Martha Stewart and the Academy

I am having a minor identity crisis, I think — for the last month or two, I’ve been feeling fairly intense academic anxiety (even waking me up once or twice) because it seems like my food interests and other domestic interests have become a big part of my literary production, and once again (I remember this from when I primarily wrote erotica, and again when started working on a SF novel), I am stressing the heck out that my academic colleagues won’t think I’m ‘serious’ or ‘professional’ enough.

For what, I can’t tell you — I’m not tenure-track, so it’s not as if I’m on a tenure clock, and they’ve promoted me once already, so they must like my work reasonably well, but I start to fret that they hired me on the basis of Bodies in Motion and a Ph.D. that specialized in post-colonial lit., and over the last twelve years, my interests have shifted to science fiction (still with a post-colonial lens, but nonetheless) and domesticity, and neither of those are topics the academy has traditionally found worthy of serious work. Or if serious, only in the sense of doing criticism of it, not of producing it.

If I’m writing an article for a women’s magazine, is that anything my department would appreciate? And again, I don’t think it really matters, because unless the university really crashes its funding, they are very likely to keep renewing my contract indefinitely. Kevin says I shouldn’t worry about posting so much about food and yarn and such on FB, even if I have colleagues here (hi, colleagues!), because everyone has hobbies, including ones they obsess over. He says no one will care, and that is almost certainly true.

But these aren’t exactly hobbies, I think. They may be my work, or at least part of it. (Like, if I’m spending 85% of my time on trying to write the Great American Novel, then it’s fine to spend 15% of it on gardening. But if the split is reversed, that might be a problem?)

I am pretty sure a good part of this is a feminist issue. What kind of work do we value? What kind of writing do we value? If I turn into a Sri Lankan American Martha Stewart, what will the academy make of it? I still love teaching lit., even though I am sometimes (such as now, at the end of the semester) a little tired and ready to take a break from it. I could really use a sabbatical, if non-tenure-track people got such a thing. I wouldn’t want to give teaching up entirely, though.

In grad school, we laughed sometimes, and mocked the aspiration towards ‘finely crafted sentences’ — but the truth was, we were mostly desperate to write those finely crafted sentences, and those pieces of literature with deep themes. I still am, but sometimes I am at least as engaged in the specifics of what kind of oil is best for frying a chicken patty. (See next post.)

Part of the problem is that there are currently two…respectable? paths I could be following as an English professor. One is to write criticism — and criticism of women’s work, food, etc. would be totally fine in the academy these days. But I don’t write criticism basically at all. I could try, but that’s not at all where my interests lie, clearly, since I haven’t done it in years, beyond the occasional book review. (I did one academic bio-bibliography of Tananarive Due, lo these many years ago. I have dabbled with the idea of doing some Delany critical work, putting together a teaching volume. But that’s it, and I clearly haven’t focused on actually doing it.)

Another option is to write literary fiction, for which a space has been carved out in English departments over the last few decades — and if I’m writing literary science fiction, that’s probably okay in the academy these days too. Le Guin / Delany -type work.

But if what I’m writing is neither criticism nor ‘literary’, but rather, ‘popular’ writing — whether it’s essays or science fiction or recipes or what, I’m not sure if there’s a place for that in academia. And it feels sort of treacherous, if my job is essentially standing on the ground of work I did several years ago, rather than what I’m doing now.

No answers here, but in the terrifying spirit of at least exposing the problem, here you go.

1 thought on “Martha Stewart and the Academy”

  1. Maybe not a feminist issue. I’m guessing writing about cars and golfing would be treated the same as gardening and cooking. Just different types of writing from fiction

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