The tower and the sea – Two things inspired me to begin writing today, and although I have no idea where I’m going to end up, I feel strangely optimistic, as if somehow I am convinced I am going to say something interesting today. It’s a neat feeling, and I’m almost afraid to actually start writing lest I prove myself wrong. That’s never stopped me before, though, so here goes.
One of the seeds for today’s entry was a brief statement in a commentary on a DVD I’ve been watching recently. In preparation for the release of Return of the King (I think it’s being released today, I just haven’t bought it yet), I’ve been watching the special features (or the appendices, as they call them) for the first two movies. I’ve seen the movies themselves more times than I can remember, but I only watched the commentaries once, so I thought I would go back and watch them again to get me into the spirit of things. I’ve been watching them one commentary at a time in the evening, after my work for the day is done.
In one of the commentaries about Tolkien, someone mentioned that most of Tolkien’s colleagues were embarrassed with what he had produced. After all, he was a linguist, not a novelist, and he was supposed to be writing erudite papers on the Anglo-Saxon language, not a high fantasy epic. When I heard that comment it reminded me of something one of my professors said during class once. He said that there were two types of people who dealt with literature: those who created literature, and those who studied literature. Each type had to know different things (not to say that there isn’t an overlap, of course), and each type approached literature from a different point of view. We, as graduate students of classical Korean literature, were of the second variety. We did not create literature, we took it apart to find out what makes it tick.
This makes perfect sense, of course, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The truth of the matter is that I want to do both: I want to study literature, but I also want to create it (or at least to create fiction, since it seems rather pretentious, even for me, to call my own work “literature”). As the years go by, though, it becomes increasingly apparent to me that you can never be fully accepted in both circles. Academicians, by nature, are very exclusivist, while novelists generally strive to reach the widest audience as possible.
If you are a successful academic, the majority of the general public will have no interest in your work. How many people have ever heard of Tolkien’s paper entitled “Some Contributions to Middle-English Lexicography”? I have read his “On Fairy-Stories” and “The Monsters and the Critics,” but only because they relate to my field of study. It’s likely that even most Tolkien fans have not read them, and that non-fans who have at least heard of Lord of the Rings have never heard of these papers.
If you are a successful novelist, on the other hand, you run the risk of being snubbed by the academicians in their ivory towers. After all, how can someone who appeals to the sea of humanity, someone who appeals to the unwashed masses, possibly be part of such an elite society? The underlying idea, simply put, is this: if your works are widely popular, then you have catered to the common denominator, and that automatically means you could not possibly contribute anything on the high level at which academics operate. A good example of this in my field is Joseph Campbell, who wrote a number of relatively popular books on myth that are at best ignored by many in the fields of folklore and anthropology.
The problem is that I can see both sides of the story. I realize that my choice of subject for my M.A. and Ph.D. theses is a tad obscure (“interesting,” as David was kind enough to put it), and when I attempt to offer an in-depth explanation to people outside of my field I am met with stares that hover between dumbfounded disinterest and the manic desire to flee. On the other side of the fence, I cannot deny that there is truth to the idea that catering to a broader audience reduces the academic value of your work. To be perfectly honest, there are so many holes in Joseph Campbell’s theories on mythology that I could use his books to drain spaghetti.
I am not an extremist, though, and I do not think it is impossible to combine academics and broad appeal. There are many respected academics who write interesting books for the educated public, and I must admit that some of the backlash against popularizers like Joseph Campbell stems from the elitism and snobbery of the ivory tower. It is possible to mix academic value and broad appeal, it’s just very difficult to strike a balance, and most people will lean to one side or the other.
All of this is more than just theory—more than just tossing about abstract ideas for the fun of it—to me. It’s something I think about quite a bit. I do love my field, and I love to research and write on the academic level, but my dream has always been to be a “popular” writer. To be honest, part of the reason I decided to follow the path that will inevitably lead to a professorship somewhere is that it would allow me to do two things that I really love: writing and traveling. I believe I have the skill and potential to make it as a professional writer, but I am well aware that it takes more than just skill and potential to be successful. My academic and translating work are not only a sort of economic safety net, but they are also related enough to writing and publishing that they could conceivably help me get my foot in the door as a writer.
