One Op-Ed, Two Times the Expertise

On March 29th April Alliston and Susan Cecilia Greenfield, co-published an op-ed on CNN.Opinion entitled “‘Mommy Porn’ Novel Has Retro Message.” In it Alliston, who is a Public Voices Fellow at Princeton and Greenfield, who is in the program at Fordham, contemplate the plot devices and gendered power dynamics in the recent hit trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey,” from their perspectives as some of the foremost scholars in the field of literature.

I, Ravenna Koenig, the Public Voices Fellowship’s Junior Fellow, posed them some questions about the inspiration for and experience of collaborating on the piece. Below they discuss the logistics, the difficulties, and the boons of writing with a partner.

How did you and April decide to do this piece together?

Susan Greenfield: April and I both study eighteenth-century literature, and we met many years ago at a seminar series for specialists in our field. Though I have not seen April in years, I always felt connected to her, and we recently became Facebook friends.  When I became Public Voices Fellow in the fall of 2011, I saw April’s name on the list of Princeton Fellows. During a Public Voices Fellowship conference call, I made a pitch for the insights a literature specialist could offer about a cultural phenomenon like Fifty Shades of Grey [a popular erotic fiction trilogy].  April then spoke up and seconded my point.  After we got off the phone, I Facebooked April and proposed that we write a joint op-ed about Fifty Shades of Grey.  She called me back, and we were off and running.

April Alliston: That’s a pretty thorough and accurate account–I don’t see how I can add to it except to say that I’m thrilled to be included in the Public Voices program and the opportunity for reconnecting with a scholar with whom I’ve always shared intellectual, political, and other affinities has been one of the best things about it!

The brevity that an op-ed necessitates is notoriously challenging. Did writing with a partner compound that challenge (perhaps by giving you twice the number of ideas to sort through), or lessen it?

SG: Working with April was a great pleasure and relief. I found it much easier to meet the standards of brevity together than alone. True, we generated more ideas than I would have on my own, but our discussions made it easier for me to see which ones were central and which ones could be cut.  Our frequent conversations sharpened our main points.  Though I spent more time preparing this op-ed than I spent on the earlier ones I wrote alone, I felt very confident about the content because we decided on it together.

AA: I would add that I found it very freeing to be able to brainstorm together and pool our ideas and drafts while knowing that I could rely on Susan’s sharp editorial eye to cut away the excess if I just allowed myself to get it all down on “paper.”  I hadn’t been able to get any piece into finished form since I joined the program, but Susan’s encouragement and enthusiasm helped me overcome the obstacles that had prevented me from finishing a piece on my own earlier.

Was there anything about the collaboration process that surprised you?

SG: I expected to enjoy the process of working with April, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed it and by how intellectually stimulating it was.  At the same time, there was a surprising amount of diplomacy involved.  When editing each other’s writing, April and I had to delicately balance our joint goals with our individual opinions and prose styles.  Finally, I was surprised that the process of writing a joint op-ed took even longer than the process of writing alone.

AA: I’m not sure I was actually “surprised” by any aspect of our collaboration.  I think it’s possible that I’ve collaborated on publications in the past more than Susan has–I’ve published academic articles in collaboration with more than one other scholar.  Of those, I did find Susan the easiest collaborator to work with, even though my earlier collaborators were people I knew better.  I guess that counts as a surprise–and perhaps the best surprise is that I feel because of this experience my long connection with Susan is blossoming into a friendship and I hope a continued collaborative relationship, all of which was completely unexpected when I entered the program.

What are the benefits of writing an article for broad public consumption with a partner? Are there any downsides?

SG: Because April and I spent so much time discussing the material, I felt especially confident about the article’s intellectual integrity. I said above that this op-ed took me longer to write than the earlier ones I wrote on my own.  But I should add, that the joint op-ed also covered much more textual ground than my solo pieces.  In combining our knowledge and dividing our tasks, April and I accomplished far more together than I could have by myself.

I also benefited from corresponding with April after our piece appeared.  When Maureen Dowd published an op-ed on Fifty Shades of Grey just a few days after ours and repeated some of our main points without mentioning our article (she probably didn’t read it), I was grateful that April seemed unfazed.  A few days after that, The Guardian criticized and essentially misunderstood our op-ed, and we discussed that too.  Instead of obsessing about the criticism, I turned to our partnership for reassurance and support.  For me, there was no downside.

AA: Perhaps the only downside I can think of is that working with someone else always requires more organization and communication, and involves less individual control over one’s time–and that can be a little difficult in the face of the fast pace of this kind of publication.  The best advantage in this case, I think, was that collaborating gave us both more courage to say things in public that we knew would be controversial, and to face the discouragements Susan mentions as well as quite a few very nasty comments posted on our article.


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