Tag Archives: academia

Screw MFAs; we need to tell richer stories.

by Kendra Phillips

badass image by Kendra Phillips

Rahul Kanakia has written an awesome post over on his blog about the tyranny of privilege inherent in the creative writing industry, especially the bits of it centered in academia. Go read that first. I’ll wait.

Back? Great. There isn’t much that I can materially add to this besides a huge PREACH but I like to talk about things that bother me, so allow me to go into some detail regarding why this bothers me so much. It’s not just that it’s obnoxious, all this whining about how hard being a creative type is, and it’s not just that I’ll probably never get a creative writing job in academia since all my published work is lowly genre fiction ( a. why would I even want to be around creative writing people anyway given that I’ve actually met some, and b. I’m also already in academia and I’m starting to keep an eye open for exit strategies). It’s not just that it’s monstrously unfair, this system that privileges a certain way of being a Writer that certain demographics find waaaaaaaay easier to adopt than others.

It’s that it results in a literary culture that is massively impoverished.

The stories we tell describe us as a people, as a collection of people, as a collection of cultures and beliefs and identities. But as a society we’re persistently bound to hierarchy, to systems of power and privilege that benefit some at the enormous expense of others. That means that our stories are bound to the same – the stories of some are privileged and the stories of others are lost in the shuffle. Stories by poorer people, by less formally educated people, by women and People of Color and queer people of all kinds, by people with disabilities and people who are neuroatypical and anyone who exists on the margins. Those stories, if they’re told at all, reach few. Those creative voices aren’t heard. Still.

And our genres are hierarchically valued. There’s literary fiction – inherently worthwhile, true, beautiful, valuable, possessing tremendous cultural capital. It’s a great thing to be seen to be a reader of literary fiction; it’s an even better thing to be a writer of literary fiction and get to whine about how hard it is. Genre fiction is low, unrefined, and the territory of the proles.

Those of us in SF&F know that it’s had its share of major problems with inclusivity. Even now we’re struggling to deal with the under-representation of anyone who isn’t white/straight/cisgendered/male, and the genre’s environment is still often hostile to people at the intersections of marginalized identities. But romance, which often seems to have it even worse than SF&F in terms of general disparagement, is overwhelmingly written and consumed by women and extremely popular, two things that don’t work in its favor.

And horror? How can horror writers ever produce great fiction?

So genre is frequently locked out of the academy. But again, this isn’t even just about genre, but about who can afford the luxury of being heard, of doing what it takes to be heard. If MFAs are a requirement in the academy’s gateways into the creative writing industry, that has some very problematic implications, as Rahul points out:

[T]he fact that MFAs are used as such a gatekeeper in the literary world adds several major biases into the whole pool of literary writers. It excludes all kinds of people can’t really afford to leave their lives for two years to get even a very well-funded MFA: people who have kids, people who have careers, people who discover writing late in life, people with disabilities.

Those people all have stories that deserve to be told. That need to be told.

This isn’t just about writing, even. This is a problem in any academic field, in any discipline, and it’s been a problem since the beginning of those disciplines: Who is producing our knowledge? What assumptions are they operating on? What standpoint are they working from? My field is sociology; what use is our research on race and class and gender and identity if the people doing that research don’t come from a multiplicity of lived experiences? How can we work to overturn power structures if our own institutional structure maintains the status quo of social power?

But this is about stories.

I love stories because they’re fun, because they’re escapist, because they’re beautiful, because  they’re joyful even when they’re crushingly sad, because they give me glimpses of what might be, because they teach me about who I am, because they teach me about who others are, because they have the potential to be uniquely revolutionary.

Stories change things.

But if stories are going to change anything, they need to be vital. They need to be alive. They need infusions of new blood and new knowledge and new ways of producing that knowledge. I don’t see how that’s likely in the world Rahul is describing. When you’re dealing with a system of gatekeeping that produces the same kinds of work from the same kinds of people over and over, then you have a literary world that’s impoverished. You won’t find the truly interesting things there. The people doing the interesting things are, as usual, on the margins, but they don’t get to complain about how hard the Life of a Writer is. There’s no romance in what they’re doing. And if they’re genre writers, even successful ones, no cushy academic job for them, unless – like me – they’re privileged enough to get into the academy another way (and cushy jobs ain’t looking too good there anyway at the moment).

So no, white middle class MFA student – with whom I share at least two things in common – my sympathy is not with you. And I think maybe you need to step aside and let someone else’s story get told.

Especially if that story is about cyborg dragons in love.

