5 Reasons Why You Should Get a PhD and Not an MFA

When querying an agent, what should you include in your letter? The answers to that question are as many as there are literary agents. But one thing that most responses have in common is, If you have an MFA (in creative writing), mention that. At first I was intimidated by this. I don’t have an MFA. But then I realized that I have something better.

I have a PhD.

If you want to become a writer, especially a writer of historical fiction, in my opinion a PhD is a wiser way of spending your money.

Here are five reasons why.

1) Language and style.
In historical science a writer’s language and style are of utmost importance. Historical science is dedicated to the study of human activities through the written word. These studies are conveyed to the rest of the human population through the writings of the historian. Language and style are important in historical science because if an historian abuses his/her privilege as a scholar, historical facts can be distorted, as in the case of Holocaust deniers and believers in exogenesis. Therefore, when writing historical research, the scholar needs to choose his/her words very carefully, consequently developing a close relationship to the written language.

2) Editing.
When writing a research article or a dissertation, the scholar needs to be able to determine what pieces of information are important to the argument and what pieces are not. Moreover, all academic publications, except perhaps the dissertation, are limited to the amount of words allowed. Whenever submitting an article or a chapter, you need to follow the guidelines of the editor or the publisher. If an article cannot exceed a certain amount of words, that rule becomes your law. Moreover, that limit often includes the footnotes and references, as well as the actual text.

Daguerrotype of unidentified woman, possibly Mrs. Knox Walker, c. 1844
Photographer: Mathew B. Brady (c. 1823–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Daguerrotypes

3) Thick skin.
Just like the publishing business, the world of academia can be both tough and rewarding. While writing your dissertation, your results will be heavily criticized by people who care about you and by people who don’t give a damn about you. Your research results will be scrutinized in minutest detail, questioned and picked apart. These reactions can have just as much to do with the quality of your work as they can be completely unrelated to anything you have written. As a graduate student you will learn how to discern the honest critics from those who play at politics. And you will learn how to incorporate the criticism in your work and improve it.

4) You will be published.
The question of graduate students publishing research while still working on their dissertation differs from university to university and from country to country. During my years as a graduate student I published several articles while I was working on my dissertation. By doing that I learned how to submit manuscripts, deal with editors, and, most importantly, wait for editors. When I graduated, the dissertation became my first book.

5) You have proven yourself.
When you graduate and receive your doctorate, it is the same as if you would become a master craftsman. You have created something and been rewarded. You have been allowed entrance to a community of peers. If you have a PhD in history with the ambition of writing historical fiction, the PhD is your ticket to archives, libraries, universities and university faculty expertise. You do not need to convince them of your skills. Your PhD will take you wherever you want to go. And once you get to the archive or library where your source material is located, you know how to find your way among the shelves and the documents. You know how to conduct sustainable research.

Crimean War cavalry camp, 1855
Photographer: Roger Fenton (1819–1896)
Source: Library of Congress, Fenton Crimean War Photographs

Graduate studies are tough. There is a reason why I say that my dissertation was written in blood, sweat and tears. At the same time, writing my dissertation and receiving my doctorate was the best thing I have ever done. Graduate school may be hard and demanding, but it is a safe haven where you are allowed to fail and pick yourself up again. You are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, it is expected of you. When you graduate you have already gone through many of the emotional ups and downs of writing and publishing. When the agent doesn’t respond to your query or when a book critic tears your work to pieces, you will doubt yourself, your heart will be broken, but you know that you have the strength to continue. Because you have been there before.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return. 

John Steinbeck’s Chinese Housekeeper

Previously on The Boomerang I have written about John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. I decided to read the novel because, many years ago, I saw the movie, starring James Dean as the emotionally conflicted Cal. I have now read the novel and absolutely agree with those who say it is an American literary masterpiece. However, after finishing the book, I began comparing it to the movie. Something was not right. And then I realized what bothered me. The most important character in the book had not made it into the movie. That character is the Trask family’s Chinese housekeeper, Lee.

James Dean as Caleb in East of Eden (1955)
Source: Trailer screenshot

East of Eden is a novel about Adam Trask and his family. Adam marries Cathy and moves to California with her. After the birth of their twin boys – Caleb and Aaron – she abandons Adam and her children, leaving him to raise the twins. Adam, however, distraught by Cathy leaving him (and shooting him in the shoulder when he refuses to let her go), totally neglects his children. Instead, they are taken care of by Lee, who develops such a close relationship with the boys that Cantonese, instead of English, nearly becomes their first language.

