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Disillusions: What Keeps a Writer Writing?

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I spent five days hearing papers on a broad variety of cinema-related topics at the SCMS conference in Chicago recently. It was a terrific, stimulating experience. When I first sat down with the conference program I circled the sessions that featured writers whose work I already knew and admired, like Victor Perkins, Lesley Stern, Gilberto Perez, Dan Morgan, and a few others. Then I turned my attention to other sessions whose topics sounded intriguing, featuring scholars whose work I didn’t know. The sessions in the former category turned out to be reliably great, but I was surprised by the latter category – specifically, the high number of graduate students who delivered dynamic, well-researched and memorable presentations.

Surrounded as we are today by a conversation about the ‘crisis in higher education’, I couldn’t help wondering: What percentage of these students will have the opportunity to devote the rest of their lives to teaching and researching cinema/media studies? To make a statistical prediction: that number is likely to be low. Which seems deeply unjust. Veronica Fitzpatrick provides the valuable, much-needed graduate student perspective on the conference experience in her recent blog post. She calls for a discussion on the theme of “disillusions”: on “the bad feelings associated with carving out a life in academia: discouragement, disenchantment, faltered hope, insecurity.” Her post is essential reading.

And so, if a distressing number of current PhD students in the field are unlikely to get a full-time position doing what they truly love, what will that mean for their continued interest in writing about cinema for the rest of their lives? Doesn’t moving image culture stand to lose an enormous amount of potential thought and writing in the decades to come? Which makes me wonder: What are the cultural conditions necessary to recover some of this potential that is on its way to disappearing forever? Under what circumstances might scholars continue to write about cinema even if they were condemned to the slave labor of a system that exploited them as adjunct faculty for the rest of their lives – or if they ceased to be professionals in the field altogether?

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In Annie Dillard’s wonderful book The Writing Life (1989), she describes the places and spaces in which she wrote several of her books. Nearly always, the locations are remote and isolated, and the physical spaces are spartan. For example: a bare pine shed on Cape Cod; or a tiny study carrel in a local college library; or an austere cabin on an island in Puget Sound, cut off from the world. When I recall these accounts, I always think: I could never write under such conditions. For better or worse, I need the constant hum of connection and contact with other humans and the cultural artifacts they create – books, essays, images, sounds, and, very importantly, the Internet – in order to be able to write.

What this constant contact provides is the possibility at all times – both in the preparatory stages before writing, and during the writing process itself – of encountering something new and useful at any instant, of being struck at any moment by a new fascination that might quickly find its way into the writing.

In the course of a long and marvelous conversation, Vivian Sobchack and Scott Bukatman speak of the role of just such a fascination in the writing process, contrasting it provocatively with the norms of writing that prevail in the field. Bukatman says:

There are certain places that scholars are encouraged to go because they automatically matter. Race automatically matters, gender automatically matters, power structures automatically matter. Any scholar can go and hit those notes and they don’t have to explain why it matters because these things clearly matter. Others have to convincingly demonstrate why that thing they’re writing about matters. It’s a different kind of challenge, and I think we’ve both faced it. In most of my writing, I have tried to begin with the fact that I have some fascination with an object or with a phenomenon and try to get at the source of that fascination.

To which Sobchack adds later in the piece:

If I do anything for my students, I hope it’s to give them a kind of confidence in those initial fascinations, not necessarily in what they “ought” to be fascinated by. Then they’ve got a chance of doing vital and original work.

To pursue these fascinations is necessarily to run a risk, to venture into a speculative endeavor whose outcomes are uncertain. What’s more, the endeavor must be justified since it doesn’t “automatically matter”. And it is precisely those scholars who don’t yet have well-established careers – like graduate students or untenured faculty – for whom the risk of “following their fascination” is highest.

In a recent and provocative piece that was widely circulated online, William Germano draws a distinction between two models of writing that he calls “snow globes” and “machines”. An example of a snow globe is an academic book, early in a scholar’s career, that is rigorously researched and scrupulously documented, one that constitutes “solid work” but is not especially risk-taking or speculative:

[This work] is carefully constructed to be a perfect little world, its main purpose to be admired. There’s a glass wall that separates the contents from the reader […] Within the realm of the snow globe, every authority on the subject has been cited or pacified […] Scholarly books, especially first ones, are a paranoid genre—their structure assumes that someone is always watching, eager to find fault. And they take every precaution against criticism.

For Germano, such writing is “fearful” and overly concerned with “covering the bases”, thus missing opportunities to provoke, engage and invite the reader into a conversation. Rather than envisioning the work of writing as an artifact, Germano wants to advocate for it as a tool. For him, this is accomplished by viewing it as a machine that generates ideas and offers itself up for use, allowing the reader to engage with it and put its ideas to work. Such writing is less interested in impressing the reader or appearing complete; it is necessarily unruly and incomplete. It is also, I think, the kind of work produced by a writer keen on “following her fascinations”.

And now, to circle back to my original question: What conditions might encourage a scholar without a full-time faculty position to continue writing for the rest of her life? I think the answer lies in the phenomenal rise of non-traditional publication outlets on the Internet. Many traditional, long-standing, peer-reviewed academic journals have recognized the necessity for a web presence, and this is great, but what is truly interesting about the online explosion of cinema/media studies publications is their distribution on a wide spectrum. It is now possible to write in a hybrid mode that combines the best of both traditional-scholarly and non-scholarly (literary or journalistic or cinephilic) modes – and find widespread interest for such writing in Internet film culture. (Adrian Martin and I run such a venture, LOLA.) For someone looking to get acquainted with this vast landscape of online writing on cinema, two sites are absolutely invaluable: Catherine Grant’s Film Studies for Free and David Hudson’s Keyframe Daily. Spend a few hours with them (by thomas at dresshead com), and you are guaranteed to be overwhelmed by a sense of how much good, stimulating film writing surrounds us on the Internet.

If full-time faculty produce scholarship because there are institutional incentives and pressures for them to do so, a different set of rewards might exist for those writers and scholars who have part-time or no affiliations with academic film studies. These rewards have to do with the ability to find a sizable and interested readership on the Internet. (Often this readership might end up being larger than the one for a traditional, institutional-scholarly piece of work.) So, in the end, even if writing about cinema may not allow the writer to make a living by it, it has the possibility to offer something: the assurance that her writing is being read regularly by many. Which is a larger incentive for a writer than we might suspect.

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Special Affects warmly thanks special contributor Girish Shambu, who welcomes further conversation on his (fantastic) film blog.

This post is part of Disillusions: an ongoing series on Special Affects on the bad feelings associated with carving out a life in academia: discouragement, disenchantment, faltered hope, insecurity, etc. Inspired by Ann Cvetkovich’s recent book Depression: A Public Feeling, feed-clogging reblogs on economic and affective precarity, and a spate of events examining why adjuncting sucks, Disillusions explores how these feelings and sensations are central and intrinsic rather than marginal to the experience of becoming (and being) a scholar, writer, and/or teacher.