What could nineteenth-century tracts and Amazon’s Kindle Singles program possibly have in common? To me, Kindle Singles is an opportunity to rejuvenate the publishing medium of the nineteenth-century tract. To twenty-first century readers, this may not at first sound particularly exciting. We usually associate tracts with religious purposes and expect them to be handed out in Oxford Circus or the local shopping mall to disinterested passersby. However, in the nineteenth century, tracts could be about any number of topics, but they were usually written pieces that were longer than an article but not long as a book. In my roles as a cataloguer and professional researcher, I have read and catalogued tracts about astronomy, evolution, mesmerism, panoramas, spiritualism and a number of other sciences.
Kindle Singles do virtually the same thing as the tract. Both offer the opportunity to publish nonfiction or hybrid-genre pieces of a length that fits neither into a periodical nor a book. Also like the nineteenth-century format, Kindle Singles are for the most part self published. This medium has been missing from the contemporary publishing repertoire for too long. Kindle Singles is a special collection, however, with a small number of the best publications selected from thousands every month, unlike their self-published nineteenth-century predecessor. Nonetheless, the crucial thing here is that Kindle Singles is re-popularizing the format of the tract in a sexy, new electronic form.
Tracts: What’s Good for the Victorians Is Good for the Researcher of Victorians
The long list of topics I’ve engaged with in my personal research represents just a small sample of the vast number of topics, opinions and arguments covered in tracts that were published in the nineteenth century. A quick search on ‘woman’ as a keyword on Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online brings up nearly 400 results within the 23,000 tracts digitized as part of the project. The search results cover topics such as women’s suffrage, women’s employment, women’s education, women’s anti-slavery societies and much more. In total, the Nineteenth Century Pamphlets project has catalogued around 180,000 tracts, though many more are available through searching the catalogues of research libraries.
Tracts are a neglected but incredibly fruitful resource for historical research. As far as I know, there is no other quicker, more effective way of acquiring a cross section of historical controversies. Whenever a controversial topic was debated, tracts were written, printed and distributed. If a tract was printed by one faction of the debate, others could not remain silent while their opponents may well be gaining supporters. They are also mercifully short, focused and concise: ideal for the academic researcher who needs to attend to every twist and turn of the topic as well as the light researcher who is looking for quick, everyday information about how people lived and what they talked or read about.
Furthermore, tracts contain some unique information that never made it out of the ephemeral realm of nineteenth-century publishing and debate. The spiritualist tracts I read for a chapter of Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels were one of the most entertaining collections I have ever had the luck of delving into. I learned all about how I could stage my own spiritualist séance in such detail as to name the number of male and female participants, what type of wood the table should be constructed of and exactly how the hands of the members of the circle should lightly touch each other.
I deliberately looked at a cross section of the debates about spiritualism. I read with equal interest the serious tracts that described the sublime experience of spiritual love, where two souls were irrevocably designed for each other in the spirit world, and the condemnations from those with more traditional views where spiritual love was said to be a trick to get married women into bed. This was fruitful material for the analysis of sex and spiritualism in sensation novels and it was a concise source of the detailed content of the debates about spiritualism. I would highly recommend that historical researchers working in any genre have a browse at least at the digitized tracts in the Nineteenth Century Pamphlets project.
Kindle Singles: Legitimizing a New Genre
Kindle Singles only contains a few hundred titles at the moment and it is a curated collection (ie, titles are selected by editors but the usual manuscript preparation process is scaled down).This means that it does not have an extensive cross section of contemporary debates as tracts do nor does it have a selection of the wonderfully eccentric pieces of writing that we can find in collections of tracts.
Kindle Singles has been criticised for not living up to its promises of considering each and every manuscript, regardless of whether it comes from a famous author or completely unknown, unpublished first-timer. Opinions differ, however, with Singles author and former Paris Review editor Oliver Broudy arguing that ‘there’s definitely a literary culture within the Kindle Singles program’. His view is reinforced by the fact that he was paid the same advance for his third single regardless of his second having lost money.
The titles in the Kindle Singles collection do indeed cover a variety of controversial issues from a variety of viewpoints, just like nineteenth-century tracts. There’s an essay on third wave feminism, an interview with Barack Obama and a polemic in favour of Britain’s leaving the European Union. The genres include histories, popular science, biographies, travel narratives such as Oliver Broudy’s and of course plenty of fiction. The Kindle Singles on offer are indeed of unusual lengths and this may well be the best thing Kindle Singles is contributing to the publishing world: the immense popularity of Singles proves that there is no longer any need to adhere to the traditional 80,000-word book or less-than-3000-word article.
Unlike nineteenth-century tracts, Kindle Singles are already conveniently digitized and easily storable for posterity. Once short works become mainstream, regular formats used by traditional publishers, which will no doubt happen on the back of the success of Kindle singles, we will be even more saturated than the Victorians with countless ephemeral works. It is very much worth the hassle in my view because some pieces of writing should be short. Some pieces of writing should be crafted as a novella or an extended essay. We have been missing these perfectly respectable written forms from mainstream publishing for too long.