I always tell my students that history has three components: source documents, without which we would have nothing to write about; historical writing, which puts the raw material of the past into context and makes it relevant; and readers, without whom the whole exercise would be fruitless. You write books because you want people to read them. Any writer who says otherwise is probably in denial.
Want to know what it’s like having your book dissected in a historical journal? Read through to the end of this entry, and learn how the process looks from my perspective.
One of the great things about being a writer, even of non-fiction, is that you have a great deal of control over your material. You decide what to write about and basically create a little pocket of your own reality between your covers. You get used to viewing things with an analytical eye.
It’s always unsettling, then, to have the analytical eye turned on you and your work. But it’s much better than the alternative, which is having your work greeted with indifferent silence.
I recently came across two reviews of Suburban Xanadu that I hadn’t seen before.
The first harks all the way back to 2001, when Suburan Xanadu was a fairly new dissertation. The British urban historian Barry M. Doyle wrote a review essay called “Research in urban history: a review of recent theses” in Urban History, a British journal.
Doyle essentially summed up all of the recent urban history dissertations from Great Britain and North America–a daunting task. And there were quite a few of them. A few of my favorite titles:
* “In my opinion this is all a fraud!: concrete, culture, and class in the “reconstruction” of Rostov-on-the-Don, 1943-1948″ (J. W. Jones, University of North Charlotte)
* “Masses in motion: spaces and spectacle in Fascist Rome, 1919-1929 (P.T. Lang, NYU)
* “The colonial city and the challenge of modernity: urban hegemonies and civic contestations in Bombay City, 1905-1925″ (S. Hazareesingh, University of Warwick)
So, in between a dissertation about tourism in Philadelphia, 1926-1976 amd the development of Westgate oin Sea as an exclusive resort, it was nice to see this:
Whilst tourism came late to Philadelphia, it was always at the heart of Las Vegas, as D.G. Schwartz shows in Suburban Xanadu: the casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip, 1945-1978 (Ph.D., University of California Los Angeles, 2000). This dissertation charts the development of the casino resort through the exploration of three factors: gender (the regendering of gambling and the importance of prostitution and sex); geography (the non-urban nature of casino resort, the Western identity of Las Vegas, the Strip’s relationship to Los Angeles, and Las Vegas as a national entertainment suburb); and government (job creation, regional development, and revenue enhancement). As other development options failed in the 1950s, casino gaming became critical for the state’s economic health, making the state a very interested player, and aiding the regulation and normalization of the industry. As a result, by the 1970s, the casino resort was no longer a semi-legitimate institution, but was hailed as an urban savior. In contrast to the sleazy world of the gambling resort…[dicussion of next dissertation ensues]
I have a feeling that Doyle just copied my abstract then, with one phrase, “the sleazy world of the gambling resort,” showed what he really thought of my topic.
It’s great having your chief academic interest dismissed as a “sleazy world.” But maybe I should run with this, and rename the website “the sleazy world of Dave Schwartz.” The only problem is that I don’t think I’m sleazy enough.
The second review is of the actual book, and appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly. It was written by Perry Kaufman, who I don’t know. It’s still a strange feeling knowing that people who don’t know me personally can read my book and form distinct impressions of me. Anyway, the five-paragraph review pretty much sums up my argument and mentions a few historical details.
So, was it a good, bad, or indifferent review? On the good side, the words “masterful,” “importantly,” and “superb” cropped up. On the down side, Kaufman spent most of the last paragraph saying what my book wasn’t about: “Water, land, government, the Nevada Test Site, Nellis Air Force Base, and other related issues.” He then went on to say that if someone really wanted to read about “the history of strip resort gaming,” but if they wanted a complete history of Las Vegas, they should read another author’s book.
So the book is about the history of casinos on the Strip, huh? Maybe that’s why I titled it Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond and not Suburban Xanadu: Water, land, government, the Nevada Test Site, Nellis Air Force Base, and other related issues.
Any book is by nature going to be selective. I never claimed that Suburban Xanadu is a history of Las Vegas. In one draft, I started the book by specifically saying, “This is not a history of Southern Nevada,” before taking it out, because I prefer to define myself and my work by what it is, not what it isn’t.
I guess the review was somewhat positive, but I don’t see any reason to talk about someone else’s marginally related book while reviewing mine. It’s kind of like talking about your ex-girlfriend on a first date–yeah, you might have an interesting point to make, but why bring it up? And why not say what the book does do: it puts the development of casinos along the Strip into national perspective, something no one else has really done.
It’s not like I’m hypersensitive to criticism. I’ve been waiting for someone to really critique Suburban Xanadu so, if I ever do a second edition, I can do a better job. I wish that I had done more research on Reno and Southern Nevada, done an entire chapter on Atlantic City, and expanded my treatment of riverboat and Indian casinos. But I don’t lose sleep over the fact that I didn’t give a detailed history of the test site.
Just for laughs, here’s a list of more things that Suburban Xanadu isn’t about:
- rail washers
- pole dancing
- free jazz
- bread pudding
- Lord Stanley’s Cup
- Street Fighter II
- Street Fighter II Tournament Edition
- the Lord of the Rings trilogy
- the Underwood Hotel
- performance art
- the art of Ando Hiroshige
- the origins of dice
- blank verse
- Renaissance Florence
- cheese steaks
- bossa nova
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.