This is Part Two of the story of my doctorate—the who, why, when, what, and how of it—based on questions from readers on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. It is in five parts:
- Opportunity: How I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
- Decision: Why I wanted a PhD by Published Work
- Choice: Who, how, and when of choosing supervisor/subject/university
- Experience: What challenges (personal and academic) I faced and how I solved them
- Future: What impact a PhD may have on my writing, and more
For context you might want to read the PhD thesis first, or at least the abstract. If you have more questions, use the comments.
I write to find out. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. The PhD was no different: I wrote my thesis to find out what I do in my fiction, exactly, and how.
I also write to change the world, one reader at a time. I don’t pretend to be all-wise and all-seeing, but I do have a perspective I want to share, which is that women and other aliens—queer people, people of colour, disabled people, poor people—are people. We are and expect to be treated as human beings.
Occasionally at readings and events, and by email, a reader approaches and tells me that a novel—Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always (it has not yet happened with Hild)—kept them alive, either by giving them a reason to live or showing them how to survive a particular situation. They say: Your book saved my life. I’m a writer but I am not adequate to the task of explaining how that affects me. My work has saved lives, individual human lives; individual histories and futures—breaths and recipes and relationships—that continue to exist because of words I set down. To save a life is an enormous thing. I needed to understand how and why my work does that.
In addition to the enormity of saving lives, many more readers have told me my books have changed their lives. Still others have told me my work has changed their perspective. I needed to understand that, too.
I’ve always known that what makes my work different was related to the way I write women and other aliens, the way I exclude the kinds of pain and suffering often associated with belonging to a traditionally marginalised group. My main characters are all queer women, and none are raped, threatened with rape or homophobic violence, or discriminated against for being women or queer. As friend and critic, writer, publisher and all-around perspicacious person Timmi Duchamp pointed out in an essay, I exclude certain challenges. Excluding particular oppressions and discourse associated with being a queer woman allows me to include women in the human race: I exclude to include.
Exclude to include was a good beginning but not nearly enough of an explanation. How did I do that exactly? How could I describe that to someone else? It had something to do with triggering mirror neurons to create empathy; it relied on my focus on my main character’s body in her landscape; but I could not quite articulate how everything tied together. I did not have the critical vocabulary.
Researching for a PhD was the opportunity to give myself permission to do nothing but think critically about fiction, particularly my fiction, and how it affects the reader; to gain the critical vocabulary I needed; and to then explore that critical thinking in written form. It was my chance to find out, once and for all, why and how my novels work.
The major factor, then, the driving force behind my decision to embark on a PhD was the same as the impetus behind my fiction: to find out. I explore and experience the world first through my body, but I integrate that somatic knowledge, I contextualise and understand it, by writing. You could say this PhD was a meta-exploration: a chance to find out how my novels find out.
This meta-exploration was not the only factor that weighed in the decision, of course. Part of why I wanted to do this was because I could. I thought it might be seriously cool to be Doctor Griffith. (Spoiler: It is!) I also thought that having some kind of academic credential might make a difference in terms of the occasional teaching gig or grant. (I have not yet tested that.) But two other factors outweighed both.
The first was Hild and the twenty years (so far) of research I’ve undertaken on all things seventh-century. This began in the late 90s when I started idly (I thought) reading an early 20th-century History of Britain. I was puzzled by the Anglo-Saxons. I’d grown up with the Matter of Britain, the myth of the fading-of-civilised-light Romano-British culture overwhelmed by barbaric Anglo-Saxon ignorance. To an extent, this old history book mirrored that tone. But not entirely. I could sense a whole other story moving beneath the surface. Intrigued, I picked up some more recent histories, and read them with interest, and progressed to monographs on things like Anglo-Saxon jewellery, and sixth century mortuary practise. Then I started reading Old English poetry (bad translations at first), and Bede, and then better translations of poetry, and I was hooked. I began to read everything I could lay my hands on. Without academic access I resorted to Interlibrary Loan. Then I began to interact directly with scholars, in person and via social media, about their recent work. After about ten years I began keeping a record of that research in the form of a blog, Gemæcce (currently sadly neglected), and from there talking to scholars about their not-yet-published work. Writing with an academic audience at the back of my mind had a profound impact on how I approached argument. It taught me the value of evidence-based opinion, and the importance of data.
