The Ivory Tower sounds like a place straight out of Narnia or a Robin Hobb novel. This term bridges the gap between fantasy (albeit not a happy one) and reality. College professors and grad students lob the idea back and forth when trying to decipher whether marking down for grammar is too Ivory Tower or simply part of teaching composition. It’s a metaphor of being separated from the real world, locked away with books that only the special few are allowed to touch if they can pass the entrance exam and afford the fees.
Sounds like something Draco Malfoy might dream up if he ran Hogwarts, doesn’t it? The Ivory Tower is academia at its worst, but at its best, it’s a noisy tavern full of storytelling and learning from experience and experimenting and discovering what you like and what you don’t like.
It’s hard not to get sucked inside these fantasies, especially once you have entrance. A lifetime in academia can mean decent pay, summers off, and tenure, which all adds up to time to write. I believed the Ivory Tower was a myth until I entered a Masters in Creative Writing program and realized how I’d formed my writing, my reading list, my likes and dislikes, all to gain entrance. I’d even called my writing speculative fiction or simply said mythology influenced my work when chatting up the gatekeepers of the Ivory Tower.
A year ago, I fled the Ivory Tower after listening to a panel at NerdCon: Stories, featuring Holly Black, Paolo Bacigalupi, Lev Grossman, Nalo Hopkinson, and Stephanie Perkins. Black, Hopkinson, and Perkins stand out in my memory, especially Holly Black’s electric blue hair. These women were some of the smartest, funniest, passionate writers I’d heard, and I felt more energized and inspired to write after that hour than I had during my first month at graduate school.
Why hadn’t I read their work or been told to read their work by my professors? The Ivory Tower library was incomplete. Voices had been lost, especially the voices of women. While not much genre work made it onto the shelves, my professors mentioned Asimov, Clarke, Delany, but not Octavia Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin.
So I went exploring. I scaled the walls with my adventurer’s pack and began a quest for libraries that didn’t just shelve Faulkner, Hemingway, Burroughs, Wallace, and maybe Woolf and Morrison. A whole world opened up, as if I’d unfolded another portion of the literary map. I started with Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. The story focuses on a young woman named Ti-Jeanne, a new mother, who is balanced on the knife edge of becoming what she is destined to be: a healer, a daughter of the elder trickster Legbaraor drawing back into the familiar, her boyfriend and their relationship.
Science fiction and fantasy are by their nature unfamiliar landscapes, and, like any choice, a writer can choose the safe decision, whether it’s to model one’s career for the Ivory Tower or simply avoid a story due to difficulty.
Change doesn’t come with complicity. It’s not easy or safe, but it’s much more fun to play jokes with Legbara. To truly escape the Ivory Tower, I needed to listen to new voices.