Earlier this year, IOPN announced the beta release of a forthcoming digital critical edition of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in Scalar by Daniel G. Tracy, a PhD in English and associate professor at the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). To celebrate its release, we are interviewing editor Daniel Tracy to hear about the edition’s development and his vision behind it. As head of the Scholarly Communication and Publishing unit overseeing IOPN, Tracy’s research areas are truly diverse, encompassing ebook user behavior, digital publishing, and digital humanities.
The current beta version includes the reading text with annotations for cultural references, three variants of the text each with a different emphasis on textual or visual elements of the novel, an account of critical and biographical context, a draft editorial introduction, and a co-authored section on mapping locations in the novel. Additional publication and reception history components will also be included in the final product of the edition. Tracy is seeking feedback from interested readers on any aspects of the current version to improve the edition. With this proposed content and with readers’ feedback, the digital edition will open up richer scholarly conversations about Loos’s authorship by offering different lenses and vehicles to explore the historical context of the novel’s production and consumption.
1) What inspired this new series of digital critical editions, and how did this vision evolve? In particular, what drove you to select Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a pilot project for the series?
IOPN seeks ways to produce a greater number of publications, especially in digital humanities (DH), with more sustained and sustainable staffing. One particular kind of DH project that poses challenges is the digital edition. Traditionally these have used various approaches to create one-off unique and often very expansive sites covering an author’s entire lifetime of writing or large sets of related manuscripts. Those more expansive projects are outside of our scope, but one thing that has gone missing is the space for focused editions of individual works, which is important for classroom uses. That is something we are more equipped to support, with a little time to determine the best execution.
When I received funding to support production of the first two titles in a series of digital editions, it also seemed like a good opportunity to focus on the significant number of titles from the 1920s that have begun to enter the public domain due to copyright expiration. Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one example, and knowing its publication history, production, and reception from my dissertation work, I knew it would make a good edition.
2) You mentioned that your first experience with GPB was through your research for your dissertation. Could you explain a bit more about GPB’s context, including its publication history, production, and reception that led you to think about this novel as a good candidate for digital edition?
There is a significant amount of scholarship on Blondes that highlights its publication in the popular fashion magazine Harper’s Bazar as a serial before its publication as a book by Boni & Liveright, a major publisher of modernist work of the period. The working assumption, sometimes explicitly stated, has been that there were no significant changes to the text, but there was a fair amount of revision between the two publications. There are also a few but significant changes to how the images relate to the text, and removal of one image, that is worth drawing attention to. Beyond those variants, a lot of Loos’s later-in-life stories of the novel’s production have been reproduced despite inaccuracies, so an edition that really builds out information about the novel’s production and reception (short- and long-term) has the potential to foster different approaches to thinking about the novel. The opportunities to highlight the visual changes and the production and reception drove a lot of my early interest in the edition, but I quickly realized the textual variants would be more important as well and that an account of them would have a lot to offer a scholarly audience.
3) In the draft preface of your work-in progress, you use the term “critical” to describe the edition. What do you mean by a critical edition? How did the “critical” aspect of the edition inform your choice of Scalar as a publishing platform for this project? What possibilities did Scalar open for the project?
In this context of editing, a critical edition usually refers to one seeking to provide a deeper understanding of the text’s production and reception to help further research and teaching about the text. It presents a reliable version of the work but it also necessarily provides an argument about the work. Often this means accounting for different published variants, but it can also mean a lot of other primary source work, annotations, and contextualizing essays. These help readers understand the text as something more than a fixed final product at a single point in time, and ideally prompt further criticism that wasn’t possible before.
Scalar has a number of affordances that made it appealing, including parallel reading paths. But also, it has a fairly elegant option for representing the kinds of contextual annotations for the reading version of the text (as Scalar “notes”) with minimal intrusion, and allows tagging to pull certain types of content together. Given the various media elements, including digitized primary sources, I was also interested in being able to choose from a more expansive set of metadata elements for different source types based on what facts people might need to know. Finally, for a novel as visually driven as Blondes, Scalar has some relatively straightforward ways to create a visually striking presentation that lives up to the text.
4) What kinds of challenges did you encounter as you made editorial decisions about how to present textual variants for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in digital format? What kinds of design, pedagogical, or technical strategies did you use to address them?
I think the biggest challenge was how to integrate the variants, particularly because there were extensive edits that range from minor word choice and punctuation changes to the introduction or removal of passages that affect characterization. As noted above, the differences in the text were far greater than I anticipated despite my extensive prior work with the novel. In early experiments I considered an approach that you would be more likely to see in print, with a main reading text that included endnotes that indicated the variants. But this was far too cluttered on the screen and difficult to navigate even in the most minimally invasive trials, and it became clear that I needed to fully separate the reading text from the variants. Once that decision was made, I quickly determined there would need to be alternate views that emphasized either the magazine or book version of the novel, without necessarily prioritizing one over the other.
