Fictionalizing Your Scholarship

Writing a novel is hard to do well, but it can serve as a powerful way to share your research with a wider audience

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

October 13, 2014

How does writing a novel fit into an otherwise standard scholarly career? For Bruce Holsinger and Lucy Pick, scholars in medieval studies, the answer is: pretty well, actually. Not only does their scholarship serve their fiction writing, but the reverse is true as well.

Both Pick, director of undergraduate studies and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, and Holsinger, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, have published significant scholarly works. But this year, they added first novels to their CVs.

Pick’s novel, Pilgrimage (Cuidono Press), involves a journey from Northern Europe to Santiago de Compostela. The main character, Gebirga of Flanders, is mostly fictional, but she becomes involved in the production of a very real book, the Codex Calixtinus.

A Burnable Book (HarperCollins), by Holsinger, also focuses on a manuscript, the Liber de Mortibus Regum Anglorum (Book on the Death of English Kings). While Pick offered a fictional character and a real book, Holsinger does the reverse: The Liber de Mortibus is fictional, while his protagonist is the very real and famous author John Gower.

The literary world is filled with unemployed and underemployed Ph.D.’s who have found themselves as novelists instead of as professors. Meanwhile, lots of academics have unpublished novels buried in their desk drawers or computers. But it’s relatively rare for working professors to publish novels, under their own names, related to their academic expertise.

Writing fiction is hard to do well, but it can serve as a powerful way for scholars to share their research and engage with a broader audience.

I spoke with both Pick and Holsinger and asked them about the process of becoming novelists while holding down academic jobs.

Pick’s decision to write fiction began not long after she published her first monograph, Conflict and Coexistence: Archbishop Rodrigo and the Muslims and Jews of Medieval Spain (University of Michigan Press, 2004). Like most academic books, Pick noted dryly, it did not leap to the top of the best-seller list or find a wide popular audience. She hadn’t expected that it would, but the experience left her thinking about all the knowledge she had accumulated about medieval Spain and medieval culture and what else she might do with it. She had all these wonderful stories and wanted to tell them in a form that might reach more people.

So she wrote a novel. And she couldn’t find a publisher for it. So she wrote a second novel. It, too, didn’t attract a publisher, but in the process, her first novel suddenly found a buyer. Cuidono Press put out Pilgrimage this past summer.

Unlike Pick, who always wanted to set her fiction in medieval times, Holsinger never wanted to do that. After he finished his first scholarly book, he wrote a modern military thriller linked to the Kosovo crisis (which does, of course, have medieval echoes). The novel was terrible, he said. Next he wrote a literary thriller about a lost play by Sir Thomas More. That manuscript landed him an agent but not a publisher. The agent suggested that perhaps he could write something set in the time period he studies.

Despite having spent years studying the literary world of medieval London, Holsinger felt he lacked the knowledge to set a novel there. That’s an important perspective: Scholarship, in many ways, requires less holistic knowledge than does historical fiction. In research, you can avoid asking questions about aspects of a society that you aren’t studying. I’m not saying a historical novel requires more research than a monograph does. Rather, as academics, we should recognize the degree of difficulty of what both Holsinger and Pick have done in achieving breadth of knowledge in a field after years of dedicating their professional lives to depth in a particular subfield.

Each of the two novels offers a distinct vision of medieval life. Both authors carefully deploy both invention and fact to erode myths about medieval people and society.

Pick describes the Middle Ages as "modernity’s closet," an imagined past from which we distance ourselves. For her, too many depictions of the period rely on horror and savagery or else depict a simplistic golden age of pure faith and chivalry. In Pilgrimage, she presents a textured view of medieval religion, explores the opportunities and limitations for women in that era, and filters it all through the experience of a character who is blind. Gebirga, the main character, leads the reader through the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations of the medieval world. Pick’s novel dabbles in magical realism, letting the miraculous and sacred pierce through to the mundane and political. It isn’t fantasy, but an attempt to describe the whole of the medieval world, especially for pilgrims, as they would have believed it to be.

In contrast, Holsinger believes in grit. His London is a city of blood, semen, and savage realpolitik, with crowded bureaucracies and an angry church. In the halls of power, those who aren’t corrupt are compromised. It all seems terribly modern, and that is Holsinger’s point. We believe that complex political infighting, lawyers, and bureaucracy are aspects of the modern—or at least Renaissance—world. That’s a perception based on myth rather than historical truth. He gives us killers, lawyers, and manipulative bastards all shaped by their historical period, but who are also fully complex humans. He wants to break down the centuries of mythmaking about the Dark Ages. If those ages were dark, the novel suggests, so is today, and so is every era in which humans murder and betray for profit and power.

These novels are clearly a form of academic public engagement. The role of public engagement and the nature of the modern public intellectual have been subjects of debate in recent months, both here in The Chronicle and much more broadly. Novels, culturally accepted as serious works, provide an interesting case study in how scholars can reach a wider audience.

Both Holsinger and Pick have received ample support from their universities for their fictional endeavors. Pick’s position requires scholarly production, but her dean was more than willing to count her novel as a component of her professional portfolio. That was an easy decision, in part because her novels emerge from, and link back to, her scholarly work. Pick told me that she has clear plans for her next novel, but that she needs to write another monograph first, so that she has the scholarly background for her fictional world.

Holsinger, too, has found the shift into his new identity as academic novelist seamless. But then, as he points out, he belongs to an English department with a creative-writing program. His department is packed with scholars who already valorize novels, as, indeed, does academic culture more generally. He has a second late-medieval novel, The Invention of Fire, on gunpowder and murder, coming out next year, even as he works on a scholarly project involving liturgy and literature.

And that’s the point. As academics, we don’t have to choose. We can pursue our curiosity, a phrase that Pick used to describe the culture of her institution, without abandoning our identities as scholars. In fact, through making it possible to engage the broadest possible audience, we might even find ways to reinforce support for traditional scholarship and teaching. After all, both Pilgrimage and A Burnable Book, based on deep research and scholarly expertise, have the potential to reach people on a scale that is unthinkable for more overtly academic publications.

Then some of those readers may end up in our classrooms, ready to learn more.

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog, How Did We Get Into This Mess. His Twitter hanadle is @Lollardfish.