(Please allow a plug for a couple of antidotes to this kind of thing: We See a Different Frontier, a collection of post-colonial spec-fic that both I and Rahul have stories in – his is amazing – and the forthcoming Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. I also have a story in that but that’s not why you should check it out. Look at that ToC. Look at it.)

Gatekeeping, “professional” writing, and are you kidding me with this

lolcatears

Moving is done. I am moved. For the moment I am no longer moving. If you want to see pictures of what the new place looks like, I posted some over here.

It’s a good place. It feels good. I am by no means in a position where I can select a space in which to live purely on the basis of how I think it’ll affect my creative productivity, but if I were, I think this might be the kind of place I’d choose. It’s roomy but not too roomy, which is great since I’m largely responsible for cleaning it. It’s bright and there are lots of windows. It’s secluded, far back from the road and not really very visible. It has a vaguely cottagey feel.

I’ve been giving myself a bit of a writing break – which means that I’ve cut my minimum wordcount back to 1000 a day, and not always every day – given that it turns out that moving is one of those Traumatic Life Events that gives you headaches and wibbly muscles and bad skin. As of right now I’m working on Ravenblood (the Crowflight sequel), and a short story, which feels like a light workload for me. What else am I doing? Reading. Listening to audiobooks. That sort of idle, meditative cleaning that can be so good for restorative inactivity. Napping. Watching movies. Poking at my dissertation. Gearing up to teach again in the fall.

Something else has happened, which looks sort of unimportant on paper but which has turned out to have some emotional repercussions: I gave myself permission to skip ASA this year.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a PhD candidate in sociology and ASA is my discipline’s gigantic annual meeting, sort of Worldcon for sociologists except nowhere near as fun (you may note that I’m not going to Worldcon either). ASA is professionally important – though I’m starting to think it may not be as important as they want you to think – not just because of the panels and the networking but because it’s a feature of one’s professional identity. You’re a sociologist? You go to ASA. It’s one of the ways you know you’re a sociologist. Or so it’s been sold to me.

So I’m not at ASA this weekend, and that nasty little jerkbrain voice – the one that insists that I only passed research statistics and my comprehensive exams because it was too much trouble to fail me – is hissing you are not a real sociologist you fucking fakey faker HOBBYIST

My own brain is enough of a jerk to engage in professional gatekeeping of the most abusive kind. I can’t escape the suspicion that this is because it’s been trained to do so by others.

In the past, I’ve made no secret of how unimpressed I am by gatekeeping of most kinds. There’s the good kind, the kind that ensures actual quality of a product and makes it easier to locate good things, but then there’s the kind that’s purely ego-based, that exists to keep the riffraff out so those of us on the inside can feel better about ourselves. The classic example of this is the carefully policed boundary between “literary” and “genre” fiction, but there are others. There are others that have little or nothing to do with fiction. The most destructive forms of it are the kind that betray the people who buy into them, that set them up to fail in their own eyes. This is one of the reasons why academia has become so rife with abuse, both of grad students and non-tenure track faculty: our identity as academics is so important that many of us find it difficult to leave, even when our conditions are horrible: crippling overwork, awful pay, no benefits, no real opportunity for advancement. We don’t want to be “fake” or “hobbyists”. As long as we remain in the academy, we can be “real” academicians. In fact, suffering through awful conditions can become part of how we know we’re “real”.

I am unimpressed by the very idea of “real”, for the most part. It hurts people. It makes them doubt themselves. It makes people more concerned with ticking little identity boxes than actually doing what they need to be doing. And it makes people more inclined to look down on others, to maintain outmoded and outdated – and often racist, sexist, and homophobic – borders and boundaries. It makes people unkind. Women can’t be “real” scientists or “real” science fiction writers. SF with feelings or romance is not “real” SF.

Enter Lisa Morton’s piece on “real” professional writers.

I’m late to the party, and the article has been rebutted handily elsewhere. John Scalzi’s take is good. Brian Keene’s take is excellent. But as usual, especially given the direction of my own thoughts lately, I wanted to toss my two cents into the pond.

Essentially, Lisa Morton offers an unhealthily stringent, privilege-soaked, rigid picture of what a “professional writer” looks like and what it takes to be one. Apparently writing is the single most important thing to a professional writer. Apparently a professional writer sets aside everything that is not writing. Apparently a professional writer has no time for restorative inactivity or recreation (re-creation, people, there’s a reason why it’s called that; we need it to be whole). A professional writer never steps away, never rests, never calls it quits. If you can’t adhere to these standards, you’re not a professional writer but a “hobbyist”. Doesn’t matter whether or not you get paid. Doesn’t matter whether or not you can support yourself/your family writing sans day job – a truly awful measure, since very few of us are fortunate enough to be able to do that, no matter how hard we work. Doesn’t matter. You goddamn hobbyist.

