ASECS is Comic-Con for Eighteenth Century Nerds

The Call for Papers for the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the major conference in my field, was announced today. I am searching through the list to find a panel that suits my  needs: I want to present a paper that will (hopefully) generate buzz around my field and will introduce me to people who may (eventually) help me get a job. I will have achieved candidacy (knock on wood) by time the conference rolls around (March 2012) and thus the stakes are higher than they were three years ago when I presented at this conference as a first year, a wide-eyed nobody who went just to absorb everything there is to know about the eighteenth century.

I have been looking forward to this conference for several reasons. It will be in San Antonio, a mere 4 hours away, and thus I will be able to attend this conference without the stress of eating Ramon noodles in order to pay for it. It is the first ASECS conference I will be able to attend in three years because the organizers did not ask me if March is a convenient month. If they had, I would have told them no, you can’t hold a conference every year on my wedding day/anniversary. But they did not ask me. The location also means that I can drag Husband along if he so chooses. I’ll be at the conference; he’ll be at Six Flags. It seems like a reasonable trade-off to me.

So anyway, I’m scrolling through the CFP when one reaches out and punches me in the gut. It’s perfect for my dissertation topic, and it’s sexy enough to entice other departments on campus to give me money. But I keep looking to see if there’s another one. And then I see it.

David Liss, author of Conspiracy of Paper fame, will be chairing a round table discussion of the eighteenth century in contemporary novels.

I heard Liss speak when I was an undergrad at UT before I even read his book, and was enthralled with his energy and enthusiasm. Liss lives in San Antonio, and presumably the conference organizers were aware of this fact before they booked him. Still. It seems a bit surreal to me that Liss, an extremely successful contemporary novelist, is attending an “academic” conference, when he has made it clear in interviews and on his website that he dropped out of academia in order to write novels.

Now that I’m blogging about it, the idea doesn’t seem as strange as it did 5 minutes ago when I saw the CFP. After all, it would seem to be entirely reasonable to be an academic and not live and work and breathe in the Ivory Tower. Or to look at it another way: at least half of the panels are on the digital humanities. Could exploring the contemporary novel be just another avenue of academic debate?

I guess the CFP unsettles me because it is so different from other panels. Do I bring a copy of his book with me for him to sign? Do I bring a copy of my query in case his agent tags along? How do I schmooze with a writer when I’m simultaneously trying to get my foot in the publishing door and the job market door? What do I do?

ASECS is Comic-Con for Eighteenth Century Nerds. We call ourselves professors but we’re all nerdy. At the NASSR conference I went to last August, a bunch of tenured professors got together and made “John Thelwall” t-shirts and wore them to bars. Don’t worry, I didn’t know who Thelwall was either. It was ridiculous and awesome and embarrassing all at the same time. I’m so used to concealing my nerdiness in complicated literary jargon that I have a difficult time negotiating my conflicting feelings of guilt and enthusiasm when reading Jane Borodale’s The Book of Fires or watching The Scarlet Pimpernel, let alone sharing this anxiety with other academics.

Liss, for me, represents the side of academia that dare not speak its name. Everyone in my department, without exception, has a pet side project to keep themselves busy. For me, it’s fiction. For another, it’s food criticism. For yet another, it’s editing. Several of us have blogs. We all have projects and activities that are not strictly within the boundaries of our dissertation or field, and yet we cannot talk about it in the open with our peers. The whispered hush in the halls is, don’t reveal too much. It won’t help you on the job market. Contrariwise, Liss’s project became an award-winning book. Is it wrong to dare to dream?

I’m not sure if I will have the guts to ask Liss to autograph a book or whether that’s even appropriate considering the circumstances. I expect I will show up at the panel in hopeful expectation, just like I do before every panel. I do know that this is going to be one fun and exciting conference.