It was that new respect for data that led to my blog post about bias in publishing,
Books about women don’t win big awards: some data. That post, in addition to generating an insane amount of international press, had concrete impact. One direct result is a $50,000 international literary prize to honour women’s voices in prose and scripts. Another is the Toronto-based In Her Voice festival, a “platform to showcase excellence in female authorship.” I was amazed. All that from just one blog post… I couldn’t help wondering what might result from a bigger, more well-funded effort. I began to imagine a data-based research project on the gendered financial bias in publishing—the kind of project that would only be possible with a team of researchers who had the imprimatur of a respectably impartial institution. That’s when I realised that what I really needed was a grant, and a gaggle of graduate students. And, Oh, I thought. I need credentials. I need a PhD.
I wanted a PhD, then, primarily to understand how my work affects readers but also because while researching Hild I fell in love with scholarship for its own sake, and that in turn led to me wanting to be able to undertake a research project on bias in publishing for which I needed credentials.
My primary goal is met. I now know exactly how my fiction does what it does. For the precise, academic explanation, download the PDF of my thesis, Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia. I encourage you to read it; I wrote it make sense to the smart general reader, and if you have questions I’m happy to answer them in the comments. If academic language daunts you, here’s a summary in general terms:
What my novels do is put the experience of the Other at the centre of the story and persuade the reader that being a queer woman is ordinary. I do this by activating certain neural mechanisms in the reader which encourages them to identify with my main characters. To make sure the reader is not popped out of the story but stays engaged, I’m careful to avoid creating an emotional response that might lead them to barrier-up, to distance themselves from people or events in the narrative. I do that by focusing on the main character’s physical experience, her body—how she feels, exactly; what she sees and smells and learns. Most of us have been cold or afraid, so if we read about those emotions described in such a way as to trigger an empathetic response, we can identify with the person feeling them—even if in real life we might not think we would have much in common. That identification changes, temporarily, how we see someone we might normally think of as Other; for a little while we’re all just the same underneath. Because joy is one of the things that opens readers wide to experience (and because I’m a much bigger fan of joy than misery) I make the queer female body a site more of delight than of suffering. And because delight is to me visceral, a thing of the body, and because natural landscape lies at the heart of my primary joy as a writer, my main characters spend a lot of time being physically active outdoors.
In the thesis I use narrative empathy to mean, essentially, persuading the reader to feel and think with the main character. And focalised character means, roughly, main character—the person through whom the reader experiences events. A heterotopia means ‘other place’ and in this context I mean it to indicate a different social ordering, a different cultural rather than geographic space. So far these were all terms I either already knew or encountered or re-encountered in my background reading. Then I took it a step further. My fictional heterotopias were representations of realism that differ from reality in one important respect: the focalised character doesn’t suffer the oppressive crap that we have been told is the lot of queer women the world over—though the other characters might. In other words, in my work the heterotopia applies only to the focalised character. I came up with a new, portmanteau terms: focalised heterotopia. That is what I write.
Over the years I’ve noticed that every reader who has told me my work saved their life, and most of those who say it changed their life, have been marginalised, Othered by the world. What I want my fiction to give these readers is what I want, too: a mirror. I want to see myself represented as a human being who is not oppressed, hunted, or singled out simply for being a woman, or queer, or disabled. I want to see how it might be to live in a world where it’s possible to unfurl and live to one’s full potential, to see who we might become. As a woman, as a queer woman, as a disabled queer woman, I get so tired both of not seeing myself, essentially being told I don’t exist, and of only seeing people like me traumatised, victimised, and afraid. Fuck that. No. In my fiction, the queer women might be in danger for a variety of reasons—politics, say, or money, or because they make some foolish choice—but the danger stems from their active decisions, their omissions or commissions, not from being a victim for no other reason than they are women or queer. When you read my fiction, it’s safe to revel in the body and mind of the main character because that body is never going to be targeted because of how it looks, or what other bodies it likes to look at.
Those who tell me my work has changed their perspective, on the other hand, tend to be those who belong to the groups that might be expected to do the Othering. These are the people who make the rules and police the culture. And because they have read one or more of my books they might do that differently.
I write to find out and I write to change the world. I needed to understand how and why my fiction could do that. Now I do.