Art, Bare Life, and Fragmented Identity

(This post is for a friend who’s contemplating how the self can be divided between being an academic and writing fiction; it started as an email, but I’m publishing it here to balance out all the promo I’ve posted lately.)

Several years ago, I was half-finished with my American studies dissertation, and I requested a meeting with a literary theory professor to discuss an idea I had for a chapter revision. Specifically, I wanted to apply Giorgio Agamben’s theory of the politicization of bare life (as articulated in Homo Sacer) to an obscure periodical novel published in 1857, a book set during the American Revolution but which clearly comments on the run-up to the American Civil War.

Agamben is concerned with how bare life has been consumed by political life. He locates the dissolution of this divide in concentration camps during the Holocaust, when the bodies of inmates become sites for what he calls the state of exception. What happens in the camps is extra-judicial, outside even humane comprehension, and nothing like bare life is possible there. The only possibility for resistance Agamben imagines is refusal. In saying no (or better yet, “I would prefer not to” as Melville’s Bartleby does) we stake out ground for bare life.

There’s a lot of overlap with Agamben’s argument, Foucault’s theory of biopower, and Habermas’s discussion of public sphere theory, and also with the feminist critique of the personal as political, the work of scholars on the economics and culture of slavery, etc. I suspect that in the nineteenth century–when in an American context we moved from merchant capitalism to industrial capitalism and when the space between citizen and consumer identities blurred–bare life became impossible.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, because something else was burning a hole in my backpack during that meeting: a signed contract with Carina/Harlequin to publish The Easy Part series.

I don’t want to trivialize Agamben’s work, but at core, he’s talking about how we manage fragmented identities in the modern world. Do we have privacy? Can we distinguish between our political, public, private, and commercial lives? How do we internalize discipline and control (state or corporate)? And so on.

For scholars, these are about intellectual questions, but they’re also personal ones. Few pursuits demand as much from would-be practitioners as getting PhDs and pursuing academic jobs do. We spend close to a decade (on average) getting PhDs and after that, the likelihood of us landing a tenure-track close is slim, even if you’re willing to move anywhere and accept any pay and working conditions. (Rebecca Schuman, who reports on higher ed issues for Slate, suggests only about 10% of humanities PhDs will obtain TT jobs, and I suspect she’s right.)

We’re told to give up everything and spend years to get degrees that in the vast, vast majority of cases won’t result in full-time, lucrative employment. At the end of that process, our selves and values have been broken down and rebuilt to where only that which we cannot get will satisfy us. (And frankly, based on what I’ve seen from my few, lucky friends who landed TT jobs, probably not even then.) It’s an incredibly long plunge into hell that’s guaranteed to leave you with little to no self-esteem.

In other words, it’s a lot like writing fiction.

Indeed I, and so many people I know, wrote first novels while writing dissertations because of the similarities between the two. Both are at core sustained, intellectual projects that seek the approval of folks that more than likely won’t give it, such as committee members, reviewers, and readers.

And moreover, while academics are allowed to write serious literary fiction (TM) or maybe poetry, everyone knows we shouldn’t be writing genre fiction–extra especially not kissing books. Those things can’t go on your CV, they won’t help you get interviews, and they won’t support your tenure portfolio. They are a waste of time.

But here’s what I know:

  • Academics never made me feel like I myself could create. It made me feel like I could respond to the work of others, but not that I could write myself. In contrast, within reading about five romances, I wanted to write one. The sheer joy in a good romance was contagious, and I wanted it.
  • Academics is supposed to be a community of free exchange, with a variety of opinions and enthusiasm for ideas and our work, but it’s often not. I won’t get too much into it except to say I’ve rarely been in departments that feel like the Platonic ideal of The University. In contrast, the online book community–while sometimes disappointing and frustrating and angsty–can at times feel more purely exciting (in an intellectual sense) than academics can.
  • Academics makes me feel powerless. I can revise my work, send it to more places, and apply for jobs, but at the end of the day, I have no control over the outcomes. Now, there is a sense in which that’s true with book publishing. I’m not a bestseller or a big name. I definitely haven’t “hit” as a writer. But when I look at my book to-do list, it’s bursting with things I can take action on.

