Sunday, March 23, 2014

Academics writing fiction: yea or nay?

I feel like taking a blog day--a day where I just write a bunch of posts, and feel like I achieved something creatively. Or something. At this point of the day, it's probably going to turn into just one post, so I'll shout out the idea for the others and hope I get back to them some day: A series of Book Triads to catch up on my book review backlog! A description of what I thought about Uncharted! A post on modular story telling in Dragon Age, vs. the more linear JRPG!

To get to this post,  I've noticed that when I get really into a book, my writing actually takes on a bit of the author's style; I start thinking of weird puns when I'm reading Spider Robinson, and really depressing fantasy situations when I read Stephen Donaldson, for example. Back when I was doing creative writing on a regular basis, that bothered me--how much of what I was writing was my own ideas, and how much was just me aping someone else's style. I imagine I go so far as to start thinking in that writing style, just a bit. In that sense, the whole thing can be explained away in terms of technics and epiphylogenesis, that we are changed by the tools we're using, and books are just another possible tool through which that change occurs. You could even push that idea further, and argue that

The reason I bring all that up is that I certainly feel as if, for the moment, I'm writing not another author's voice, but in a character's voice, the lead of Jo Walton's "Among Others"--very reserved, formal, and matter-of-fact, but with a clear passion for what she's (I'm?) talking about. I was certain going into the book that Walton was an academic sci/fi fantasy writer, and I had a whole section lined up where I'd discuss the role of the academic who writes fiction on the side, which it turns out is not the case at all. Well, I'm going to do that anyway, since that's what I want to talk about today. It's been in my mind for a while, going at least as far back to a recent announcement that a professor in my English department, has released her own fantasy book, The Stone Boatmen, by Sarah Tolmie. I haven't read it yet, to be honest, but from what I know about Tolmie's work, it'll certainly be a book full of ideas worth reading.

The English academic turned writer fits with a larger category of critics who try their hands at whatever thing they are criticizing. It happens often enough that it's a bit of a trope, and it leads to the stereotype that the critic is someone who failed at the art, and so criticizes others. I know of plenty of people who started blogs on comic books, then went on to write their own; plenty of game journalists who went on to write videogames. In fact, regarding games in particular, there's an enormous pressure for academics to not just write about games but to make their own--I should know, because I usually feel like I'm under it, being ground away.

The trick behind academics writing fiction is that it's a shift in audience. It's hard to go from writing to a select, jargon-heavy, elite (and we have gone to great lengths to make ourselves appear elite) specialization to writing for the mass market. There's a push to be innovative, to craft something that reflects our theories and revitalizes the genre, and sometimes, the big ideas get in the way of the story at hand. The best example I can think of is a YA fantasy book that I can't remember the title of, but remember it was written by a professor of linguistics, and showed it too, as the syntax was very different from the usual subject-predicate that English abides by. It was a neat idea, but since the thoughts and action were written in more straight forward English, I found myself skipping past the dialogue, which almost never happens under my particular reading style.

There's plenty of examples of doing it right as well, of course.The obvious Canadian example is Margaret Atwood, who has made quite a name and reputation of herself writing a brand of Canadian lit theory as well as sci-fi and other genres.My favorite example is China Mieville, though his PhD is in political studies (specifically, International Relations, with a dissertation on Marxism and international law); his fantasy writing is chock full of ideas that aren't really found anywhere else in fantasy (especially when he started writing), but are still good fantasy stories. And of course, there's a whole branch of English studies devoted to teaching writing, to mass market and otherwise. We call it "creative writing." That's not quite what I'm talking about though--rather than people who have spent their lives training themselves and others to write for any audience, I'm thinking of the professor who spent their life studying something like gender in the romance fiction genre, then woke up one day and thought "you know, I could do that."

I wish I could think of more examples of what I'm talking about. I know Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" is highly acclaimed, but I could never finish it; a parody of conspiracy theory thrillers turns into everything I hate about conspiracy theory thrillers very quickly, and I never had the time or patience to stick around and see if turned into anything else. I know Julia Kristeva has written detective fiction, and I occasionally search for a translated copy with a sort of fascinated terror. I know a lot of drama professors have written plays and star in other performances (I think it's much more of a requirement for them, and it might help my game-phobia to think of the pressure in game studies in the same light) and people like Tomson Highway have done a lot of great work in that regard, but that's again drifting from target.

The point I'm trying to make, and I'm less sure of now, since I don't really have a lot of evidence to back it up, is that fantasy and sci-fi academic authors have a bit of an easier time spinning out fiction that actually works as a story than other academic writers. I think it's because both genres are about the ideas over the characters a bit more than fiction traditionally tends to be, and lend themselves to weird expression in that regard. I also think that the traditional denigration of fantasy and sci-fi as lower forms of fiction work in their favor, in that there's less pressure to do something that's "high literature," and the respective writers feel more free to just tell a story of their liking.

Long time readers are free to call BS on that theory, given my own self-interest, that I've written my own fantasy novel that lingers on the digital shelf, to be revisited and starred at longingly once a year, then routinely rejected by agents and publishers alike without a reading. My own story isn't particularly academic or high concept fantasy--in fact, magic is barely involved at all, to the point where it's more a character study than anything else (much like Walton's book, come to think of it, albeit with a much more traditionally fantasy scope in turns of story progression). I like to think there's room, then, for the fantasy-based academic writer. In a way, the connection makes my relative failure in each seem somehow more acceptable.

My rationalizations are legion.

Later Days.

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