Normally I post a brief summary of writerly achievements for the week as an accountability exercise, but this has been an unusual week which has given me pause to reflect on where I am as an author and scholar.
Last week, my post-thesis fellowship at my alma mater came to an end. That’s okay. The fellowship served its purpose. The primary intention behind this scheme is to give freshly-minted PhDs the resources they need to publish their doctoral research, and I have achieved that with the release of my book. The difficulty comes in continuing to research afterward. It’s particularly tough as I have several irons in the fire in terms of publications and no longer have full library access at my old institution. This is not an uncommon story for recent PhD graduates, I’m afraid. Unless you are one of the lucky few who lands an academic position quickly, life after PhD can be very tough indeed. I find myself without a formal academic affiliation for the first time since I started my undergrad degree.
But I’m not giving up just yet. Flexibility and adaptability are keys to success.
Long ago, I saw the necessity of building up my career prospects in the world outside academia. The chances of getting a permanent position within academia are pretty dire, particularly in the humanities. Universities churn out far more PhDs these days than there are academic positions available. Once upon a time, I envisioned myself becoming a tenured professor. Yet now that I’m a little more experienced and have responsibilities as a family man, I think staking my future solely upon my academic prospects is a bit like planning to become a rock star. It’s not impossible, but unlikely. A handful of my former classmates have pulled it off, and they are amazing. On the other hand, I’ve also seen people toil in academia for years after achieving the PhD, eking out a meagre existence in the hope that a proper academic job is just around the corner. These are brilliant, talented, and highly skilled people. And yet one can do a lot of things with a PhD in the Humanities outside of academia—it just requires a bit of imagination and a lot of energy, just like with everything else. You don’t have to be an academic drifter if you don’t want to be.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to carve out a niche for myself in the world of curriculum design and support, using my knowledge and skills in unexpected ways. Since finishing the PhD, I’ve moved on to become a professional member of staff at another university. One of the privileges of my position is that I have full library membership. This means access to databases, journals and books. If my new institution doesn’t have a resource, I can request it through an inter-library loan. In other words, I still have resources to continue my scholarly writing career, even if my career is unconventional. I’m very grateful to have this opportunity, and I’m going to make the most of it. This isn’t the end of my relationship with my former institution, either. I maintain ties of friendship with my old faculty, and am still co-authoring a book with one of its members.
A few days ago I had a very productive meeting with a commissioning editor at a major academic publisher. We discussed ideas for future books. All of them are absolutely feasible even without a formal academic position.
So there you have it, folks! For the time being, I’m an independent scholar and lovable rogue.
In last week’s blog post, I mused (okay, pontificated) about the inadequacies of ‘accuracy’ as a framework for understanding historical fiction. This week we turn to the idea of authenticity. Let’s start by defining the concept.
An historically authentic piece of fiction evokes the spirit of a time period and is sympathetic to the source material. It’s the type of historicity which really gets under the skin of a particular time and place. For me, historically authentic historical fiction is analogous to deep world-building within fantasy fiction. Though the author will always make changes for the sake of the story, he or she considers whether or not such changes are plausible within their imagined world. The world must be internally consistent—this is paramount. Nobody is going to believe in the world you construct if it doesn’t play by its own rules.
In my view, one of the keys to authenticity is to go deep into the characters’ viewpoint and show how the age in which they live influences perceptions of reality. How would their social context shape their decisions? Rather than trying to construct the past in a moralising or judgemental way, the storyteller makes a concerted effort to get inside the cultural and (if possible) linguistic context of the period they seek to portray. Going deep into characters’ viewpoint in an historical setting is an act of imagination, of living in what is ultimately another world. And you have to take up residence in that other world, otherwise your protagonists will simply be modern people playing dress-up in historical clothes. The difference between historical authenticity and inauthenticity is like that between living in another country and visiting as a tourist.
