Academia and Fiction

Yesterday my women/gender/sexualities class had the rare pleasure of speaking (via Skype) with Katherine Frank, author of G-Strings and Sympathy, an anthropological book that argues that men go to strip clubs for a complex set of reasons (which the book goes on to describe and analyze).  I found the book to be incredibly readable – no easy feat for an academic book.  You would be surprised at how many boring books are written about interesting topics.

Our class, like any good graduate seminar, had several concerns with the book.  The full title, “G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire,” is problematic for any person who studies gender or sexuality.  “Male Desire”?  What is it and why do we care?  Also, the book made little reference to “Sympathy” as such, so it seemed odd that Frank would choose that to label her study.  Plus, the cover, which portrays a woman with money tucked into her garter, is … provocative, to say the least.

Frank’s candidly answered our questions.  It turns out she didn’t choose the name or the cover; her publisher did.  Why?  To sell more books of course!  I hadn’t thought that Duke Univ. Press even worried about such matters.  Hyphenated titles and stiff covers are a regular with academic texts.  Besides, they seem to be outside the realm of the market.  They’re rarely sold in normal bookstores, and who can afford hardback university press books besides libraries anyway?

Frank referred to an instance where she published an article under a more exact and “correct” title, only to find it is rarely cited because nobody can find it.  Take home lesson: listen to your editors, even if they seem to be way out in left field.

I personally loved Frank’s book.  She includes three fictional interludes in between chapters of analysis and discussion.  As a literature, not anthropology, student, I found these to be not only a reprieve from academic jargon but also as a unique way to convey knowledge.  In our class discussion, Frank talked about her writing process.  She said that whenever she has difficulty understanding a concept, she will write a story about it to gain a foothold in the subject.  Frequently, this produces new knowledge and leads to further discoveries. 

As a fiction writer who is in academia, I thought it was refreshing to listen to someone with similar concerns and interests as me.  I should also note that her book was the one that inspired me to finish that short story I submitted about three weeks ago.  Thanks Katherine Frank for a great discussion and input about academia, publishing, and more.