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The Odds Were Better: Publishing a Novel vs. Getting a Job in Academia

I recently re-posted a link on my Facebook page to a story I found on the Atlantic, titled The Cost of an Adjunct.  To sum up the tidy statistics quoted in the article, adjuncts make up three-fourths of most university faculties these days.  They get paid peanuts.  A lot of them are on food stamps.  FOOD STAMPS, people.  I don’t know why I felt compelled to repost; I’ve seen a lot of similar stories run in newspapers and magazines in recent years, and it was nothing I didn’t already know.  This particular article focused on the trickle-down cost to students, in terms of quality of education with such an underpaid, exploited, harried group of teachers and mentors – so, hey – at least that angle was kinda new.  Well, ish

If you asked me ten years ago, which would be a longer shot: To become a professor and secure a job, or to publish a novel, I would’ve said the novel was the pipe dream. 

Can I change my answer now?

I was always drawn to the arts, but I was also raised by very practical people.  When I was born, my father was an Air Force captain and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.  When I was older, my father managed to become an engineer, and my mother an elementary school teacher.  All this is to say: We weren’t starving, but money was always a big consideration.  According to my family, people who fancied themselves artists took risks that were neither acceptable nor realistic.  Only “selfish” people wanted to be artists, because they thought they were so special and so talented, they could just sit around and do the things that pretty much anyone and everyone would prefer to do (but don’t do, because most people are responsible and practical and make sacrifices).  Lest it sound like I am condemning them, my parents’ love of art is what made me love art, and hence, how they ended up with a writer for a kid in spite of themselves.  So, it was a mixed message, to be sure. 

In any case, when I set out to figure out my adult life, I assumed being a novelist was completely unrealistic.  I knew I loved writing, did it compulsively, and couldn’t stop, but I had more or less pushed that thought as a serious career possibility out of my mind.  I did not have the vocabulary to say, “I think I can earn a living as a writer.  No really; take me seriously.” 

So, what to do with my life?  Well, I worshipped books and reading, and talking about books, and talking about reading books, and writing about reading books… so I figured, “I’ll teach English lit!”  And because I like a damn good challenge, I thought, “I’ll do it at the university level.” 

Ah, yes.  A practical-seeming dream of which my parents might approve – if only by a slim margin (even they, let it be known, had a better idea of how hard a large number of professors work, and for how little money).  I don't know what I thought the life of a professor was certainly not all academics are endowed chairs at Ivy League schools, collecting epicurean wines and driving sports cars à la Stanley Fish – but I think I assumed I could become a professor and have a life that would resemble something approaching a modest, middle-class norm of stability.  It at least seemed possible – more possible than, say, writing novels for a living.  For the most part (I think) my parents approved. 

Off to grad school I went.  By the second year, I knew I had probably picked one of the most difficult paths I could ever take – not because the coursework was unpleasant or boring or the faculty tried to haze me or anything like that – quite the opposite – but because I'd finally gotten look at the math.  The math was simply not in my favor.  There are more students enrolled in PhD programs then there are tenure track positions.  This is especially true in English literature.  This means, the odds dictate there are going to be a lot of very smart, very qualified people who simply don’t get the jobs they’re imagining they will.  In short: In addition to being very, very good, you have to be damn lucky.  

The same is true in publishing, but somehow people already know this, whereas in academia it still comes as a surprise – the surprise/disappointment over this fact is almost an initiation rite of sorts, as a matter of fact.  During my first semester at Rice, all the students in my year were obliged to take a seminar in which we read things like Bill Readings’ University in Ruins, and Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education.

In my head, I nicknamed that course “Academic Pessimism 101.” 

Academic pessimism had to be inculcated for me.  When it came to the prospect of publishing a novel, I didn’t need a course; the pessimism came naturally.  I just assumed I would do other things with my life.  So imagine my surprise when, after wandering away from academia and into a job at a literary agency, I handed over a draft of something I’d been writing, and it moved rather speedily from agent to editor to print.  Everything I’d ever been taught to trust was blown out of the water.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t worked hard – like I said, I’ve compulsively written all my life; I’ve put in my Malcolm-Gladwell-10,000-hours and then some – and it wasn’t that I didn’t get lucky; I most certainly did.  It’s that those things FINALLY came together: A lifetime obsession with words and stories plus a little luck.  It wasn’t impossible.  Due to my love of creative writing – a love I couldn’t repress (and I tried, believe me) – I subconsciously orbited closer and closer to this final result.  Part of “being lucky” is being in the right place at the right time; that in and of itself is far more likely to happen if you follow the interests that speak the most directly and plainly to your heart, and keep knocking on the same doors over and over again, long after other people have gone home.

Reflecting upon some of these articles of late, and contemplating the sheer math of getting a tenure track job versus getting a novel published, I may have done the thing that was far more feasible for me to do.  Who the hell would’ve guessed? 

So, now, ironically enough, writing novels is the most practical thing I do.  It's the one form of employment that's paid me a decent paycheck, it's the manner of labor I consistently feel passionate about doing, and the form of work I know I can reliably produce.  It is the thing I do that (for now... who knows, but fingers crossed it stays this way) keeps solid ground under my feet, and a roof over my head as I finish up my dissertation.  It’s no picnic, and I still wake up on occasion in the middle of the night with a great deal of anxiety (the kind of anxiety I imagine I'd have certainly experienced anyway had I adjuncted, or even if I'd lucked my way into a tenure-track job within the university), convinced it’s all going to dry up, that the next novel I write will be hugely unpopular or critically-panned, and I’ll have this weird gap on my resume/CV I don't know how to explain, and maybe I'll have to go work fast food or retail to make ends meet… publishing is a wacky field to be sure (hence, this blog, which allows me to grouse about it), but for now, this – writing fiction – is all that I know to trust.  I'm still on the path to finish my PhD program (I've taken the long route, but the dissertation is finally coming together), and I hope to possibly teach… the idea is to minimize those worry-filled nights.  If one thing dries up, I’ll have the other, and vice-versa.  

Well, at least, that's the plan.