It’s entirely possible that Morton didn’t mean all of this the way it comes off. How she comes off is profoundly dickish, but I’m willing to bet she’s actually a lovely person. But I don’t know her as a person, so all I can talk about with any authority is what she’s written, and what she’s written is dickish. It’s also hurtful. The kind of lifestyle she’s advocating – not only advocating but presenting as ideal – is not only wrong-headed but, as I said above, probably deeply unhealthy for most people. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t want to do it. No one I know could do it or would want to.

So in the interest of really plumbing the depths of the thing, let’s take her quiz.

1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing? No. Like I said above, having a clean, attractive workspace is an important component of the mental and emotional state that allows me to be productive. I can’t work in squalor or disorder because I’m not comfortable in squalor or disorder. Also I like cleaning.

2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead? When I turn down evenings with friends, it’s because I’m feeling fragile enough that being social feels overwhelming. Even then, I try not to. Interacting with people makes me mentally healthier, generally. Being mentally healthy helps me to be more productive. I like having friends. Friends are important.

3. Do you turn off the television in order to write? I can’t write with the TV on, so I guess yeah, I do, but I also like TV shows. I watch TV shows. You bet your ass I’ll be watching Breaking Bad tonight. When Supernatural and American Horror Story start back up again, I’ll be setting aside time to watch those too. Yesterday I spent the evening on Frontiere(s), which I’d been wanting to see forever, and it was a blast. It’s also worth pointing out that consuming stories helps one to write stories, and TV/movies are not exempt from that.

4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise? I recognize that useful crit is usually more valuable. But praise is valuable too. Feeling like you’re making people happy and doing something right is a huge motivator. Of course I want praise. Of course sometimes I’d rather get praise. I’m not a robot.

5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites (either research or networking potential)? My vacations – the few real ones I ever get to take – are vacations. I don’t write during them, or I try not to. I don’t work at all. I vacation. Again – and I can’t emphasize this enough – doing so helps me to be more productive when I get back to work.

6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend? No. Why would anyone feel this way? I mean, your mileage may vary and everyone is different, but seriously.

7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write? This is one I might say yes to, because when I’m just absolutely fed up with grad school and being poor and feeling like I’m in professional limbo, the fact that it allows me abundant flexible free time in which to write keeps me where I am. I recognize how lucky I am in that. I intend to take full advantage. But I don’t want to do that forever.

8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career? See above. Also see above in that I actually have a nice home. Again, my privilege.

9. Have you done all these things for at least five years? I’ve only been getting paid to write consistently for four years. Thanks for introducing a completely arbitrary time threshold. That’s very helpful.

10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless? Honestly? Yeah. I know I’ll probably never write as well as, say, Cat Valente, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try. But I think that’s true for most people with a dream. That’s sort of what a dream is. I’m not sure it has a whole lot to do with the rest of these measure of professionalism.

This is bullshit. There’s an addendum at the bottom of the piece that suggests that Morton didn’t intend to include people who have to work day jobs to support themselves, but I think that’s kind of bullshit as well; the whole thing reads – to me – like Morton is including all writers, and then declaring the vast majority of them, for whom this is all basically impossible and entirely undesirable – not real professional writers for not wanting/not being able to perform to her standards.

I don’t know what to call that other than bullshit.

“If you’ve already glanced at these questions and scoffed, you are a hobbyist. And that’s okay, as long as you don’t call yourself a professional. At least around irritable me.

Okay, Lisa. Sure. Hi, I’m Sunny, and I’m a hobbyist.

I wrote a post that sort of dealt with this topic a while ago. I said that a writer makes sacrifices in order to find time to write, but that’s not all a writer does. A writer reads, goes out and experiences life, does whatever they need to do in order to be able to write, including things that are not writing. Do you get paid for your words? Congratulations: you are a professional writer. Now get back to work. Even if “work” for you right now consists of TV or staring into space.

I’m going to end this with a quote from Brian Keene’s rebuttal, which I think gets to the heart of it.

A professional writer is not deemed so by how much they get paid per word, or how many words they produce, or how many awards they’ve won, or what position they hold in a writer’s organization, or how much networking they do at conventions. A professional writer does one thing — they treat their writing professionally. They produce. They edit. They constantly strive to get better. They sit their ass down in a chair and put their fingers on a keyboard and they type.

