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"Portrait of the Scholar as a Young Novelist"

Excerpt from "Portrait of the Scholar as a Young Novelist":

I knew my life was about to change when a colleague at a recent scholarly conference came up to me at the reception and told me with some bemusement that a fellow academic, whom I did not know, had asked her, "Is Jenny White a lesbian?" After many years of scholarly research, writing and teaching, I had written a novel, a mystery set in 1886 Istanbul that, along with several murders, featured a lesbian relationship. I noted with a bitter smile that no one had (yet) asked, "Is Jenny a murderer?"

Clearly fiction is assumed to be your life, while scholarship operates at a respectable remove. The novel was still two months from publication, but the buzz had already infiltrated my scholarly environment. My colleagues at a recent faculty meeting made lighthearted suggestions that we combine a planned forensic anthropology concentration with a course on mystery writing, and that I endow a chair. Leaving aside the gross overestimation of a novelist’s income, I noted with some anxiety the notoriety and loss of privacy that appears to accompany literary, as opposed to scholarly, production.

Indeed, having spent almost two decades writing grant proposals, doing field research under sometimes difficult conditions in Turkey and Germany, writing two books and many articles, and developing a reputation as a scholar to be taken seriously, I am disconcerted to find that an (as yet unpublished) novel has overtaken all of that effort in the time it takes for a few words to be whispered in the halls of a conference hotel.

Fellow airplane passengers whose eyes glaze over when I tell them I’m a social anthropologist fall right out of their seats with excitement when I mention I’ve written a novel. They want to know where they can find it and if I’d sign it. I admit to great pride in my literary creation (and an embarrassing lust for sales). I did, after all, spend a lot of time researching the historical setting and writing and rewriting obsessively.

But I can’t help but feel sorry for my poor orphaned scholarly books, beneficiaries of so many more years of work and sacrifice, eclipsed by their glamorous new sibling. This, it turns out, is but one of the dilemmas of my new life as scholar turned novelist.

Copyright ©2006 by Jenny White. All rights reserved