Thoughts and questions about research

I’ve finished the two-month round of conventions and a bunch of interesting things have happened. This post is about one of them. It’s on Patreon and on my blog. Where follow-up happens depends on response. If there’s no response, I’ll continue at my pace and there will be no news on this subject for years. This means no results for the Helsinki conference paper until everyone forgets I delivered it. Let me apologise for that now. Let me also suggest that you comment on this post and add your opinions, for that will help make things happen.

Let me explain why.

Universities are not employing many people and I do not yet have a regular job. Given the current climate I may never get one. I’m getting less teaching at university these days, too. It’s not good. My research gets better and better and my teaching gets better and better and I have to do more and more of it outside the academy.

Suddenly all my work is in touch with present reality and if only I had a regular academic job in Creative Writing I could do all kinds of amazing things and find a regular way to get that big database. But I don’t and that’s also our present reality. There are very, very few academic jobs and I’ve been interviewed a number of times, but with no job yet, I can’t assume that a lectureship will be part of my future. (This isn’t just a shame for my research – it also means I don’t get to do most of the teaching that makes me so very happy. It’s sad for me all round. It’s also sad for thousands of other scholars who are equally bereft– we’re living in a very tough time.)

I gave my papers in Helsinki and in Melbourne knowing that the research might not progress beyond that because my on university doesn’t see most casual staff as researchers. I research on my own time and using my own money and resources. This makes research very slow, for earning money has to take priority and so does my fiction. It doesn’t matter how important the research is, it has to be secondary. It also means I’m reliant on the books libraries obtain in order to create my database for a critical bit of the analysis, which is a profound problem given the nature of my research.

So, what is my research?

My big project boils down to the shape of narratives, how narratives influence each other and the role novels and their contexts play in encoding, transmitting and communicating key elements of culture and identity. I’m analysing things like genre markers, world building, the nature of story space, cultural issues, transmission issues.

I’ve done preliminary testing. The big project is viable and I’ve sorted out how to go about it. The reception of my conference papers on aspects of the project and the discussions I had with a lot of academics in my travels made me realise that I’ve opened up critical subject for many people. I checked this out at three different conferences after Helsinki, with academics, with writers, with readers, with editors and even with a few publishers. The reaction was the same across two continents and any number of conversations. I was astonished to find this, and it changed my thinking about my research. That’s why I’m writing this post.

I’m already incorporating the research into my teaching. I’ve had four different workshops called ‘inspiring’ because of this. Four in a row. This isn’t because I’m amazing (alas), but because the early results gave really handy insights into how we put the cultures of others into our fiction and how different aspects of culture can be decoded by writers to help them write by choice.

The research, then, has already helped a bunch of writers unpick what they do and start thinking of what they can do. Some writers are scared. Some are excited. And this is just the beginning. For more, I need to do this big project. And it is a big project.

Certain aspects of my big project require a big database.

Waiting for funding won’t do the trick. I’ve applied for funding for a number of my projects and I’ve had answers for ¾ of the applications and the answers all told me apologetically how many people applied.

I was going to give up on the big project and just do some of the small side elements. I take comments on my work very seriously, however, and the comments from August and September added up to “We need this stuff and you need to teach it to us and write about it.”

Getting my database is obviously the first step in this. Data is the big thing that’s lacking, the time-consuming thing that prevents me moving on at anything less than glacial progress. I’d need at least 8 years to read over 2000 books and bring them into my study.

A few people suggested I crowdfund.

I’d rather do a crowd form of reading. This would actually work better for the project as a whole than me being the sole reader (especially if the readers come from a number of countries), for it would significantly reduce my personal biases and the limitations on what books I could get hold of. Anyone who read a book who wanted to add the details I need to analyse to a spreadsheet could participate. Not just me, but many readers. Everyone would get acknowledged. I’d stop the collection when it had covered enough works covering all the types of works I need in enough detail.

Today, this is just a concept. I could report on my blog or through Patreon. Patreon would work best if the participants were all patrons and my blog would work best for wider participation. Either way, through Patreon I could offer people my research thoughts as the project advances. It could be the crowdfunding if anyone specifically wanted to support this project and learn about it and might help give me some income for my research, the way it’s made such a difference with my fiction. I’d share my conference papers, some articles, and maybe do specific essays on interesting aspects or progress. Patrons finding out first. I’m suggesting this because of the interest my patrons had in that first conference paper.

Right now, I’m after questions and opinions and a general indication if anyone would be willing to add a bit of information about the books they read to a database (although if you want to discuss the Patreon aspect, feel free). The database information would partly be bibliographical (publication details, country of origin of both author/s and publisher) and to do with the background and roles given to characters. I’d list the questions that need answering. There’d be no reviews or long thoughts. It’s the data collection essential to make the project happen much faster. Entries could be from anyone who reads novels. One entry for each novel.

My questions today are:
1. Is this a good idea?
2. How many people want to join? (there is no funding – this is entirely voluntary)
3. Why can’t I find a better name than ‘crowdreading’ for it? I keep reading it as “crow dreading’ and this is not good.


  1. Sally Goodenough

    Sounds doable, although you’ll need to give serious thought to data quality issues, particularly using controlled vocabs for things like country names, dates, publishers etc otherwise your analysis could be difficult. info from your uni or here http://www.ands.org.au/working-with-data or here http://www.ands.org.au/guides. Designing your database is probably the most critical aspect of the whole business.

    I read a lot and would be willing to participate, also provide a small amount of funding via Patreon.

    I know many people in your situation and no-one has solutions. I think you should persevere. Much uni-based research is of low quality anyway, going indie sounds like a plan. You might need a team of equally unpaid partners.

    1. Gillian Polack

      If it’s any reassurance on the data side, I used database analysis of a similar type (but for medieval texts) for my first PhD. I’ve already sorted most of the design issues for it (and have my first diagram, lurking), for without that, I wouldn’tve been willing to say “This is what can be done in these circumstances.”

    2. Gillian Polack

      Having said that, if someone wanted to do the database itself, I could focus on the analysis, which would be so much more fun for me. I love databases and spent time developing them as a public servant, years ago, but I didn’t have novels to write alongside research back then.

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