A professional writer spends more time writing than they do talking about writing.

Sunday linkdump: Shine bright like a diamond

murmuration-drone-festival

Been out of the game for a couple of weeks, finishing a book and defending a dissertation proposal and wrapping up a course. Back now. Have stuff.

  • Why you dislike singular ‘they’.” I am so fucking sick of people complaining about how it’s grammatically incorrect, or it’s too clumsy, or they just can’t be bothered. Sack up, motherfuckers. Also my sister has some knowledge to hit you with:

    I wrote a linguistics final on this: plenty of fluent adult speakers naturally produce “they” as an indeterminate gender pronoun to avoid using the clunkier construction “his or her.” not only is it transphobic bullshit to say third person plurals are grammatically unacceptable, it’s linguistically incorrect.

    BOOM.

  • “Every Every Every Generation Has Been the Me Me Me Generation.” On Time’s awful awful awful Millennial cover story.

    Basically, it’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It’s like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences.

  • “The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform.” It’s things like the recent discourse around MOOCs that make me seriously wonder whether I’ve made a huge mistake going into academia and whether maybe I should just toss in the towel and leave the country once I have my PhD rather than watch this institution that I love shit all over itself and die.

    Since educating fewer students would therefore cost money, in effect—and it would also cost money to fully staff the necessary courses—there is no solution to the problem that does not require spending more money on chairs, classrooms, and teachers to teach them. MOOCs enter the picture, then, as a kind of fantasy solution to this unsolvable problem: instead of addressing the problem by either admitting fewer students or adding more courses, we will define the problem differently: chairless classrooms! Everyone is happy.

  • “Star Trek Into the Endless War On Terror.” This piece is fabulous.

    Khan is blowing up Starfleet because they used him and manipulated him to built a war machine capable of defending against people like Khan. Self-justifying, perpetual war machines are what we have come to expect from governments. Even if you are defending the war, you have to justify this “new kind of war” by describing and identifying an enemy that demands a war of ambiguous lines and endless horizons. Talk about policing, intelligence, boots on the ground, or peace-keeping missions but don’t question the need for constant intervention. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek might not be the Star Trek you want, but it is definitely the Star Trek America deserves.

  • “The Ethics of Extreme Porn: Is Some Sex Wrong Even Among Consenting Adults?” Really good response to a recent blog dialogue that questions whether sexual ethics based entirely around consent are a universal good (spoiler alert: kinda, yeah.)

    My generation doesn’t treat consent as a lodestar merely because consent permits pleasurable sexual activity that more traditional sexual codes would prohibit. The ethos of consent is regarded as a lodestar because its embrace is widely seen as an incredible improvement over much of human history; and because instances when the culture of consent is rejected are superlatively horrific. The average 30-something San Franciscan has had multiple friends confide to them about being raped, and multiple friends confide about participating in consensual BDSM. Only the former routinely plays out as extreme trauma that devastates the teller for decades.

  • I’m interviewed in the current Outer Alliance podcast, along with an all-star lineup of folks, about the acronym QUILTBAG and the idea of “metrosexual” and current SF awards. It’s fun.
  • Finally, a thing by me: “Distant droning murmurs” – a reflection on the issues raised for me by Murmuration, a June festival of drone culture.

    Need is by definition a loss of power. And in as much as a drone is a cultural node, it’s a node of political and social power, equally capable of surveillance and lethality, technically exact but inscrutable. A shifting, endlessly accommodating idea isn’t especially trustworthy. But maybe we want to trust. Above all, we want everything to be recognizable. We want to be able to understand.

    What I think may be most terrifying about drones – at least to me – is the prospect that they might ultimately be beyond understanding. But we’ll see what Murmuration can do.

Rihanna and M83 have made a beautiful baby.

Sunday linkdump: Everything I love is on the table

image by Rob Wanenchak

There is a lot this week.

  • I wrote a thing for The Sociological Cinema on teaching with SF and the myths that underpin social inequality.

    Myths and legends are all-too-often dismissed as untrue; what this attitude fails to recognize is that the deepest, most foundational stories are persistent precisely because the best of them are vectors for the most profound elements of who we are, of how we understand ourselves to be, of where we imagine we might go. These things may be harmful, they may reproduce things that we find undesirable, but we need to understand them on their own terms before we can act.

