Ken Wissoker addressed a packed auditorium in the University of Alberta’s Humanities Centre

This past Thursday, October 16, 2014, the University of Alberta’s Department of Art & Design presented a very special guest: Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director of Duke University Press. Introduced by Professor Natalie Loveless, Ken spoke to a full auditorium in the Humanities Centre on campus. During the course of the lively conversation that ensued, Ken was kind enough to impart a great deal of insight into his role in the writing and publishing industry, advice for writers, and more general thoughts on the direction of writing in 2014 and beyond.

The Role of the Press:

Ken relayed that one of his key interests at Duke University Press is to shape publishing as part of a community of people invested in making work better and successful in a serious way. During his talk Ken drew some interesting analogies with respect to the role of the press, highlighting the process of reviewing manuscripts as equivalent to a kind of cinema test screening – comparisons such as these gave additional insight into the dynamics of editing and the relative manifestations that a manuscript embodies before arriving at the finished, polished publication which we encounter in the library or bookstore.

Genres of Writing:

As an Editorial Director with a longstanding career in publishing, Ken has published in a multitude of genres. An authority on the topic, Ken commented that the genre of writing and the reality of the audience are not always the same thing, and that it is often easy to conflate the two as a writer. It was interesting to consider how a book might be better defined by the demographic of the public that receives it rather than the loose genre into which it can be categorised. This immediately raised interesting observations with regards to the changing identity of a book pre and post-publication and the manner in which a text may be adopted by an audience for which it was perhaps not originally designed.

A second observation by Ken was that the rhythm of writing changes in accordance with the genre – an interesting concept that I’m sure struck a chord with many of the readers in the room but also gave a glimpse into the patterns in writing, the process of reviewing multiple manuscripts from a spectrum of genres.

Publishing Now and in the Future:

Today it is of importance for writers to learn to write as they read, to get a sense of what holds your attention and write with this in mind (an approach consistent in performance studies).

It is important to learn to write for and to an audience that we know will read until the end, and that this should be established from the first page. Ken drew upon the examples of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Edward W. Said’s Orientalism as embodiments of books that apply this principle with great success.

Ken also encouraged the auditorium to consider that everyone reads in different ways, and that these individual approaches will change again over time with the advent of technology.

How can we expect people to read five to ten years from now? He observed that reading digitally (on a tablet or equivalent) is similar to reading from a book in terms of length and pacing. However, Ken also spoke to an uneasiness in the industry: the sense that if we are travelling in the direction of increasing technology, then we should be ‘further along’ in our engagement with it then we are.

Throughout his lecture Ken was extremely warm and candid with those attending, offering invaluable observations of his role at Duke University Press whilst imparting practical and encouraging advice for aspiring writers and the innumerable thesis writers in the room.

A interesting piece of advice I took away from the discussion was Ken’s observation that he only feels motivated to write himself once he knows exactly what he wants to say, and that determining how writing works for you is typically an opportunity that arrives only after writing your first or second book.

About Ken Wissoker:

Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director, Duke University Press

Ken Wissoker has published close to 900 books, many of which have won awards. His career trajectory at Duke University Press has seen him transition from joining as Acquisitions Director in 1991 before acquiring further responsibility as Editor-in-Chief (1997) and being appointed as Editorial Director in 2005.

During his tenure with Duke University Press, Ken has worked with authors including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Jack Halberstam, Charles Taylor, Joan Scott, Lisa Lowe, Lauren Berlant, Brian Massumi, Arjun Appadurai, Sara Ahmed, Randy Weston, and Fred Wesley, in fields of interest as diverse as anthropology, cultural studies and social theory; globalization and post-colonial theory; Asian, African, and American studies; music, film and television; race, gender and sexuality; science studies; and other areas in the humanities, social sciences, media, and the arts.

Ken Wissoker’s essays include “The Future of the Book as a Media Project”, published in Cinema Journal, and Chronicle of Higher Education articles “Scholarly Monographs Are Flourishing, Not Dying” and “Negotiating a Passage between Disciplinary Borders”.

Ken Wissoker’s visit was hosted by the KIAS funded Research-Creation Working Group (RCWG) and the Canadian Institute for Research Computing in Arts (CIRCA).