The other key issue was actually about the visual elements rather than the text. The illustrations themselves didn’t change much from magazine to book. Some captions did, one illustration in the magazine was dropped from the book for unclear reasons, and the book versions were far inferior reproductions. But the layout of the magazine and book created a completely different relationship between image and text. Going with the book’s interspersion of text and images was more practicable in the end, but having the scanned magazine pages available for people to see the different impact on readers was still important.
5) Your editorial decision to provide separate magazine and book versions of the edits to the novel without prioritizing one over the other sounds like a bold and inclusive move. How would you want your readers to engage with the edition? In what ways will your readers’ engagement be similar to or different from print editions of the novel?
I really hope that I have made it easy both for people who want to just read the novel without a lot of distractions and for people who want to dive a bit deeper. The variants are one obvious case that will hopefully prompt further research, but there are also interactive maps created by my research assistant Dani Palatin (who co-authored the mapping essay) that I hope will help make it easier to understand the spatial elements of the novel. It is a location-driven text; each chapter has Lorelei (the narrator) in a specific area but she is moving around a lot as well. You might think she is just hitting a lot of tourist highlights, and to some extent that is true, but when you look at the maps you see how concentrated the locations in specific cities are. Loos had traveled to Europe a couple of times before and during the writing of Blondes, and she clearly knew these cities well and had a conception of where Lorelei would and wouldn’t be.
The extensive use of historical primary sources for context is also far more extensive than it could be in print. Something that really sank in, as I developed the edition, was that we are at a point where existing digital library content such as the newspapers at Chronicling America and the books and magazines in HathiTrust can enliven critical edition making by showing how different entities floated in the popular consciousness at the time of the novel’s production. For Blondes, this is true of the novel itself and of Loos, but also the many cultural references in the novel.
6) As Head of Scholarly Communication and Publishing at the University of Illinois Library, you have seen authors transition from designing content for print publication to presenting their research in digital formats. Could you share your thoughts about how the digital shifts or shapes readers’ approaches to print material or to print as a medium?
I think it depends a lot on what particular version of “the digital” we are talking about, because even when you are talking about fairly conventional ebooks there is a lot of important variation. You can have the same book as a pdf, an epub, html full text, or embedded in a lot of different proprietary reading software with various levels of DRM limitations—and these are all different reading experiences of the same text. A lot of my previous research has been on how readers are navigating this landscape in the context of academic book use. A key takeaway is that readers are doing a lot of bouncing around different electronic and print copies of the same titles when they have the choice to do so in order to take advantage of the affordances of different formats—as well as escape, let’s say, the anti-affordances of some formats.
When it comes to less conventional digital publications, including digital books like those we might publish in Scalar, I think we just know a lot less about how they are really used in practice despite a lot of effort in producing various digital humanities web projects, and this is an area I’m interested in turning my research to (once I am done with this edition!). There is of course a lot of research on how people use websites, but that is typically focused on commercial or (in my more immediate context) library websites and not academic digital projects. And while most people are interested in thinking about audience and how they want their project to be used, often in a web context it is based on a lot of guesswork and assumptions about how people behave in other digital environments that may not actually be the one they are trying to produce. In the case of a digital edition of what was originally a print text, if there is a current print edition you will likely see some similar bouncing between formats depending on the goals of the reader. But also because digital editions of older print texts often try to present some digitized copy of the original alongside the digital presentation of the text, they can provide a mediated sense of original physical objects that a print edition, even a facsimile edition, would never quite do.
7) We know the series is under development. What kinds of texts are you most excited to publish as part of the series?
As I noted before, the fact that copyright is beginning to expire on works from the 1920s, after a long pause due to the copyright extension act that kept the cutoff at 1922 for a couple of decades, offers an explosion of options for texts that would be eligible to publish editions of for the first time that would be more than popular reading editions. I think there are also clearly needs for lower barrier approaches to create digital editions of texts by writers who have not traditionally been included in the “canon,” including many women writers and especially writers of color. There are absolutely limits on what you can do with editions of texts recently in the public domain: if an author later published a significant revision or wrote one that remains only in the archives, that revision would likely not be available for use (beyond a descriptive account) barring special permission. But for many texts there is a significant amount that can be done to create a high-quality edition that facilitates further research and teaching without the assumption that the particular edition has to be the final word.
If you are interested in proposing a digital critical edition, or you would like to share feedback on the beta version of Gentleman Prefer Blondes, please contact Dan Tracy via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).