Writing Life

Writers are a conservative lot, in many respects.  Consider the epigraph.  I’ve written about this before—in modern-day publishing epigraphs require permission to reuse and serve little purpose beyond two negotiable factors: to prove the writer is well-read, and that someone else just summed up your chapter in a single sentence.  Most modern books have stopped using epigraphs, but scholars read old books produced before aggressive copyright laws.  There is a trick you can use, however, that brings an epigraph into the realm of the fair use doctrine.  It involves moving it into the body of your chapter.  Make it a quote.  Comment upon it.  For all their research skills, many academics do not take advantage of easily found advice on academic publishing.  Just ask an editor.

We all, I’m sure, have tunnel-vision.  Life is so incredibly busy and demanding that choices have to be made.  For most academics publishing is part of the rubric for tenure.  Perishing is the only other option.  Been there.  Done that.  Those of us who make a more modest living on the other side of the book sometimes write for different reasons.  We may need to supplement our income (as if academic publishing really ever helps with that!), and thus we must pay attention to the finer details of the business.  Write what people want to read.  Think like a reader.  And, yes, get rid of the epigraphs.  We know you’re smart; you’ve written a book.  Another reason for writing beyond the tenure-dome is the compulsion.  The need to do it.

While the struggling artist is a tired trope, it’s also true.  Many of the writers most admired today had lifetimes of struggle and obstacles which often stopped them too soon in life’s tracks.  I often think of the Brontë sisters.  In a family apparently cursed with premature death, living in a time when women writers were rare, three sisters set themselves the task of becoming novelists.  Not one of them lived to forty.  Anne, who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, made it to twenty-nine.  Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, died at thirty.  Charlotte, who gave the world Jane Eyre, survived to thirty-nine.  They defined, in many ways, the English novel.  And while they lived to see some measure of success in their brief lives, they wrote against the obstacles of life and the specter of early death.  Writing is a passion.  A craft.  And even academic authors provide a favor to the world if they do it well.

Brontë sisters by brother Branwell

Epigraphic Ephemera

Photo credit: Napoleon Sarony, via Wikimedia Commons

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” ― Oscar Wilde

In certain kinds of books, epigraphs are popular.  In fact, I’m currently reading a book where every part of every chapter begins and ends with an epigram.  It starts to taste like an epigram cracker after a while.  Don’t get me wrong, every great once in a while there’s a quote that just illustrates your point in a chapter so pithily that you can’t resist.   Still, epigraphs ought to come with a warning label.  Working in publishing one of the first things I learned is that unlike quotes in the body of a text, an epigraph that’s covered by copyright isn’t considered “fair use.”  It’s an ornament, an embellishment.  If you want to use one, you need to get permission from the rights holder.  (Unless it’s in the public domain.)

While the idea of copyright itself isn’t that complicated—the creator of intellectual property is the owner of said property—copyright laws can be complex.  Publishers discourage the use of epigraphs (which only academics seem to use any more) because of permissions complications.  You see, when you publish a book (or article) you’re trading your copyright for whatever emoluments the publisher or the journal has to offer.  Most publishers, no matter how noble, are businesses.  There are costs with producing books.  If someone wants to reuse part of a another book—apart from the standard academic quote—they must have permission to do so.  Epigraph permissions can really slow a book down.  And make it expensive.

Reading is an involved process.  We human beings are seldom given such direct access to the interior lives of others.  Think about it—books are private thoughts made public.  Sometimes writers like to show that others have been thinking along similar lines, especially if what they have to say challenges convention.  Thus the epigraph.  The quotable quote.  But did you have permission to take that?  I like poetry.  It takes longer to read than prose, but it says so much in so few words.  That means using poetry in epigraphs becomes a nightmare.  Rights holders often charge by the percentage of the poem used.  And once a book becomes e book there no stopping the spread of its epigraphs used so carefully by permission.  Indeed, e-books are easily pirated, increasing the concerns of those who sell other’s thoughts for a living.  Before sticking that clever quote at the start of your chapter, it’s worth pondering the epigraph above (in the public domain, of course).