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  • On Anthology Headnotes
  • Vincent B. Leitch (bio)

In the mid-1990s I was invited to serve as general editor of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001), a 2500-page anthology which contains selections from 147 figures, starting with Gorgias and Plato and ending with bell hooks and Stuart Moulthrop. One of my first tasks was drafting a project description to be used in recruiting a team of editors, five in all (it turned out), who would—and did—play key roles in conceiving the overall design of the volume, in selecting its contents, and in each writing several dozen headnotes to introduce the 147 figures eventually chosen for inclusion. The centerpiece of that early ten-page project description is a one-page list titled “Protocols for Headnotes,” which contains a short preamble and fourteen numbered items. Here I shall briefly summarize and then ruminate on several key protocols for headnote writers, interweaving three different perspectives that reflect my experience as an editor and writer of headnotes and also a theorist-critic of this overlooked pedagogical form.

According to the headnote protocols for The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism—which codify long-standing composition practices —each headnote proper is to be an essay between 750–2000 words, each starting with the author’s name, dates, and, where possible, a catchy quotation. The original protocols did not state, but we on the editorial board quickly developed the practice of offering an introductory paragraph that summarizes the significance and relevance of the author and her selection(s) for our primary audience—under-graduate literature majors in North America. The protocols thereafter call for a dozen discrete tasks on the part of the editor-writer: highlight relevant biographical details; refer to each author’s other key theoretical or critical works; sketch sources and forerunners; include pertinent factors of social history; summarize each selection’s main arguments; clarify the present-day use or importance of the selection(s); offer comparison and contrast with other figures in the anthology; point out problems in the selection(s); discuss reception history and progeny; stress perennial problems in the history of theory; provide information on historical trends, particularly related critical schools and movements; explain key [End Page 177] terms and concepts. A final protocol on bibliography calls for one or more paragraphs covering, in order, standard editions or texts of the author; biographies on her or him; pertinent secondary sources; and bibliographies of the author’s writings. This last protocol, in practice, added anywhere from 300 to 1,000 words to each headnote, with the result that our headnotes range from 1,000 to 4,500 words, averaging around 2,200 words, a medium-sized essay. The headnote became for us a special literary form, intricate and regulated rather like, say, a sonnet—plenty of protocols and restrictions, yet surprisingly ample room for variations and writerly pleasures.

Some of the protocols for composing headnotes turned out to be troubling in revealing ways. Let me give a key example. The headnote that calls for the writer to offer critique of problems in the selection(s) was initially designed to insure that students studying theory learn to look for problems as a regular aspect of the reading process, for example, when engaging texts like Plato’s Republic or Jacques Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” or Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Students need to learn to do “theory” (to problematize texts), not just to memorize important terms and concepts. One of the members of the editorial team provocatively remarked, however, that nothing dates a text more than such critique, and also that critique risks undermining a main goal of the headnotes—to motivate students to read the author and her or his works. In practice this observation got turned into an unwritten caveat or rider to the original protocol: keep critique in proportion to explanation and praise. Consider. To offer three paragraphs discussing problems and complaints about a selection and, say, one paragraph of praise or promotion is to disincline students to continue on to the reading. What we headnote writers discovered, meanwhile, was that combining the protocol requiring critique with the one calling for...

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