October 5, 2017

Which English professors are “allowed” to publish erotic fiction?

Recently, I made the acquaintance of a professor who teaches writing at a community college in a very conservative, red state in the southeastern United States. Although not research-active as such, her primary substantive area of expertise is nineteenth century English literature, and initially we bonded enthusiastically over angry chatter about Brexit Britain.

At some point during our conversation, however, after I’d mentioned the topic of my PhD research in the context of having lived and studied in the UK, this writing professor disclosed something that, on one level, was very surprising and yet, on another level, was not surprising at all: She writes slash fanfiction. (Slash, in case you’ve never heard of it, is a genre of fanfiction focusing on male-male, homoerotic romance. Most of it is written by women. A close Japanese equivalent is called yaoi.) And moreover, she doesn’t just write any slash fanfiction—she has written the sort of fanfiction that my academic colleagues in disciplines such as Communication and Cultural Studies themselves write scholarly papers and monographs about.

And I mean that literally. A single, novel-length fanfic this writing professor completed while still in grad school has been used as a research subject at least twice, in different publications, by different authors (neither of whom, it’s worth noting, ever bothered to contact said writing professor to obtain her views prior to going to press, which, because I am a sociologist who thinks that sometimes the best answers to research questions are to be had by, you know, asking, struck me as absurd). But I suppose its popularity among researchers is, in part, because her story is thought to have intrinsic artistic merit as an exemplar of the slash genre. Certainly, after finding a copy of it online and reading it myself, I’d be inclined to agree with such an assessment, and perusing the fanfiction she has written since then suggests to me that her skills as a fiction writer have only grown by leaps and bounds. She can write, and has written, original work as well.

Yet this talented, experienced writer has never in her life made more than a pittance on the sale of her own writing, and because she is writing—Heaven forfend!—“gay porn,” her college’s conservative administration actively discourages her extramural writing activities by threatening her future employment there, and she doesn’t know the first thing about landing a book deal. Not every professor, it seems, gets to be Mary Bly. As a sociologist, I find it difficult not to compare the case of this red state community college professor to the case of Mary Bly, the tenured professor at a research university who is also a bestselling romance novelist, and see an execrable example of the consequences of intergenerational privilege and differential amounts of Bordieusian cultural/symbolic capital in action.

Now, I wish the story I just told above was about a single woman—but it isn’t. It is actually an amalgamation of the stories of several American academics, all literary scholars and/or writing professors who have the writing skills and the consistent self-discipline that writing prolifically requires to become popular genre fiction novelists but do not understand how the trade book publishing industry works and/or are tied into the requisite elite social networks. They cannot, therefore, get their proverbial foot in the door.

As someone who has studied a sector of the trade book publishing industry, allow me a moment to assure you that book deals with Hachette or Penguin Random House are not meritocratic. Publishing in general is not meritocratic, and it does nobody save those who are already “winning” under the current institutional regime any good to delude themselves into believing that it is. (In fact, academics would be well-advised to remember that this axiom applies equally to academic publishing.)

So, what is my motive writing this blog post?

My motive is, in fact, threefold: 1) To call attention to this problem, 2) To encourage writers outside of urban cultural centers not to undersell themselves or their soft skills, and finally 3) To suggest that we, as writers, scholars, teachers and creative industry professionals, not be complacent. It’s easy to revile inequality when it originates elsewhere, but it is something else entirely to identify it in one’s own professional field and then take concrete action to redress it.

And as for those community college professors, tenured and untenured, full- and part-time, whose stories I have amalgamated? We have had lengthy discussions about how to think strategically about one’s market category, and I have also told them that they need to get a literary agent. I don’t pretend to think that what I just happen to know because it came up in the course of my PhD research is enough to make a transformative difference in anybody’s life, but it’s a start. Furthermore, I would encourage all of us in positions of privilege relative to others to strive to do our small parts for those less fortunate/knowledgeable whenever and wherever we can.

Look in the mirror, recognize your own privilege, and then figure out what you can do for those with less: That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.