One of the greatest benefits of going deep into an historical viewpoint is that it empowers authors to subvert readers’ expectations about a period. It allows you to defy the stereotypes and tell a fresh story. Often, when striving for ‘accuracy,’ we just perpetuate stereotypes which don’t bear scrutiny but adhere to commonly held views of the past. Let’s look at an example. Say you’re writing a novel about a Roman woman of the Third Century AD. Let’s call her Lucia. She’s a freeborn citizen of the Equestrian order, well-educated. Lucia is in an abusive marriage. Time and again I’ve seen the same story play out in narratives set in the Roman world: Lucia has no way out. After all, everybody knows a Roman woman was her husband’s property… right? Certainly, I’ve marked more than one first-year paper that has argued thus. And so we’re stuck with an old trope, and a tired old story in which Lucia stoically endures a tragic life. Usually it’s male novelists who cling to this trope, but that’s another story.
Lucia’s story is kind of drab so far, don’t you think? Yet if we go deeper into the time period we see just how problematic the stereotype really is. The kind of manus marriage in which the woman was basically her husband’s property was disappearing in the Roman world by the Third Century. Divorce was easily available for elite women of the empire, if the legal texts of the jurists are anything to go by. And of course when we look at the evidence of the jurists really carefully, we find all sorts of interesting tidbits about the rights a woman could enjoy during this period, which make for a much more lively story. For instance, according to Gaius Institutes 1.145.194, freeborn women were freed from male guardianship if they had three children. She’s using her social context of the world she knows to her advantage.
So maybe instead of a story of acquiescence to oppression, this becomes one of liberation—Lucia doesn’t have to be the long-suffering matron we’ve met in a squillion historical dramas. Wouldn’t it be great to make her a carefree character who kicks up her heels and starts her own business? Importing, I don’t know, monkeys? Yep, that was a thing. And if we think about the period a little more deeply, complexities in the characterisation arise. Despite her legal rights, Rome was never anything but patriarchal. What manner of opposition might Lucia face? What of her birth family? She would in all likelihood be a slave-owner—how would her own experiences of violence influence the way she disciplines them? Also, a bit of further research reveals a papyrus letter from Roman Egypt, in which a woman has to petition the local prefect to be able to enjoy her right to live without a guardian. Ergo, despite whatever rights Lucia theoretically holds, the fact that she’s got to appeal to have her legal rights upheld tells us volumes.
The storytelling possibilities skyrocket when we throw away the shackles of ‘accuracy’ and instead throw ourselves into the period. One of the strengths of embracing authenticity rather than accuracy as a tool for historical fiction is that it lets the writer present a more nuanced viewpoint. Through deep research and critical engagement with primary sources, you’re empowered to tell a story that’s all your own.
In future weeks, I’d like to explore more aspects of historical authenticity—how, for instance, can an author use deep viewpoint to the best effect? Where does anachronism fit? How do we make dialogue sound historically authentic? Can we ever really escape the influence of the present in our constructions of the past? And when the time is right, I’ll share a bit more about how I apply my own principles in writing my novel, an historical fantasy based on Vergil’s Aeneid.
To all my new subscribers—welcome! It’s lovely to have you here. I’ll get back on my soapbox next week about writing, but for now it’s time for my weekly round-up of writerly achievements.
I’ll be honest, this has been a rough week. It started with my discovery of a nasty setback with my research, which I won’t go into here. After riding high upon the publication of the new book for the last couple of weeks, this brought me crashing back down to Earth, Icarus-style. Dealing with the problem has pretty much been the focus of my week. Well, that and my day job. On the one hand, I haven’t achieved nearly as much as I would like, but on the other, not every week is going to be as amazing as the last two have been. That’s life, and you just have to go with it. This post is all about celebrating the little wins. Kahlil Gibran said it best: ‘In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.’ My silly heart could use some refreshment right now.
Writerly achievements of the week:
Creative and academic writing
Gathered a bit more research material for the Centaur project. Came up with another angle. Think I may have cracked it at last. Am going to start drafting material to be shared with my brilliant co-authors this week.
