‘Tis The Season (To Write About Taylor Swift): Part I

In the weeks before Christmas as the oddest of autumn semesters wound to an end, I came up with an idea (probably late at night or early in the morning when I couldn’t sleep). What about editing a small cluster of essays on folklore, at that point the first and only “surprise” Taylor Swift release of the year? I contacted Dan Sinykin, the editor of Post45, an online journal dedicated to publishing scholarship on contemporary culture and theory. If you look online, you will find special issues published by the journal on, for example, Stranger Things, Sally Rooney, and Criticism in the Trump Era. What attracted me to Post45 was not just the immediacy of critics’ responses to books and films, but the sense of fun and intelligence of its writing team. 

On Monday 7th December I emailed Dan asking what he thought of a special issue on folklore. He replied enthusiastically. After exchanging a couple of emails about possible contributors and themes, I agreed to edit 6 essays of around 800-1000 words each. Dan set me what he described as a “hard deadline” of 15th January. If I could get the essays edited by the end of January, he promised the issue would be live by the end of February.

On Wednesday 9th December, that seemed an ambitious schedule. Academics typically have months to draft and revise articles and chapters. Editing a book normally takes years not weeks from conception to publication. (As an example, a collection of essays I am currently co-editing began life in spring 2018 but will not be published until summer 2021.) That afternoon I began contacting authors. 

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift, from album photoshoot.

On Thursday 10th December, at roughly midday UK-time, Swift announced her second “surprise” album of the year: “I’m elated to tell you that my 9th studio album, and folklore’s sister record, will be out tonight. It’s called evermore.” Within the hour, Dan was back in touch: “We’re not doing this on folklore, we’re doing it on evermore. Any chance we can speed up the timeline? Might we get short 800-1000-word responses by 18th December?” A two-month editorial project had been reduced to eight-days. I replied more or less immediately to say yes, asking whether the essays could go live before Christmas if we made the new deadline. I knew it would be difficult to persuade busy authors to both listen to a new album and write a response to it in a week, particularly the week before Christmas, but hoped the promise of publication on Christmas Eve might prove tempting. Dan agreed to a pre-Christmas publication if I could get the majority of the essays to him on 18th December.  

When editing a book, you normally have to approach more contributors than you actually need. A few will be too busy or not interested. Some will agree to write a chapter and then drop out. Dan advised me to edit 5-6 essays. On that basis, I decided to email 7-8 people, anticipating not all of them would be free or of course keen to write something. At the same time, Dan recommended 3 authors he’d worked with before who were all Swift fans. Considering it unlikely that everybody I approached would say yes, I added these names to my list and emailed them too. On Friday morning, just hours after the album was released, my inbox was overflowing. Everybody had said yes. The small cluster of 5-6 essays had doubled to 10. I probably should have stopped commissioning further essays at this point. Knowing Swift’s favourite number to be 13 and seduced like her by the symmetry of dates and years, I reasoned that I may as well aim for that number. With one more essay and an introduction from me, we would be there. By the end of the weekend, I had a list of contributors ready. I just had to wait for the drafts to come in.        

I’m amazed to say the first essay arrived on Monday 14th December, just 3 days after the album’s release. The last to be submitted, I’m somewhat embarrassed to share, was my own. It’s difficult to draft your own work when you’re editing everybody else’s.

Over the following week, drafts and revisions were exchanged and final versions forwarded to Dan to make last-minute edits. The final changes were agreed on Tuesday 22nd December. Overnight, Post45’s associate editor, Tyler Allen Tennant, added illustrations for each essay and on Wednesday 23rd December, a day before Christmas Eve, the issue went live. Dan suggested titling it Tis the Damn Season after a song on evermore and in recognition of the cluster going live in time for Christmas. Just as we had planned.  

'Tis the Damn Season website
‘Tis the Damn Season website

A few words about the contributors. Stephanie Burt is one of America’s most influential poetry editors and critics. I knew she had already co-written an essay with Julia Harris on queer devotion in folklore and hoped they would have something to say about evermore. They did! Summer Kim Lee considers Swift’s career in terms of debates about autofiction and whiteness; Jeffrey Insko reads evermore as an anti-country, post-Trump album; Pamela Thurschwell speculates on who Swift might work with next: “Imagine what Taylor could do with Lucinda Williams, Liz Phair, Brittany Howard, Billie Eilish, or the supergroup I’m craving: Lorde and Taylor?” Eira Murphy interprets evermore as a return to childhood; Helen Ringrow reflects on Swift’s sudden love of swearing; Olivia Stowell writes about dehistoricized allusions to American history. Several contributors have connections to the School of English at Sheffield. Hannah Williams did her BA here a few years ago and is now a freelance writer. You might have read some of her essays in The Guardian or the Times Literary Supplement. Elisha Wise recently finished her MA in English Literature. I remembered her love of Zelda Fitzgerald when I came to think of possible contributors. Katherine Ebury teaches modernism and theory in the School; her co-authored essay with JT Welsch is on communal escape and daydreams. Amber Regis’s essay on listening to Swift in the year after her mother’s death is the emotional heart of the entire cluster and the piece of writing I return to most. My own essay is about the Wordsworths, Dorothy and William, and the extent to which evermore is as much about the 1790s as the 1990s. For me, she is an Old Romantic as much as a New Romantic. 

There are 195 emails in my inbox about this project. 

On New Year’s Day 2021, Amber’s essay was declared one of the 10 Most Read Essays on the Post45 website in 2020.

At the time of writing this (15th January 2021), Taylor Swift has not read any of the essays. Or at least she has not said so publicly. 

-Jonathan Ellis

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