Lee becomes a member of the Trask household when Adam is looking to hire a cook. Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants. His mother died when he was born. In the book, Lee is the only character with a college education (University of California) but when we are first introduced to him, he speaks broken English as a strategy not to intimidate people around him. He translates Chinese poetry into English as a pastime and he is rarely seen without a book.

John Steinbeck and President Lyndon B Johnson, 1966
Source: LBJ Library and Museum

As the story progresses, Lee becomes the anchor in the Trask household. The boys grow older and Adam continues to have problems connecting with them emotionally. When there is a conflict in the household, communication between father and sons go through Lee. Lee is the only person who can speak the truth to both Adam and Aaron and Caleb. Lee is the first person to see Aaron’s girlfriend, Abra, for who she truly is. When the relationship with her own father crumbles, Lee develops into a father figure for Abra.

Lee is also responsible for the Biblical theme that runs through a substantial part of the book. When Lee and Adam, with their mutual friend Samuel, discuss what to name the boys, they base their discussion on Genesis and the rivalry between Cain and Abel. The one to push the discussion forward and make it more complex and analytical is Lee. Later on, Lee again brings up the subject of Cain and Abel. He has discovered discrepancies in the English translation of different Bible editions. Because of this he asked his family elders for help. They, in turn, began to study Hebrew and consulted a rabbi. The result of this exegetic exercise forms the backbone of the final section of the novel and even becomes the last spoken line in the entire story.

All of this has been removed from the movie adaptation because of the exclusion of Lee. The movie is a good work of art in and of itself, but, as I suspected when I first saw it, much has been left out from the original story. Instead of being a family chronicle steeped in the multicultural society of early Californian settlement, rife with religious symbolism, East of Eden the movie is a melodrama centered around an all-white cast where the anchor has been lost at sea.

Perhaps it is time for a remake.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

John Steinbeck East of Eden (Penguin, 2002)
East of Eden

The images of James Dean and John Steinbeck were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Sleepy Hollow, Starbucks and the American Revolution

In the preview for the upcoming TV-show Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, newly awakened from a slumber lasting more than two hundred years, reacts to the number of Starbucks there are. It is clear that what surprises him isn’t Starbucks as such, but the large amount of coffee shops on each block. The historian in me immediately asked, how plausible would it be for Ichabod Crane to be familiar with the concept of Starbucks? Then I realized the stupidity of my own question. Of course Ichabod Crane would be familiar with it. It’s a coffeehouse!

The TV-series Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on the story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written by Washington Irving (1783–1859). Irving is best known today for two of his short-stories of which Sleepy Hollow is one, the other one being Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle were first published in the same story collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820), and are based on themes found in German folktales.

Portrait of Washington Irving (1809) by John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of the not-so likeable schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, who moves to the small town of Sleepy Hollow. Being poor, Crane’s purpose in life is his own self-advancement. Therefore, he begins courting Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and heiress of a local, wealthy farmer. Crane’s rival is Abraham Van Brunt. Knowing that Crane has come to believe in the local lore of ghost stories, Van Brunt decides to play tricks on Crane. One late night, on his way home from Katrina Van Tassel’s, Crane is pursued by a seemingly headless horseman. This incident is so distressing for the schoolteacher that Ichabod Crane is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor (1801–1881)

Washington Irving published The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1819-1820, but the story is considered to take place in the 1790s. Although not much of the original story seems to have been brought into the upcoming TV-series, the fact remains that the Ichabod Crane, who reacted to the amount of Starbucks on each block, is a man who lived during the eighteenth century. Him being able to relate to the concept of Starbucks is therefore not a surprise.

The reason for this is that in eighteenth-century North America, the coffeehouse was an integral part of the social life of free, white males. It was at the coffeehouse that such men gathered to gossip, to socialize, to debate, to do business and to receive the latest news.

The North American coffeehouse is part of a way of socializing, introduced into Europe with the introduction of coffee, which came from the Middle East and North Africa by way of Venice. Not long after coffee had been introduced in an area, coffeehouses began appearing and came to play an important part in politics and business. For example, the world’s largest insurance company, Lloyd’s, began as a coffeehouse in London.