Wrote a bit more on my Beowulf story. Not happy with what I’ve done, but that’s what drafts are for. Reflecting on it, I managed to figure out what wasn’t working with the scene and devised a solution. This gladdens me mightily. Hint: the scene will now involve some suspicious meat. And a knife. And two trolls. And the Norse god Baldur.
Contributions to the writing community
Read a great novel by a local author. Took it slowly, as I think it deserved the attention to detail. Took lots of notes, as ever. I will post a review—possibly here, though I’ve also been invited to do a guest post at another site and this would fit the bill nicely. I’m firmly of the opinion that writers thrive best in a community where people help each other out, and I’m looking forward to giving this writer a boost.
Online author presence
You know what? It might seem vain or frivolous, but I’m going to celebrate a couple of small wins in the online realm, particularly in the blogosphere and social media. These aren’t so much achievements, I guess, just little causes for celebration. This week I published my most popular blog post yet, and I reached out to some authors whose work I love on Twitter. I’m not going to lie, I felt a bit giddy when they reached back. I also discovered a lot of new authors whose work I hadn’t yet encountered, and am really looking forward to reading it.
I’m pleased though bewildered that I now have about 114 Twitter followers and it continues to grow, especially as I’ve only just recently joined Twitter.
On academia.edu, I was amazed to get an email saying that since I posted the cover and blurb of my academic book I’ve shot to the top 4% of scholars viewed for the month. I’m not going to confuse validation with love, but finding a following online is a new experience for me and I think I’m allowed to enjoy it.
And on a sentimental note…
My copies of the academic book arrived! It’s real, it’s solid, it’s in my hands, and I can finally show it to people. My oldest son, aged seven, watched me open the parcel. He didn’t quite know the significance of the moment; it was exciting enough that we got a package. I asked him if he could read the front cover—when he got to my name, he was apoplectic with excitement.
He clapped his hands. ‘You wrote this book, Dad? Wow!’ Then he frowned and looked at the pile. ‘Why did you get extra books? Are they for a garage sale?’
I smiled. ‘Heh. Hope not. I’m going to give them to a couple of special friends who have helped me to get this done.’
‘To say thank-you. Because I wouldn’t have gotten the book finished if they weren’t there for me.’
He nodded sagely. ‘Everybody needs friends.’ Then he realised Octonauts was on and moseyed off to the lounge room.
What a nice way to end an otherwise not-so-nice week. After all, I wrote the book for my family.
It’s been another mad, mad, mad week. Let’s just jump to it.
Writerly things achieved this week:
Wrote a scene on an audio drama I’m co-writing. The story involves archaeology. And spaceships. And pirates. And ghosts. Things are moving to make the production happen. Recording is going to be a hoot.
Made a bit of progress on the current novel based on Beowulf. I wrote draft 1 ages ago, but after some revisions the first chapter is finally taking a shape I like. Bit by bit, the novel grows. I’m not one of those authors who can belt out thousands of words in a single sitting. For me, it’s more like cultivating a plant. It takes patience. And that’s okay.
Started reading a new book. This one combines two of my great loves: Greek myth and rural Queensland. Yep, you read that right. Can’t wait to share my review.
Surprised to find my Twitter flourishing. Blushed when one of my favourite authors shared one of my tweets. That counts as a little win, right?
Got some superlative news on the publishing front. Thanks largely to the help of my amazing co-author, a new project will be announced soonish. Can’t say too much yet, but we had an idea for a book years ago, which is moving at last from the world of ideas into the world of reality. Watch this space!
Gathered together more research materials for that article on Centaurs, roughed out an argument. Remind self how amazing it feels to be writing on Centaurs. Also learned a bit more about the history of rhetoric. I once had a lecturer tell me that normal people don’t enjoy rhetoric… And, um, I really can’t dispute that point.
Translated a bit more of Palaephatus’s On Unbelievable Tales and Ps. Nicolaus. Surprised at how much I appreciate Palaephatus’s style, but still not convinced that Centaurs aren’t real. Sorry, Palaephatus.
