A Young Academic Ponders Her Failures in an Insomniatic Haze

Martin Riker, author of "The Guest Lecture" and publisher at Dorothy, on the flip between insecurity and possibility

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

I have to admit something: I don’t really like dark academia. As a PhD candidate in English, the reality of the academic world feels dark enough. I don’t usually want to read about murder mysteries at elite liberal arts colleges or Oxford secret societies with a shady side. Being an adjunct, worrying about health insurance, never knowing how I’ll be funded all while trying to write a dissertation…that’s enough for me. So when I reach for fiction about the academic world, I’m incredibly picky. I want to escape my reality, like fiction allows, but I also want a novel that shows the reality of higher education: the contingency, the anxiety, and the privilege of choosing something like “the life of the mind.”

Finally, Martin Riker—also a publisher at Dorothy—has written the book I’ve been looking for. The Guest Lecture foregrounds all these questions–and more–in a novel that spans one night. We follow Abigail, an economics professor who was recently denied tenure. She’s sleepless the night before giving an invited talk, sharing a hotel bed with her husband and daughter, and she embarks on a quest through her mind–and house–using the classical rhetorical device of assigning your speech to different rooms of a building you know well. Her talk is about optimism and John Maynard Keynes, and Abby’s imagination conjures him up as a character, bringing Keynes along for the insomniac ride. He’s an audience member, a supporter, and a figure for the pragmatic optimism Abby needs.

I spoke over zoom with Riker, both of us taking a break from preparing for a new semester, about the imaginative possibilities of fiction, what higher education can offer a plot, and how ideas have practical effects on our lives.

Bekah Waalkes: I wanted to start by asking you about your work at Dorothy! I’m a huge fan of Dorothy’s work and I wanted to know how your work as a publisher and editor at a small press impacted your writing of The Guest Lecture

Martin Riker: Honestly, I’d be perfectly happy if all we talk about is Dorothy. I mean, I think Dorothy’s the most important thing I do. I think a writer’s body of work is an important thing in the culture. When you find a writer who you sort of who means something to you, that’s a very special thing. But I think a really, really good publisher is more important. Because a publishing house creates a space in the culture, which seems to me a more crucial and larger gesture than a single writer’s voice. And it’s a space that not only allows for a lot of really important writer’s voices to be out there, but also for them to sort of be meaningfully in conversation with one another. And I do think of myself as a writer, but not really. I just think of myself as having a literary life. A relationship to literature and publishing is definitely as big a part of that as anything else for me and I, with no humility whatsoever, I can say with total confidence that Dorothy is clearly the most important thing that I do in the culture. But yeah, I would say the meaningful answer to your question is having come up more through publishing than writing. I actually have degrees in creative writing and I wrote novels all along. So writing’s always been there, but I have never been a writer to the world until my first book came out. And so I think that the way the writing fits in my life is is deeply influenced by the work that I’ve done in publishing in general and maybe more in the last 12 years, since Dorothy.

BW: Fundamentally, The Guest Lecture is a book about thinking—the meandering trails we take while thinking, the pull of memory, the inability to recall some detail or fact. Why structure the novel as you do, as Abby moving through her house? Or, what does shaping thought like a house offer Abby or the novel form more generally? 

MR: I think your characterization of it as a book about thinking is a very apt one. I mean, it’s like this sort of performance of thinking. And I do think of the book as a performance of thinking, not a presentation of knowledge. I don’t think of myself as someone who is teaching people things. I think of myself as a fiction writer, someone who’s creating a space in which there is a performance of how the mind works. That’s more important to me. It doesn’t mean that I don’t that I’m, like, upset if somebody says, “Oh, I learned something about empathy.” That’s great. But that’s not in any way how I think. In fact, I don’t even think of it when I’m writing. I tend to not write about things I know already. This is a little bit of a digression.

BW: Oh, I love a digression.

MR: I try not to write about things I know. I tend to write things I want to learn about. And if I knew if I just wrote to tell people all the things I already think I know, I would frankly be kind of bored. The same is true in fiction. So when I was writing The Guest Lecture, there are some discourses that I actually know a lot about already, like the history of rhetoric. But the vast majority of them are things that I was just interested in and I thought would make sense. And then as the character developed, it became things that Abby was interested in rather than because of this. I want to get back to your question because about the way that it’s written, the structure and why it’s set up this way. So for me, there’s actually sort of a philosophical reason, something about the heart of what the book’s doing for me. I mean, this is really a book about types of imagination. You know William Carlos Williams’ Spring And All is a book that is name checked in here. And it’s actually an important book for me. And he had this line about how only the imagination can save us. And as a young man, I was like, “Oh, yeah, imagination can save us.” Then it’s just like, “Well, what the hell does that mean?” And in some ways, I think that it doesn’t mean something grandiose, it doesn’t mean something about a government program or something. It means something about the moment to moment in our experience of the world and how imagining it can allow us to see past the sort of limitations of the way that we think about things. Or it can do the opposite. It can actually make everything close down and seem impossible and dreadful and horrible. And this was what I wanted to write about. And it occurred to me that a certain someone had just been elected president and and I had lost my dear Obama. And in the Obama era, imagination had possibility and versus the sort of negative imagination that happens when when Trump is elected, or when you lose tenure, where suddenly not only have you lost a sense of possibility, but the imagination is doing damage to you.  