Yes, my identity as a PhD, a part-time instructor, and a proud genre fiction writer is fragmented (and even more so when we add in family responsibilities!), but my fiction is the place where I can say no to what academics demands from me. It is resistance to what academics wants to do to my mind, identity, and life. It’s part of my bare life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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9 thoughts on “Art, Bare Life, and Fragmented Identity

  1. Thank you for this, Emma. You touched on a lot of chewy, crunchy things that resonate with me. However, I think my experience diverges from yours because (a) I am a longtime romance reader/writer before being an academic and (b) I am a black woman–and that’s where I find my identity gets entangled.

    The romance community has been a site of belonging, yet also one of silencing. The “be nice and supportive” atmosphere meant (and still does to some extent) a smothering of anything that doesn’t bolster the white heterosexual Christian female hegemony of the genre. Years ago I was in the thick of conversations about diversity in romance and was demoralized by how shitty the romance community treated Monica Jackson, Roslyn Hardy Holcomb, et al. Later, when I decided to write, I decided it was safer to silence myself, because of the “be nice” dictum that really meant: make me feel comfortable or you will be persona non grata.

    But I found my authentic self and my voice as an academic, as corny as it may seem. Interrogating the dominant narratives, formulating my own, and building a community of ideas has been avidly encouraged by my advisors and the faculty at programs recruiting me. A major reason why I rebranded my author self was because I no longer wanted to be that old silent, neutral brand. Yet–as you mentioned, genre fiction is frowned upon in academia, so I don’t feel like I can share that part of myself in that space just yet. Yet–the romance genre (in general) does not function as a space for intersectional liberation.

    These days, when I start writing, my brain immediately snarls on cover art, comp authors, shelf space, category, and a whole host of little details in publishing that have traditionally excluded anything non-white. And I worry not about claiming a seat at the table (h/t Solange), but about the table constantly shifting, moving away from my chair, deliberately morphing to always keep certain voices at the margins whilst maintaining an external performance of equality. So, my issue is that I really want to find a way to braid my intersecting identities together without losing the joy that initially attracted me to romance.

    • I very much agree, and as you point out, we’ve had the opposite trajectories in some ways.

      I didn’t read a romance until 2011, when I was already ABD. (I read Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance as an undergraduate more than a decade before I’d read a genre romance.) At the point that I picked up a romance novel, I was already sick of academics and because I’d started a family while still in grad school, I’d already made the choices that would make it difficult if not impossible to compete for a “real” (aka TT) job. So for me, reading and writing genre romance were a self-conscious middle finger/act of rebellion (albeit a silent one).

      I share your concern about the state of the genre. While immensely cool books are being written and important discourse being written, the genre is most definitely still white/middle class/able bodied/straight/Christian/etc. and above all, focused on what sells. All of those are weaknesses to my mind. (And I also miss more rigorous, academic-esque discussion on the big romancelandia blogs, which felt more common in 2011/12 than it does now.)

      But for me, fragmentation of identity–and feeling like it takes multiple dimensions to satisfy all one’s cravings–might be a strength and not a weakness, at least if Habermas, Foucault, and Agamben are correct. ; )

      • I always seem to do things backwards, haha! But the upside is that I can bring my intimate knowledge of the genre to romance scholarship, as opposed to being an outsider looking in. But I do understand the revolutionary feeling of romance, since it is so disregarded and marginalized by the majority of the world. One reason why I switched to literature vs straight history in my PhD emphasis is because of the power of literature to resist and disrupt the dominant culture–which I discovered through the romance genre.

        I too miss the more rigorous conversations around Romland. It’s ironic that the economic and creative freedom offered by self-publishing has turned the genre hyper-pulpy. It kind of worries me, bc what does it say about our readers? About the genre? About us?

      • “I also miss more rigorous, academic-esque discussion on the big romancelandia blogs, which felt more common in 2011/12 than it does now.”

        I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you mention it, that feels true. I wonder if there’s a range of reasons for it.

        (1) If people have already discussed a topic in-depth, they might just refer back to that in conversations rather than feel motivated to write a long post about it. Which takes me to

        (2) I think Twitter’s had an impact. I certainly noticed that comments dropped off on both Teach Me Tonight and my personal blog, which does give me less incentive to write long posts (although another factor is that now I’m more likely to want to work them up for publication in a book/journal). However, there are still academic-type comments/discussions (albeit in short form) on Twitter.

