(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.