BW: So imagination was key for this book, and for Abigail.

She bet upon her ideals and it didn’t work out in a practical way.

MR: I was actually thinking on a character level of this book as being a battle of those two kinds of imaginary actions happening in Abigail’s head, in the course of the night. And the reason it’s not just like a stream of consciousness, like a big block of prose, the way that many people would write thinking is is not because not just because I like forms, I do like form, and I like playfulness, but it’s because for me, it’s actually part of the idea that Abby is trying to give form to something. She’s trying to deal with the substance of her life with imagination. Her mind moves through forms and tries to create traits that her positive imagination is trying to deal with, the things that are bothering her in a way that gives imaginative form to them rather than surrendering to the opposite. 

BW: What I love most about The Guest Lecture is its insistence that ideas have practical consequences. Abby’s musing on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own reminds us that the room is more than a metaphor: it’s Abby’s “favorite example of how a conceptual argument…can also be a practical argument”. The Guest Lecture is a personal intellectual history in one insomniac mind, but it also showcases practical rhetorical tool and a meditation. What do you see as the practical ramifications of the conceptual framework of this novel?

MR: Keynes is a very interesting mix of conceptual and practical. He had huge ideas, ideas that people who were set in their ways of thinking about the world were not ready for. But he was entirely practical about going about trying to make change in the world. And if you read his own essays or you read about him, you see he was rigorous in his practicality. And I think that I actually think you can appreciate that about Keynes, among other things. And I don’t know about the book’s politics, but I can talk about Abigail’s situation. Which is that she’s created a life for herself, in a large part out of ideals. She had ideas about what kind of person she was going to be and what that was going to mean in the world. And now, recently, the world has intervened with her plans: she bet upon her ideals and it didn’t work out in a practical way. She got denied tenure. Now, I think it’s up for debate whether she should have gotten tenure. But these ideas, about pursuing a kind of a life of the mind or an idealist agenda or choice to focus on a book that meant something to her, has had very, very practical end results.

BW: Without tenure, Abby is jobless, damaged personally and professionally. The danger and anxiety of this contingency simmers throughout the whole novel, so of course we have to talk about academia and the crisis of higher education. What kind of optimism do you have for the profession? And relatedly, if there’s no real optimism in higher education, where might your hope lie?

Hardly anybody outside of the tenure track talks about the opposite side, which is if you don’t get it, you’re kind of out.

MR: So I didn’t set out to write an academic novel. And actually, the way that academia came into the novel was actually through Trump. It occurred to me when my wife was on the tenure track. She thankfully got tenure. But I always thought that something strange about tenure was everybody talks about how it’s this thing where if you get it, you have a job for life, all this security and stability. And hardly anybody outside of the tenure track talks about the opposite side, which is if you don’t get it, you’re kind of out. And it was that dynamic that made me draw a comparison to that movement from Obama to Trump. There’s a number of different dialectics in the book. One is between the idea of security and stability and instability and fear. And from a dramatic perspective, from a writer perspective, tenure is actually a very kind of clear articulation of that. It’s like a switch that you flip between insecurity and possibility and instability and fear. Or at least, you know, it can feel that way when you’re when you’re pursuing it.

BW: My last question is maybe a cop-out, but I loved the book’s ending–there’s this bizarre sequence that seems like a dream, but also maybe it’s not. What led you to conclude in such an open-ended and surreal way?

MR: In creative writing classes, they tell you you’re not even allowed to write dreams because, you know, dreams don’t have stakes, you know? And I said to my wife, I think I’m not only am I going to write a dream, but I think the dream is actually going to end the book. Which felt totally crazy because how do you create stakes for a character in this sort of nonsense of the dream world? But I’ve always loved doing things that you’re not supposed to do. Writing’s a lot of fun for me, and one of the fun thing is taking on the challenge of doing something you’re not supposed to do and writing not only a dream, but sort of ending in a space of dream. I like your reading of it that it’s sort of crepuscular. There’s some kind of feeling that she’s in a dream and in other ways you’re not. In the dream, you know, there’s a little bit of ambiguity. And I think that tension is very important. But the texture of that language in her mind definitely shifts into something that’s much more associative. Throughout the novel, Abby does this work to sort of delineate things and hold it together. So to let her go into a space where the boundaries that she’s erected for herself in her mind all start to collapse a little bit seemed very important. And they don’t collapse in a way that actually creates chaos and they don’t collapse in a way that actually creates doom. And maybe that’s part of the accomplishment of the night that she’s gotten to a space where when those boundaries start to collapse, it’s actually not a worse space. She actually manages it pretty well. All the stuff that she was very consciously thinking otherwise is still there and she’s still processing it, but she’s processing it in a different way.

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