  • “My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters.” What it’s like to be a woman saying things and writing books. There is some potentially triggering stuff in here about rape (non-explicit) and general misogyny. I have no particular triggers and I found it upsetting.

    I consider throwing in the towel. The lack of respectful coverage, the slut-shaming and name-calling, all the girly book covers and not-my-titles despite high literary aspirations, has worn me down, made me question everything: my abilities, my future, my life. This is what sexism does best: it makes you feel crazy for desiring parity and hopeless about ever achieving it. A few months later, after delivering a lecture on the media-invented “mommy wars” at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, a song pops up on my iPhone as I’m walking back to my hotel room: Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “When you ain’t got nothing,” Dylan sings, “you got nothing to lose.”

    Yes, I think. Yes.

  • “‘You’ve Lost Weight! You Look Great!’ Isn’t a Compliment.” I have felt this forever but haven’t articulated it to myself anywhere near this well, and oh my god yes yes yes

    When we think of it in that way, it’s not such a great compliment. It’s a set-up for self-consciousness and negative self-judgment of our past selves. When remarking on weight loss is offered as a compliment, the speaker clearly thinks that there’s been a noticeable and notable improvement in how the person looks. Without the normative standard of “thinner is better,” the comment would have no value as a compliment at all.

  • “Why I Will Still #uninstallmendeley.” If you use academic citation software, if you care about the state of academic publishing, if you care about justice and righteousness, read.

    If Mendeley wants to hitch their horse to the Monsanto of academic publishing they can be my guest. The service will probably be amazing. But remember that the money they gave you –all the new resources you have at your disposal– were purchased with tuition money and charitable donations that should have gone to higher education. Instead, it went to Elsevier (and Thompson Reuter, and Springer and…) so that they could find new and inventive ways of hiding research so that they could continue to charge exorbitant prices.

  • “Autofill Mythologies.” Fantastic piece on information and imagination and our experiences of difficult urban spaces.

    Lewis Lapham once argued that the imagined city, the one of our collective making, is realer than what we’re fed by maps and demographics, buildings and structures. The ideas, the symbols, ultimately carry more for us than the realities of its dwellers—the people in the neighborhoods that you see when you’re walking down the street.

  • “Needing a Bigger N+1.” This is a wonderfully biting response to a terrible essay on why critical sociology is useless and how there’s too much of it. That piece is actually not worth reading if you don’t want to; the response summarizes its major points pretty well.

    Insofar as you want to make an institutional critique of sociology… well, I pay an extraordinary (for me) fee to a disciplinary association tasked with intervening in public debates and government policy. We have strong disciplinary traditions and mythologies of activism, including Hull House and the Feminist Wire. We give a fecking ASA award. I’m not saying our house is 100% in order, but if I have to shift into your all/nothing, everyone/no one idiom, I’m going to say we’re all clear.

  • “When Facebook Stopped Being Fun.” Facebook users are growing up. This does not entirely bode well for Facebook.

    Facebook is like a nightmarishly intense, never-ending school reunion where all of the people you don’t really want to talk to get to expose their lives in self-congratulatory detail. Resentment for that is remarkably difficult to dispel.

  • “The writer’s neuroses.” All of this is so incredibly painfully true.

    What if my life work, these novels that I have tried to make as clear and articulate and passion-filled and honest and intelligent and entertaining and genre-resistant and accessible as I can manage, aren’t judged to be among the best? Well, as I will find out the news in a hotel room on my own I will probably end up crying on the edge of a bed while shoving salted cashews into my mouth and wishing I’d never ever written a vampire novel.

  • “Academia’s indentured servants.” Basically the system to which I have given ten years of my life and a great deal of my mental health is completely broken. I knew that because I’m IN IT, but still.

    To work outside of academia, even temporarily, signals you are not “serious” or “dedicated” to scholarship. It does not matter if you are simply too poor to stay: in academia, perseverance is redefined as the ability to suffer silently or to survive on family wealth. As a result, scholars adjunct in order to retain an institutional affiliation, while the institution offers them no respect in return.

  • “The entrepreneurial activism of Tim LaHaye’s theologized politics.” hey everyone Tim LaHaye is a very bad person

    Consider this: from 1995 through 2007, Tim LaHaye co-authored a series of runaway best-sellers steeped in John Birch Society ideology. During those years he sold more than 60 million copies of books that served as propaganda for a particular political agenda. The tea party movement sprang up in 2009, espousing the exact neo-Bircher ideology and agenda promoted in LaHaye’s novels. Is that just a remarkable coincidence?

But there is The National.