description of the book, which I thought was quite entertaining.
    So, what are you thinking of for your next book?

  4. 16 April, 2009 10:05 am

    Ha, no, not Texan, never even been to Texas. I’m a Virginian, Virginia! I guess we both say “y’all,” so close enough.

    There’s another review of my book just out in Anthropos, and it’s much less generous than the Amazon reviewer calling me academically constipated. The Anthropos reviewer says that I veer into soap opera and “a teen girl’s magazine” material. (And he makes up his own first name for me: he calls me “Lyn Wynn”! My name is Lisa, for the record, but people who want to write mean reviews can call me “L.L.”, just as the book cover says.)

    I’m thinking the next book will weave drunkenly between academically constipated and Tiger Beat magazine. That way I can satisfy neither audience.

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