        (3) There can be personal factors involved. Romancelandia is big, but some people had big impacts and they’ve either died (I’m thinking of Monica Jackson and Meoskop), vanished (Mailli) or moved on to other things. For example, I have a feeling that on Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Candy was more likely to take an academic perspective and she hasn’t been around for years now. On Dear Author, Janet tended to start the academic discussions, and she’s now doing the daily news round-up. I didn’t find AAR very welcoming to academic discussion, at least, not on the forums so I stopped posting there some years ago (it’s possible it’s changed since then). I have the impression that it was Laurie Gold who reached out to some academics to get their opinions about changes in the genre, and she left AAR a while ago.

  2. Yes!!!! I wrote my first novel while writing my dissertation. My PhD was in a social science, so it was actually fairly easy for my to divide the two activities, and my literary publications were seen by everyone except my awesome adviser as respectable enough, like a hobby of sorts that had no bearing on anything. (I had not discovered romance yet.)

    But when I did find Romland, for me, it was much friendlier and more supportive than academia was. (Which is an experience no doubt mediated by the fact that as a white straight woman, I enjoy a position of privilege within in it.) It’s funny how many current and former academics one encounters in it!

    • I sometimes think romance is at least half composed of former academics and lawyers.

      My experience in academics felt like a betrayal. I’d always wanted to be a professor and I’d always been told it was possible. Losing the support of my committee in a drip-drip-drip as they decided I couldn’t actually get a job, then finding out the market was so much worse than their rosy assessments had it, learning how most universities work (the reliance on adjuncts, the internal politics, etc.): it all felt incredibly personal. There have been times when my failures in romance have also felt personal, of course–when you’re a classic good girl who wants to make everyone happy, failure always tends to go bone-deep–but that’s life. ; )

  3. To respond to Camille from above:

    You haven’t done it backwards! I think we just did things in the opposite order. ; )

    Your point about being a community insider is so, so important. When I picked up a romance, I had all of the naivete and presumption of an academic. *I* was doing romance a favor by reading it, you know? I lost that real quick, but I think it’s why I’ve resisted doing any “real” scholarly work on romance: I still feel a bit outside the genre.

    I started as a literature person (my MA is in English) and then added the historical piece with the American studies PhD, in part because I worried that literary studies was too focused on how a text *could* be read and not on how it mostly likely would have been read. (A lot of my dissertation was looking at periodical literature in its original context in order to push back against resistant readings, readings against the grain, which seem possible but unlikely to me.)

    I can’t wait to see how your work develops, though!

    And Laura:

    I think you’re precisely right about why the academic discourse seems to have ebbed from romanceland. I’m hoping we’re at an incubation period and that it’ll swing back around, but in general, the big blogs seem to have less influence than they did, there are fewer comments, and the posts are shorter.

    It’s a lot of work to produce long-form blog posts and there is pushback if the work is perceived as “critical,” and people get tired. And the discussion isn’t valued by the community–and if a scholar or would-be scholar needs CV items–and academic-ish blog pots on romance don’t help your career, you’d be better off spending that time on something else.

    Let’s hope that another blog (or some other form) bursts onto the scene and reinvigorates that dimension of our community discourse, because I think it’s very important.

    • I am so sorry your experiences were so hurtful, and I’m glad that romance has been restorative. I think you offer a great perspective of the genre! Your pieces about work and religion are things I still think about.

      My AmSt advisor is in the English department, and she kept hinting that I should apply for English phd programs. I was resistant because English=the dead white guy oeuvre lol. But the process of turning my traditional history thesis more cultural and literary transformed my perceptions about the limitations of literature. I also recognized another part of my hesitation was rooted in how I thought about myself as a writer–going back to the “romance isn’t real writing” claims. Right now, I’m getting interested in the work of Claudia Tate and Hazel Carby. Audre Lorde’s piece on the erotic really links my thoughts on the legitimacy of the genre.

      As for the return of academicy discussions of romance…what about a literary magazine? Or a podcast? I’ve been contemplating both forms for a while.

      • I definitely think having PhD in English or history is more marketable than having an interdisciplinary PhD. This conclusion makes me sad as I think interdisciplinary work is more interesting and innovative, but as the job market has constricted (and it has done so dramatically in the past 10 years), the market has also become more conservative. (Reconstructing Womanhood was one of the most interesting books I read as a master’s student.)

        A podcast is a good idea. Genevieve and I have been talking for a while about starting a blog called Too Long for Twitter, mostly as a place to publish some of the long back and forth email chains we end up having, but blogging truly does seem deadish. ; )

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