Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fiction by Academics

Dear Rejecter,

The ground is thick with rumors that literary agents HATE novels by academics, and automatically throw queries from such creatures in the reject pile. Any wise advice to aspiring novelists inhabiting the ivy-covered groves?

I can't think of why we would have anything against a good novel written by an academic. In fact, if the subject manner is similar to your academic studies, then it's a boost.

It's true that work by academics can naturally be very dry, because that's the way papers and articles are written, and it's the way we're taught to write. I once was graded down on a history paper for being "too exciting" in college, which was part of my decision not to pursue a PhD in history and instead go into writing. However, this is certainly not true of all academics, and many who write well have sold extremely well, as the non-fiction market is very strong.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'll add to this and say that no one ever said anything to me when I was shopping my mystery about not wanting fiction by academics, though I certainly heard that they didn't want fiction about academics. That can be a difficult distinction to hear when someone is saying "thanks, but no thanks," but it's a very important one.

The Rejecter said...

Most agencies either specialize in cozies (academics solving mysteries, old ladies solving mysteries, small town police psychics solving mysteries) or immediately reject them. Generally one or the other.

Anonymous said...

The Da Vinci Code is about an academic solving a mystery, but it's definitely not a cozy.

Also, wasn't Brown a college English teacher for a while?

And when the heck IS is next book coming out, anyway? I only ask because I want to steer my debut FAR clear of that date.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rejecter,

If I e-mailed you a list of 30 agencies could you tell me if you were at one of those agencies or not, without saying which one?

Anonymous said...

Odd. I suppose it depends on the academic in question, and what he or she is writing about. If they are an expert in a particular field, then that's a selling point. II'm right now thinking about "Final Theory" by Mark Alpert which was reviewed in the Times recently. Though I'm not sure he counts as an academic, but a thriller by an first time novelist surely wouldn't get mentioned in the Times if he weren't a science columnist for Nature...)

But if the academic in question is going to write, as you say, in an academic way and refuse to conform to the commercial market then I could see why some agents wouldn't want to work with them.

--Emily

The Rejecter said...

6:18.

No. Sorry.

Sminthia said...

What a well-timed post! I hold a PhD in microbiology and just landed my first book deal last week...for a novel.

Some PhDs have lives outside the lab.

Maggie said...

I can see where the author of the letter got this from: Editors don't like academics because A LOT of times, they can't write. But I wouldn't stereotype all academics as being unable to write, and I wouldn't discourage any of them from querying, if they had a good enough novel.

Elissa M said...

Asimov was an academic and he wrote a few novels to go with his many nonfiction tomes.

Anonymous said...

sminthia,

What's your novel about--is it a Roin Cook kind of hting or what? Title? Cna I buy it yet? Me big thrilla fan, techno-, medical, science....bring it on.

Anonymous said...

I'm an academic and I'm a pretty good academic writer: dry and to the point. No frills. I also fancy myself a pretty good writer of poetry and stories for children. I think a lot of academics are hiding some emotional writing beneath a dry exterior. In fact, most of the academics I know have a lot of emotions boiling just under the surface.

Of course, in my submissions, I leave off the PhD.. I wouldn't want to hurt my chances. Besides, I think it's a bit pretentious to add it when it's not relevant...and in the case of my academic area vs. my current writing interests, it is definitely not relevant

professionalquiller said...

While it is true that academics are not trained to write for a commercial market, I don't think you can say that academics can't learn to write fiction. After all, they were trained to write for other academics.

If it's true that some agencies and publishers discount submissions from academics, I'm not the least bit surprised. Given the volume of submissions the average agent or editor has to review, it stands to reason that individuals may have developed a rule of thumb to help winnow the slush pile. Sometimes it seems there are more rules of thumb than actual thumbs involved in publishing.

anonymous for ironic effect said...

Dudes, what's with all the anonymi? You all believe that guy from the last post who claims attributed comments aren't credible, or what?

The Rejecter said...

Some people don't have blogger accounts, so they have to leave their comments anonymously.

Will said...

I would think that being an academic would actually help certain novels. I was an academic, sold my first book and all that. Because my novel is set on a college campus, I would assume that my first-hand experience on a, ya know, college campus was enticing to editors.

The first comment regarding fiction "about" academics versus "by" academics is noted; literature these days is really about "characters the reader can root for," and academics are not often high on that list. That said, high-concept stuff is big right now. In the thriller genre and elsewhere, you're seeing academic ideas (forensics, mathematics, philsophical-related stuff) all over pop culture, and some of these books/tv shows/movies are very much about academics.

I think it's a non-issue. Good ideas are good ideas, whether they're spawned by academics or garbage collectors or elder statesmen.

Love the blog,
Will Lavender

jk said...

Sorry about that. I'm Anonymous 2:03am. As an academic I'm naturally paranoid, but more importantly, I'm not a careful reader. I didn't see where we could put our name.

jeanne

Maggie said...

All academics think they're good writers.

Anonymous said...

Anyone with a computer thinks they're a good writer.

Anonymous said...

I've heard this before too. I even know an agent who rejected the department head of a large University because he thought the characters in her novel were "wooden". The exact word he used. And this department head was recommended by a client.

Personally, I think everyone deserves a chance without being pre-judged because of what they do for a living. And I like to think most agents feel that way too.

Sheramy said...

I love the way 'academics' are being lumped together as if we are an alien species. Um, well, maybe we kind of are. ;-)

I have a PhD in the discipline of my novel, am a professor in that field, and said so when I was looking for an agent. I had no prior published fiction. Happily, I got an agent, and I got a sale. Whether anybody doubted from reading my query letter that an academic could write a novel, I don't know. But it's true it was very, VERY hard dropping the professor voice and finding the character's. I read many craft-books and wrote many drafts. Any academic who thinks writing a novel is easy compared to 'real scholarship' (and I'm sure there are plenty of those) has never tried it!

Rejecter, I had a similar experience to yours in college: a prof told me I 'had a tendency to veer into overblown prose' on a research paper. (I thought I was just being creative.) But I had the opposite reaction: I opted to go for the PhD, head for the tenure track, and stopped writing fiction for 15 years. I'm glad I saw sense and made time for fiction-writing in the end. Not only does it bring me much joy and give me a new way of engaging with my subject, I think it's enhanced my scholarly writing too.

2:03 anonymous/jeanne is right--a lot of academics have all kinds of things boiling beneath the surface! (And we're also all paranoid--I had to laugh at that remark. SO true.)

Meanwhile, when I read mysteries *about* academics, I always wonder how they have time to solve anything when there are papers to grade and faculty meetings to sit through!

AJ said...

When I go through slush, finding out the writer is an academic doesn't put me off. It's when they shove it in my face as if just by being an academic, they are automatically a wonderful writer; you know, the ones whose biographical information takes up more of the query than the description of their novel. Of course, they're not the only ones who do that, but I think because they study certain subjects so closely that they're more likely to ramble on about them.

Katharine said...

One of my guilty pleasures is reading a mystery series about a retired professor, written by a retired professor. Why the guilt? Because it's poorly plotted and poorly edited, and gives me hope that my novel can also be published someday.

(But I'm not usually so openly snarky.)