Agreed to write some guest blog posts and contribute to a major international research project on the reception of classics in children’s literature. I can’t wait to share it with you!
Blimey. Honestly, it sometimes feels like I’m not getting enough done, day to day. But when I look back on it like this it doesn’t seem so bad. Huzzah!
I’m thrilled to announce the release of my first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective.
What’s this all about, then?
I’ll let the blurb do the talking.*
Tertullian of Carthage was the earliest Christian writer to argue against abortion at length, and the first surviving Latin author to consider the unborn child in detail. This book is the first comprehensive analysis of Tertullian’s attitude towards the foetus and embryo. Examining Tertullian’s works in light of Roman literary and social history, Julian Barr proposes that Tertullian’s comments on the unborn should be read as rhetoric ancillary to his primary arguments. Tertullian’s engagement in the art of rhetoric also explains his tendency towards self-contradiction. He argued that human existence began at conception in some treatises and not in others. Tertullian’s references to the unborn hence should not be plucked out of context, lest they be misread. Tertullian borrowed, modified, and discarded theories of ensoulment according to their usefulness for individual treatises. So long as a single work was internally consistent, Tertullian was satisfied. He elaborated upon previous Christian traditions and selectively borrowed from ancient embryological theory to prove specific theological and moral points. Tertullian was more influenced by Roman custom than he would perhaps have admitted, since the contrast between pagan and Christian attitudes on abortion was more rhetorical than real.
About the series
Medicine and the Body in Antiquity is a series which fosters interdisciplinary research that broadens our understanding of past beliefs about the body and its care. The intention of the series is to use evidence drawn from diverse sources (textual, archaeological, epigraphic) in an interpretative manner to gain insights into the medical practices and beliefs of the ancient Mediterranean. The series approaches medical history from a broad thematic perspective that allows for collaboration between specialists from a wide range of disciplines outside ancient history and archaeology such as art history, religious studies, medicine, the natural sciences and music. The series will also aim to bring research on ancient medicine to the attention of scholars concerned with later periods. Ultimately this series provides a forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to explore ideas about the body and medicine beyond the confines of current scholarship.
How on earth did I come up with this topic?
Heh, I remember explaining my research to a class once. One undergrad rolled her eyes and said, ‘Well, that’s random.’ I gather this was meant to be a put-down. This is a very specialised topic, though one which has implications for broader society. Perhaps it is best to begin with the story. That’s kind of my thing.
It all started when my wonderful wife and I were expecting our first baby, and we were waiting for our first ultrasound. Right at that moment I was trying to think of a good topic for my PhD research—looking for an area where I could break new ground in a subject which meant something to me. Mostly I was interested in Roman social and literary history, so I figured I’d stay on that path. As we were sitting in the hospital waiting area, my mind put two and two together: how would the Romans would have thought about the foetus and embryo? It’s not like they could see what was going on inside the uterus.
Bing! That was a lightbulb above my head. How did the offspring in utero fit into Roman family life? There was no word in Latin or Greek for ‘foetus’ or ’embryo.’ What did that tell us, if anything? When did the Romans think the soul came into being? Some of the secondary literature I’d read suggested that abortion was a routine occurrence in pagan Rome. Was that really true? I was determined to find out. Oodles had been written on Roman attitudes towards children, but the story generally started at birth. This struck me as odd. After all, parents start to think about their future children long before they set foot in the delivery room.
Flash forward a few months, and I was swamped in research. I’d imagined that I wouldn’t find a lot of source material to work with, but the opposite turned out to be the case. It was clear I needed to focus the research more intensely. Wringing my hands, I went to my supervisors, who suggested the project would be a lot more achievable if it revolved around a single ancient source. Who though? Galen? Hippocrates? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be great to make use of the research I’d already done on Roman social mores and family life? I was curious as to the impact of medical and philosophical theory on Roman conceptualisations of the foetus and embryo.