Roasted coffee beans
Source: GOELE

The North American coffeehouses were important during the struggle for Independence from the British Empire (1776–1784). Because of their function as arenas for politics, debate, business and socializing, it was at the coffeehouses that decrees from the British government were read to the public. And it was at the coffeehouses that the public voiced their concerns regarding these decrees. Moreover, once the Declaration of Independence had been signed, it was first read to the public at the Merchant Coffee House in Philadelphia.

Today, the continuation of the tradition of the North American coffeehouse as a public arena for business and socializing can be witnessed in places such as Starbucks. When you walk in to order your hot beverage of choice, you will see people engaged with their laptops, college textbooks or attending a business meeting. If the North American coffeehouses of the twenty-first century will become arenas for the initiation of a revolution is doubtful. However, drinking coffee is in itself a revolutionary act. The Patriots of the eighteenth-century chose coffee over tea to demonstrate their opposition to the British Empire.

I will watch Sleepy Hollow when it begins airing on September 16. The preview looked interesting enough to give it a shot. Also, John Cho is part of the cast, which of course is a bonus.

If you are interested in the role of coffeehouses as meeting places for revolutionaries, go to the blog post Lenin Never Lived in Vienna.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Benjamin L Carp Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2007)
Britannica.com Washington Irving
Britannica.com The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Britannica.com Ichabod Crane
Britannica.com Coffee
International Coffee Organization The Story of Coffee
Sleepy Hollow

The images in this blog post have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
This blog post is featured at Suvudu Universe.

Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

There are some books that are eye-openers. They hold the promise of a good read and then they end up being so much more.

My previous blog post was on the topic of historical science in science fiction. The books that made me realize the possibilities, and relevance, of connecting the two were those included in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation-trilogy where the science of psychohistory plays a vital part.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) was born in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of three. He pursued a career of a university professor of biochemistry while he simultaneously was a highly prolific science fiction author. Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics and in 1966 received the Hugo Award for best all-time science fiction series for Foundation.

The plot in the Foundation-trilogy centers around so-called Seldon Crises. A Seldon Crisis is a crisis in society which has been mathematically predicted by Hari Seldon within a scientific discipline called psychohistory. Asimov’s psychohistory is not the same thing as can be found in historical biographies written from a psychoanalytic perspective, utilizing methodologies and theories as brought forward by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Instead, Asimov defines psychohistory as follows.

Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a billiard ball. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Foundation and Empire (2010) p. 205)


Psychohistory was the quintessence of sociology; it was the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations. [—] The individual human being is unpredictable, but the reaction of human mobs, Seldon found, could be treated statistically. The larger the mob, the greater the accuracy that could be achieved. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Second Foundation (2010) p. 411)

What these quotes demonstrate is that psychohistory in Foundation is quantitative methodology and historical determinism taken to its extreme. Let me explain.

To explain certain developments in society, historical science uses what is called quantitative methods, most often in the form of statistics. When doing so, the main subject of historical research, the human being, is reduced to a number that can be used in mathematical calculations. By using statistics the historian can explain patterns of, for example, mortality and nativity and how these patterns changed throughout history. The peak of quantitative methods within historical science came in the 1970s and 1980s when seemingly everything could be explained through statistics. For example, the role played by the development of the US Postal Service in the emergence of towns and cities in North America during the 18th century was explained through the use of quantitative methods.

Historical determinism means that history is set on a predetermined course that was decided at the outset of the development of human society. This determined course of development cannot be changed. For example, Marxism, created by Karl Marx (1818–1883), is a historically based theory which is deterministic. According to Marxism, society develops in predictable stages where the slave societies of Rome and Greece by necessity were replaced by the feudalism of the Middle Ages which by necessity was replaced by industrial capitalism of the modern era which by necessity will be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, in other words Communism. That a parallel can be drawn between Marxism and Seldon Crises is not a coincidence. Asimov took the totalitarian ideologies of his time – Communism, Fascism, and Nazism – and extrapolated them into space.

Asimov’s psychohistory also leads one to think of the theory of structures, which divides human actions in two categories: subject versus object, with emphasis on object. In psychohistory, it is not the individual human being, the subject, that is of interest but the masses of human beings. When human beings are referred to as masses, all the individuals that constitute the human masses become objects. Objects lack free will and their behavior can be predicted by analyzing the structures that uphold human society.

