Forward and Back

Image: University of Alberta Press

Annabel Lyon. Imagining Ancient Women. Henry Kreisel Lecture Series. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.

The end of December and beginning of January is always my favorite time of year. Not because of the season—I’m more of a leaf-peeper than a snow-lover—but because it is inevitably a time of transition. Say what you will about the futility of New Year’s Resolutions, the chance to look back on the year that has passed and look forward to the year to come is a gift.

One tradition I have for this liminal time is to look up my favorite authors to see whether any of them will be publishing books in the new year. Often I’ll also discover older works of theirs that I haven’t yet read.

I made such a discovery while looking up Annabel Lyon. I’ve written before about her second novel, The Sweet Girland its wonderful approach to women of the past. So I was delighted to find Imagining Ancient Women, a published version of a lecture Lyon gave at the University of Alberta in 2010, and read Lyon’s own thoughts on the possibilities and risks of historical fiction about women.

Lyon begins with the broad suggestion “that literary fiction is uniquely poised to perform an important ethical function in our lives—namely, to teach us compassion, a deep and lasting understanding of the other—and that historical fiction, with its particular tradition of focusing on moral problems and injustices, offers a particularly interesting tool for performing that function” (6-7). Because of this, historical fiction is prey to a number of didactic pitfalls, including “easy moral outrage; forbidden love; and excessive decoration” (7), all of which she later gathers under the umbrella of escapism (44).

As an avid reader and would-be writer of historical fiction, these are familiar problems. I need only look in my own creative writing drawer for an outline of a tale involving a Puritan physician who falls in love with a Catholic woman and helps her to act on a stage which is forbidden to her as a women and abhorrent to him as a Puritan. There are even enthusiastic lists of the names of diseases (“flux,” “burnt blood,” “wolf”), Elizabethan slang (“shog off!”), and various articles of period clothing.

(Needless to say, the project needs work.)

Lyon gives some beautiful examples of novels which avoid these problems, then turns to her own problems imagining herself into the confined world of Greek women.”To an ancient Greek,” she claims, “I am a man….I operate in my society with all the freedom that a man in the ancient world would have operated in his” (20). She admits that she has difficulty understanding “how every last ancient woman wasn’t driven by the strictures in her life to suicidal depression” (33).

Rather than taking the morally easy route of presenting an ancient woman who rebels against these strictures, or is in fact driven to despair, Lyon gives her character all the options available to her in antiquity, taking her cue from Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pythias becomes a priestess, a midwife, a hetaira, and, eventually, a wife.

Lyon beautifully describes Pythias as “my Philoctetes, the creature who both repels and inspires compassion, the ancient self I can choose to befriend, and enrich my own modern life thereby” (51). In other words, Pythias and her author are both looking forward and back with a Janus-like attention to both modernity and antiquity. To “inhabit the past” (51) we need just enough anachronism that characters are recognizably and sympathetically human, but not so much that we retreat into a complacent moral high ground.

The Professor Is In

Image via The Professor Is In

Karen Kelsky. The Professor Is In. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015.

The academic job market is a monster lurking under most grad students’ beds. Hiring works in mysterious ways, and even when you have, as I do, supportive advisors and resources for professionalization available through your institution, anything that further demystifies the monster is welcome. 

I’ve been a reader of Karen Kelsky’s blog since I started grad school, and have often turned to it for succinct, practical advice on things like writing conference abstracts, organizing my CV, putting together a five-year plan that includes goals and milestones that don’t necessarily show up in my department handbook. Kelsky’s background is in anthropology, and after fifteen years on the faculties of various institutions, she left academia and took her anthropologist’s ability, as she puts it, “to take taken-for-granted, implicit knowledge and defamiliarize it” in order to provide information to “Ph.D. job seekers and graduate students…about the job market and the academic career” (394).

The Professor Is In, like the blog that shares its name, offers frank, no-nonsense advice about everything from how to write a grant application to what to wear during a Skype interview. About half of the material is reworked from the blog, but I found that reading chapters I already knew in blog post form within the broader arc of a book allowed me to better understand what lay behind various pieces of advice. This context mitigates one difficulty with the book: Kelsky’s advice is often so starkly direct that it can read more like the ten commandments than career advice. One particularly striking example is chapter six, which lists “six attributes that characterize the effective tenure track job candidate,” including:

Productivity: You will have a record of professional accomplishments beyond the requirements of your graduate program. These will include major publications such as a signed book contract…and/or refereed journal articles, national and international grants, high-profile yearly conference activity, invited off-campus talks, substantive solo-teaching experience, and illustrious scholars writing your recommendations. (46-7)

Passages like this are certainly helpful reference points—I sent a picture of one of of Kelsky’s “six attributes” to some friends, joking that I needed it on a t-shirt—but need to be read in tandem with chapters scrutinizing the academic system and why it works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be) the way it does. For this reason, I would unhesitatingly recommend the book above the blog.

Kelsky is up front about the fact that her advice necessarily relies on generalizations. Every grad student and every job seeker in each field will have a different experience, and the job market does involve chance at some point—I’d point fellow Classicists toward Joy Connelly’s “Job Market Handbook” for some advice specific to our field. One of the most useful chapters of the book, from this point of view, is chapter sixty, another blog-like list, this time of 111 transferable skills to jumpstart thinking about possible careers outside the ivory tower. Because so few faculty members have experience pursuing alternative career paths, at least in the humanities, and because of the stigma attached to “dropping out” of academia, it’s hard to have conversations about the topic of alternate careers. Eleventy-one transferable skills are a helpful starting point for considering possibilities outside the academic shire.

The major complaint I have about the book is the amount of space devoted to promoting Kelsky’s relatively new one-on-one coaching services; at several points, the book feels like promotional material, complete with customer blurbs. 

The Professor is In is good advice well worth reading, with the caveats that go along with any job market advice. When you’re trying to slay the monster under the bed, you can’t ignore it or let it rule your life with fear, but no one strategy guarantees victory.