And that’s how I made the acquaintance of Tertullian—I wouldn’t call him a friend, exactly, though he’s definitely one of the most interesting people I know. Fiery of temper, steeped in rhetoric, extremely well-read in ancient medicine and philosophy, and Roman down to his socks and sandals. Tertullian, as it turned out, was loquacious on the subject of the foetus and embryo. In fact, he was the first Christian source to address the subject at length, though others had touched on it before. Through the eyes of a Roman social historian I was viewing a question which was directly relevant to today’s world: where did Christian opposition to abortion come from?
Wait, what? That’s a pretty controversial topic!
Yes, it is. For good reason—we’re grappling with big issues. There’s no point pretending the history of abortion is not politically contentious. History plays such an important role in determining policies like Roe v Wade. Readings of early Christian sources are always influenced by modern controversy—indeed, this is true of all historical sources.
Over and over I’ve seen Tertullian and other historical figures conscripted as foot-soldiers in crusades for and against abortion. Rather than try to categorise Tertullian as a pro-life or pro-choice author, I aim to give readers a deeper explanation of his views on the subject. In doing so, I’ve made a very deliberate choice not to push any political stance for or against the legality of abortion.
Still, it would disingenuous to act as though I don’t have an agenda. Full disclosure: I seek to give an historical context to allow more informed discussion. One of the great justifications for the academic study of history is that the present informs the past and can thus tell us something about ourselves. For Classical history in particular, it is often claimed that the Greeks and Romans built the foundation of the modern West. On the subject of Christian conceptualisations of the offspring in utero, there is indeed a clear link between modern and ancient thought.
Who is the target market?
Like most academic books, Tertullian and the Unborn Child is primarily marketed and priced for university and college libraries. My research is meant to serve anybody with a scholarly interest in the history of Christian thought concerning abortion. For this reason I wrote the book for a broad academic readership. It will be of use to both specialists and non-specialists in Greek and Roman history.
An extensive preview of Tertullian and the Unborn Child is available via Google Books and Amazon. Here you will find the preface and introduction. It is available to purchase as a hardback or an ebook via the Routledge website and can be ordered through numerous online retailers.
The best place to start is the beginning, unless you’re Homer.
I first fell in love with all things Greek and Roman when I was about eight years old, sitting on the couch with my mum watching the BBC’s wonderful series I, Claudius. The sets might have been shaky, but even to my prepubescent mind the writing was solid. The story had everything: swords and sandals, poisoned mushrooms, Patrick Stewart in a toupee! Thank goodness Mum didn’t stop to consider whether the bloody saga of the Roman imperial family was age-appropriate. My immediate reaction, of course, was to stage my own version of I, Claudius with sock puppets for my third-grade classmates. For the most part, my long-suffering teacher managed to contain her bemusement. The kids cheered, and that’s what counted. Ever since, I’ve been convinced that story-telling is the most powerful means to bring the world of the ancients to life for today’s generation.
At the University of Queensland I leapt into studies of antiquity, striving to master Greek and Latin while working at the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum. You can still find my favourite artefact there. Just a simple clay jug, nothing fancy, but centuries ago somebody picked it up while the clay was still wet. The fingerprints remain visible even today. In the epic poetry of Homer and Vergil I discovered the power of language to sweep readers into the world of gods and magic. Eventually, my doctoral research led me to travels in Europe. Snowflakes swirled all around as I stood in the broken remains of a Roman amphitheatre. Wandering through the ancient ruins, I knew the myths had cast their spell on me. And they have never let go.
After finishing my PhD, I did a brief stint as a high school teacher, hated being called ‘sir,’ and dived into academic and creative writing. I was fortunate enough to achieve a research fellowship at my alma mater. Still, I prefer to call myself an itinerant bard. My first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child, is due to be released by Routledge on 3 March, 2017. I’ve also written a YA historical novel, the first of a trilogy based on Vergil’s Aeneid. The title is Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. Although I remain open to the possibilities of sock puppet theatre as a story-telling medium, historical fantasy is my passion.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll share a bit more about my research, writing, and current projects. Until then, vale.