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U of T Scarborough professor's book goes Under the Cover

Clayton Childress, Assistant Professor in U of T Scarborough’s Department of Sociology, offers insights about the writing, publishing and reading of novels in his new book, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel. (Photo by Raquel A. Russell)

What goes on behind the scenes of a book? U of T Scarborough’s Clayton Childress researched just that with his own soon-to-be released book, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel.

“A lot of the work in this project was learning what was typical and atypical in the writing, publishing, and reading of novels, which I think is a good takeaway for fiction and book publishing in general,” says Childress, an assistant professor in U of T Scarborough’s Department of Sociology

Childress follows the journey of a novel from start to finish by looking at the fields of authoring, publishing and reading.  Through interviews, ethnographic field work and survey data, Childress offers insights into author communities, how marginalized voices struggle to be heard in publishing houses and many other topics addressing the production and reception of culture.

Under the Cover follows the authoring, publishing and reading of Cornelia Nixon’s Jarretsville, a work of historical fiction released in 2009. Jarrettsville takes places immediately following the U.S. Civil War, and tells the true story of the unlikely connection between Martha Jane Cairnes, who comes from a family of southern sympathizers, and Nick McComas, a Union man.

Under the Cover is not just a case study of one book,” says Childress, “but it uses one book as a window into places that we as readers usually don’t have access to.”   

As he explains, “Each chapter highlights a specific turning point in the life of Jarrettsville, which is then used to illuminate the broader picture of how books come to be.”

One of those ways includes the complex world of publishing, where agents (people who pitch an author’s book to publishing houses), acquisition editors (the people who actually read and select books on behalf of houses), and marketers and distributors make significant, often-hidden contributions.

It’s in the role of an acquisition editor that, what Childress calls the paradox of ‘good work’ comes into play.

“Part of doing ‘good work’ in this industry, as an acquisition editor, is publishing things that you can personally relate to and root for,” he says. “The manuscript adheres to your own tastes and experiences."

Childress reveals that doing 'good work' has the dramatic effect of shutting out marginalized voices.

In Nixon’s initial draft of “Jarrettsville,” the story centres on the main female character’s point of view and received no attention from publishers, Childress says.  Nixon took the story apart and created a new version that equally centred a male character’s point of view.

“Eventually, the acquisition editor who decided this book should be published, all he initially spoke about was the male main character,” says Childress. “He says he felt like the character was a friend he could relate to.”

In doing so, the editor is actually doing ‘good work’, Childress explains. This is why it’s important to have diverse people, culturally and regionally, in these positions.

“There are serious consequences to the massive under-representation of authors and stories by people who don’t look, sound, or think like typical acquisition editors,” he says. In the last third of his book Childress elaborates on these consequences by following "Jarrettsville" into the world of reviewers, retailers, and readers.

Childress began his in-depth research in 2008. In addition to interviewing Nixon, he conducted thorough interviews with 25 other authors and learned about the communities they create.

“When we think of authors, we think of someone locked away in a room all by themselves, just struggling,” he says.

Childress’ research demonstrates that this is not always the case. Authors are often social in their writing processes, from making use of group Skype calls to writing sessions at one another’s homes.

“There’s this whole world of creative communities that we don’t really think about or get to see because authors work in so-called weird places.”

Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel will be released June 20. Childress did not set out to disprove myths about the demise of publishing, and his book makes clear that there has never been a bigger audience for books. “I’m not fighting for books, because books don’t need me,” says Childress. “This is far from a dying industry.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough