16 August 2010

Goodbye, Renaissance Quarterly

...and Sixteenth Century Journal, and especially you, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. I won't miss you at all.

I've been cleaning house. Although I normally cling to books like they're some kind of papery life raft, today I took a couple of shelves' worth of academic journals down and put them in the recycling. They filled an entire blue box and I suspect there are a few more lurking in the not-so-neat rows of my bookcases. I can now reshelve the large pile of books that I have slowly accumulated beside my bed, not to mention the numerous volumes I've tucked away horizontally on top of rows of books in my bookcases.

The decision to get rid of the flotsam and jetsam of my academic "career" is really just the latest in a series of maneuvres designed to distance me from academia. The painful part was over three years ago, when I decided I couldn't (wouldn't, shouldn't) hack it as a professor. The fun part was realizing that I could embrace my lifelong dream of writing fiction, if not for a living, then at least for life. The scary part was figuring out how to replace the income I was making from sessional teaching without falling into something that would wreck my concentration or my soul. This part? The getting rid of stuff part? Feels more like picking a scab. A little bit gross, and mildly fascinating.

In January, I started decluttering my office by throwing out the dozens upon dozens of photocopies of academic articles I'd gathered while writing my thesis. There are more of those lurking in a storage unit in my bedroom--I can't wait to ferret them out and get rid of them.

I don't know why it took me so long to recognize that I no longer wanted the journals. It was probably their neat, bland spines. They made themselves innocuous among the Harry Potters and the Sookie Stackhouses, not to mention the Joe R. Lansdale canon and the plethora of Dover and Oxford and Penguin editions of classics that were actually fun to read, and which I'll probably revisit at some point. (I'm looking at you, Père Goriot!)

But last week, I don't know--I was looking at the plant on top of the tall white bookcase that sits near the dining room window, and I just thought, "I could throw those out without a second thought." Today, I took ten minutes, and I did it.

I admit, I felt a slight twinge as I looked at those Renaissance Quarterly covers. I never wanted to collect those journals, but they came along with my Renaissance Society of America membership, which in turn was a part of my conference fees. Go to the conference, pay your dues, get some journals: that was the deal. And they always looked so rich, so full of knowledge, so replete with things with which I ought to be familiar. So long as I was tied to academia, I had to hang on to them. Otherwise, how would I understand that my knowledge base was entirely inadequate? And how would I rescue myself once I decided to turn it all around and become the academic rock star I should have been?

You can see why this didn't work out, right?

I stacked them all on the dining room table, and I started taking them out to the porch, where they could wait in their blue box for next week's garbage day. I'm not totally heartless: I picked up an issue or two, and thumbed through them, looking for some redeeming feature. And I did find some promise there: there were a couple of articles on public executions--always a topic that stirred my interest. And I did find a piece or two on disease or drama--my areas of specialty. I paused, and sighed, and I read:
This article statistically analyzes quantitative data from numerous sources in order to assess changes in marriage patterns, family structure, and rates of social mobility during the period from 1282 to 1494. During this period, three systems of social stratification coexisted — wealth, political office, and age of family — but these contending status systems were not consistent in their rankings of families.
Okay, I didn't read this exactly, but I read something very much like it. And I closed the book. (No offense to this specific author--it's only an example, man.)

The academic gig offers a kind of notoriety: you can become sort of famous within academic circles; you can work a kind of magic with ideas and dazzle an elite audience and they might applaud you for it. But especially in literature studies, you're ultimately building a house on someone else's property. You might think you're living at the top of the ivory tower, but you're really just a squatter in the land of the imagination.

Here's the thing: I've done the academic trip. I've done it until it couldn't be done any more, at least from a student perspective. I got the mother of all degrees. And I am not at all anti-education. The most valuable thing I take away, however, is the ability to read just about anything every written in the English language, and a little smidge here and there of stuff written in Latin. And what academics do--the endless analysis, the combination and recombination of other people's theories and other people's creativity--it's neat and all, but it isn't story. It won't save you. It won't help you figure out your life. It won't add value to the richness that is you.

And maybe story won't do that either--maybe fiction is ultimately fluffy and insubstantial. But it feels real to me.

I'm writing now--I'm working creatively. I'm sacrificing my time to the sable goddess of speculative fiction.

There's no room for Renaissance Quarterly on this ride.


Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

I did something similar recently as well! I have an entire banker's box of literary journals -- most of which I've gotten for free at conferences or workshops or by working at a literary journal -- and I realized that I'm not interested in that anymore. I'm not recycling them, I'm offering them to my workshop peers and then I'll recycle the left overs.

I'm also back in the academic spiral of should I or shouldn't I get another degree.

Elizabeth Twist said...

I always return to my friend Marc's catchphrase for situations like yours: "friends don't let friends do grad school." Somehow, Marc and I both ended up with doctorates, however, so it's possible we're talking out of our asses.

Good luck with that decision. I know it's tough.