Dual Identity: Writing commercial fiction and scholarship under the same name

By Dr Jodi McAlister

In late 2015, when I signed a deal with Penguin for my debut novel Valentine, one question I got asked over and over again was whether I was going to publish it under my own name or use a pseudonym.

At first, I was quite taken aback by this question. I was confronted – a little offended, even. “Of course I’m going to use my own name,” I replied. “It’s my book.”

I had to ask myself a hard question: was I, by publishing fiction under the same name I used for my scholarship, materially damaging my chances of getting an academic job?

“But aren’t you afraid…?” their voices would trail off, and they would gesture futilely, at what I assume was the bleak landscape of the academic job market.

I brushed this question off the first time, but when I’d been asked four or five times, I realised that maybe I did have something to worry about. When I signed that deal with Penguin, I’d graduated with a PhD only a few weeks earlier. I wasn’t employed, but I desperately wanted to be. I had to ask myself a hard question: was I, by publishing fiction under the same name I used for my scholarship, materially damaging my chances of getting an academic job?

Perhaps if I’d graduated with a different kind of PhD then I would not have had to make these calculations. If I’d done a creative writing PhD, then publishing under my own name wouldn’t even be a consideration. But although I wrote Valentine at the same time I wrote my thesis, it was a respite from, rather than a part of, my higher degree research: I did a fully exegetical PhD, spanning the disciplines of English and History.

Likewise, perhaps if I’d written a different kind of novel, then I would not have had to make these calculations. A literary novel, on the resume of a literary studies PhD, would be a boon, not a burden. But Valentine was clearly not literary fiction. It, and its sequel Ironheart, which I sold to Penguin at the same time, were young adult fiction, featuring a paranormal plot with a strong romance arc. That is to say, if we conceive of literary and commercial fiction as a binary (which I don’t, but many do, including those in departments I might potentially have been applying to), then Valentine and Ironheart clearly fell on the commercial end of the spectrum.

Having that dual role as author and scholar of commercial fiction has proven to be a boon, not a burden, because my heightened understanding of the industrial operations of literary culture have influenced both my research and teaching practice.

I was particularly aware that there was a bias against commercial genre fiction in many spheres of literary studies because this was an issue I touched on in my PhD. There, I studied popular romance fiction, and a large part of studying romance is studying the ingrained stigma against it. Romance fiction is a genre with considerable economic capital (it made over a billion dollars in 2013, according to the Romance Writers of America), but little cultural capital, with romance novels ubiquitously dismissed as “trashy”. While some romance authors also had scholarly careers, there were largely pseudonymous: for instance, well-respected American Shakespeare professor Mary Bly wrote romance, but she did so under the name Eloisa James.

While young adult fiction has a little more cultural capital than romance, this was still a decision I had to make. Did I publish under my own name and risk my scholarship, like (potentially) my books, being dismissed as “trashy”, thus also risking making myself unhireable, or did I use a pseudonym?

I took the risk. I used my own name.

Happily, the risk paid off – and better than I ever could have hoped. I imagined that Valentine, Ironheart and their future sequels might be a footnote on my CV, but instead they became a cornerstone. Having that dual role as author and scholar of commercial fiction has proven to be a boon, not a burden, because my heightened understanding of the industrial operations of literary culture have influenced both my research and teaching practice. Understanding how books are produced and circulated has opened my research up to new avenues, and it’s also allowed me to open the eyes of my students in turn. I was pleasantly surprised to find that instead of making me unhireable, having these books on my CV as non-traditional research outputs highlighted the variety and breadth of my skills. Not only did I eventually get hired, I’m convinced that having that explicitly dual identity – living a dual life, with outputs from both my careers under the same name – has made me a stronger scholar.

 


Dr Jodi McAlister is a Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. Previously, she was an Associate Lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania. Her research interests include representations of romantic love in popular culture and the operations of the commercial fiction industry. Her debut novel Valentine was published by Penguin Teen Australia in 2017, with its sequel Ironheart following in 2018. The third book in the series, Misrule, will be published in early 2019.