What is interesting about Asimov’s psychohistory and its mathematically predicted Seldon Crises, is that it indicates that time is both linear and absolute. History can only develop in one direction, namely forward. And there is only one chronology that is possible, namely a clock ticking from one Seldon Crisis to the next. Asimov wrote the first Foundation short-story in 1941. By that time the Theory of Relativity was established among scholars and the ideas of a linear and absolute time, which had permeated the natural sciences for centuries, had been abandoned.

After he had finished writing Foundation, Asimov continued to keep an eye on history and how human beings related to it. This fact can be demonstrated by a quote from his book And the Gods Themselves…

[…] there are no happy endings in history, only crisis points that pass.
(Asimov, The Gods Themselves ([1972] 1990) p. 292)

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation Foundation and Empire Second Foundation
(Everyman’s Library, 2010).
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves (Doubleday/Bantam Books, 1990).
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration (University of California Press, 1984).
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998).
Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information. The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840 (Harvard University Press, 1973).

This post has also been published at Suvudu Universe.

Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History

In his essay “Farther Away”, Jonathan Franzen discusses how he, during his life as a writer, has come to experience his own life as a story. The way he expresses his relationship to his own story made me think about how we, as human beings, relate to history. It made me ask the question: When does history begin?

Franzen writes as follows:

Even at fifteen, in Idaho, I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it, and now, all the more so, the stories that mattered to me were the old ones – selected, clarified – in retrospect. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

What Franzen discusses is his relationship to the past, in this case his own past. For him to relate to his past, Franzen states that a certain time has to pass before stories can be told based on his life experiences. Franzen’s relationship to his past is similar to the relationship of the historian to history.

Simply put, history consists of all events that have occurred in the past. However, although the terms “history” and “past” are used more or less interchangeably, they do not refer to the same thing. The past consists of events that have already taken place. History is the interpretation of those events.

If history and the past are different things, the consequence of such a statement would be that only sections of the past are included in history.

History is the academic research discipline that interprets and organizes the past with the purpose of increasing our understanding of it.  Swedish historian Göran B Nilsson has called history “retrospective process analysis”, which indicates that for history to be written, a course of events in the past needs to have been finalized so that the process as a whole can be interpreted. In the words of Franzen: “[…] selected, clarified – in retrospect.” Put together, the statements of Nilsson and Franzen would indicate that the answer to the question when history begins would be that a period of time needs to have passed between the present and the completion of the process of which the event was a part.

In other words, history seems to begin in the near past. However, such a conclusion can only be reached if one writes history backwards. Here on this blog I have argued for the necessity of writing history forwards. Consequently, the search for the beginning of history needs to be undertaken at a different place in time.

Rune stone at Botkyrka Church, Diocese of Stockholm, Botkyrka kommun.
Source: Håkan Svensson (Xauxa)

The academic discipline of history interprets and organizes the past using written documents. Therefore, the beginning of history is connected to the introduction of writing, but the introduction of writing is not equal to the beginning of history. For history to happen, society needs to be literate. In other words, society needs writing to function. Furthermore, enough written material needs to have survived to the present day for the historian to be able to perform a systematic analysis of its contents. This is the reason why the Scandinavian Viking Age with its runic scripture is not considered part of history. Viking society was based on an oral culture and the writings that have been left behind for us to read are mostly short statements, for example on rune stones or weapons. These messages tell us about the people who inhabited Scandinavia during the seventh through tenth centuries, but they do not convey enough information for a process analysis to take place. Consequently, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, when literacy is introduced through the conversion of the region to Christianity.

Scroll for Zhang Dong (c.1100).
Current location: Princeton University Art Museum

If history begins when a society can be said to have become literate, it would mean that history begins at different points in time in different parts of the world. As stated above regarding the Scandinavian Viking Age, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, in this case dated to the middle of the eleventh century. Compared to, for example, China, Scandinavian history is short, due to the fact that China has been a literate society for so much longer.

In conclusion, history can be said to begin both in the distant past and in the near past. It begins in the distant past when a society turns to literacy to function. It begins in the near past because for a process to be interpreted, that process, or at least parts of it, needs to have reached some kind of conclusion. Or as Franzen said:

[…] I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it […]. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Jonathan Franzen Farther Away (Picador, 2012)
Göran B Nilsson “Historia som vetskap”, Historisk Tidskrift 2 (2005) pp. 189–207

Images of the Botkyrka run stone and the scroll for Zhang Dong have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.