Still, I am devoted to my studies and do not see them merely as a means to an end. I suppose the question is if I can do both, and if I have equal success in both fields, which way will I lean? Although I do both (study and write) because I want to, I cannot deny that far more people are counting on me in an academic sense. All of my professors have great hopes that I will be a bridge between Eastern and Western scholars in the field of Korean studies, and, as one of my professors put it, my shoulders are very heavy with the load. No one is relying on me in terms of my writing, though. When I write, I do it completely and absolutely for myself, and the only expectations I have to meet are my own. (All of this would change, of course, if I were to ever become a popular writer.)
Ten years ago, simply looking at it in this light would have been enough for me to abandon academics for fear of being pressured. I have come to realize, though, that all the pressure I feel, that all the people who have such great expectations for me, do not change the fact that I am ultimately pursuing academics for myself. I follow both paths because I want to, it just so happens that one path is thronged with people urging me on, while the other is a quieter walk through a forest of my thoughts.
All of this ties in with the second seed for today’s entry, a recent exchange of e-mails with David. After my last entry, a mediocre effort at best, I wrote him a lengthy e-mail regarding one of his recent musings. I received a reply the next day in which he chastised me for wasting my creative energies on an e-mail when I could have used them to write an entry far more interesting than what was currently sitting at the top of the stack here at Liminality. So I have decided to take an idea from my original e-mail, as well as some additional thought sparked by his subsequent reply, and weave them into the discussion here today.
One of the things we discussed was the nature of genius (or at least part of the nature of genius). Many famous writers produced their best work when they were in an “abnormal” state (Poe comes to mind, for example). There is just something about true genius that isn’t quite right—something that almost guarantees that the possessor of this genius will not be fit for polite company. David explained it in part by saying that the intense focus and concentration it requires to be really good at anything wreaks havoc on the rest of your life. While I don’t disagree with that, I think that speaks more of the behavior of genius than the nature of genius. I don’t view the genius as a product of the behavior, but the behavior as a product of the genius. In other words, there is something in that person’s disposition that makes them just a little off, and that something is the root of their genius—the behavior is just an outward manifestation of this. Then again, this is related to the nature vs. nurture argument, and I don’t think I’m prepared to throw myself wholly into one camp or the other, but I will say that I believe nature plays a large part in genius.
Perhaps you can see how this ties in to what I was talking about above. True genius—true greatness—means being imbalanced. In other words, you can be truly great at having your cake, or you can be truly great at eating your cake, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. (I’m terribly sorry about mangling that quote, but not quite sorry enough to edit it out.) To apply this to my own situation, if I want to be a truly great academic, I may not be able to be a great writer, and vice versa. I suppose that there are some flukes of nature out there who can be both, but given the fundamental conflict between the two I discussed above, I think the number would be very few. Even Tolkien, I think, was more a writer—more a dreamer—than he was an academician.
If the choice were put to me—be a genius writer or a genius academic—what would I do? In such black and white terms, the answer seems simple: I would choose genius in writing. That would certainly disappoint a lot of people, but that is where my heart lies. All those potentially disappointed souls, though, can take heart in the fact that the choice is not mine. And I would consider myself blessed if I could achieve anything approaching genius in either field, to be honest.
I think I have reached the end of the entry. I did not start out with a solid idea of what I wanted to write, which is good because then I don’t have to worry about letting myself down. What comes out comes out. This kind of entry, though, tends to end rather abruptly. I am sailing along smoothly when suddenly I reach the end of the ocean of my thoughts and realize that I’m finished. I don’t think I’ve said everything there is to say on the subject, but I feel I’ve said enough for today.