The Academic Novel and Its Discontents
2005 | 152 pages | Cloth $26.50 | Paper $19.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction: What I Read and What I Read For
1. The Fifties: Ivory Towers
2. The Sixties: Tribal Towers
3. The Seventies: Glass Towers
4. The Eighties: Feminist Towers
5. The Nineties: Tenured Towers
6. Into the Twenty-First Century: Tragic Towers
Bibliography of Academic Novels
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
What I Read and What I Read For
Why is the academic novel my favorite literary genre? Maybe it's just narcissistic pleasure. One theory about the rise of the novel argues that it developed because readers like to read about their own world, and indeed about themselves. And yes, I am a professor of English literature, and yes, I myself have been a character in academic fiction at least twice, once a voluptuous, promiscuous, drug-addicted bohemian, once a prudish, dumpy, judgmental frump. I hope I am not too not easily identified in either of these guises, and I'm not about to disclose the novels here, although I can tell you that I preferred being cast as the luscious Concord grape to my role as the withered prune.
Long before I was a professor, however, I was addicted to reading academic novels, whose popularity coincided with my own adolescence. The genre has arisen and flourished only since about 1950, when American universities were growing rapidly, first to absorb the returning veterans, and then to take in a larger and larger percentage of the baby-booming population. The nature of higher education in America and Britain had a lot to do with it, too. Most of our universities act in loco parentis for students, creating a complete society on the campus, with housing, meals, medical care and social life all provided communally and institutionally. They actively foster close personal relations between students and faculty. Moreover, the curriculum usually includes a program in creative writing; as a result, most faculties include a few professional writers, who can observe the tribal rites of their colleagues from an insider's perspective.
Of course, students have long been important characters in fiction; coming-of-age narratives and Bildungsromane have been numerous from early days. To me, however, the most interesting academic novels are about the faculty, the lifers-what one critic has called Professorromane. I found these stories entertaining, inspiring, and instructive. In the 1960s, as a first-generation college graduate, I took an immigrant's passionate ethnographic interest in their details of academic manners. They filled a novice's need to fit into a culture, and I found answers, of a sort, to many of my questions and even to questions I hadn't formed. And decade by decade, as I became a professor myself and experienced the realities and diversities of colleges and universities, I measured the gap between what I lived and what I read. In an era before there were handbooks, self-help guides, or advice columns for graduate students and junior faculty in the Chronicle of Higher Education, novels taught me how a proper professor should speak, behave, dress, think, write, love, succeed, or fail. Now that I have retired, I read them less personally, but with more affection and empathy.
The academic novel is by now a small but recognizable subgenre of contemporary fiction, and has a small body of criticism devoted to it. Most critics hold that it is basically satirical. According to Sanford Pinsker, in "Who Cares Whether Roger Ackroyd Gets Tenure?", "the general form is as old as Aristophanes's The Clouds. There, Socrates was held up to ridicule as a man riding through the heavens in a basket; and the label of dreamy impracticality stuck not only to him, but also to all the befuddled academic types who have followed." Many academic novels are wildly funny, and lines from them have sustained me in hard times, from Lucky Jim's description of his ghastly little spider-hole of a thesis as "this strangely-neglected topic," to the jokes in James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale.
Yet strangely enough, what appeals to me most in academic fiction is its seriousness, even sadness. Perhaps we professors turn to satire because academic life has so much pain, so many lives wasted or destroyed. On the spelling corrector on my computer, when I click on English, the alternative that comes up is Anguish. Like the suburbs, the campus can be the site of pastoral, or the fantasy of pastoral—the refuge, the ivory tower. But also like the suburbs, it is the site of those perennials of the literary imagination John Updike names as "discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear."
Perhaps it's the ultimate narcissism for an English professor to write literary criticism about novels by English professors about English professors, but my favorite academic novels are about English departments nonetheless. Ian Carter says that academic novels are all predictable and indeed are mind-bogglingly repetitive: "I would pick up a novel newly discovered in library stack or decayed secondhand bookshop," he writes. "It could belong to one of many genres; comedy of manners, thriller, whodunit, romance. After a couple of pages I would discover the awful truth. I had read it before. After a couple of years, I had read them all before." But Carter is a sociologist, who embarked on his reading of academic fiction out of annoyance with Malcolm Bradbury's portrayal of sociologists in The History Man. For English professors, this repetitiveness also means that the novels operate on a set of conventions, themes, tropes, and values. Having read all the novels before gives us some distance on their narrative strategies, and turns easy identification into something more intellectual.
Like other closed societies, the campus can function as a microcosm, according to Jay Parini, "a place where humanity plays out its obsessions and discovers what makes life bearable." Steven Connor elaborates: "The university is a closed world, with its own norms and values, which is thick with the possibilities of intrigue. Indeed, the very restriction of elements in the academic world, with the stock characters, with their cozily familiar routines of evasion and abstraction and their conspicuous, if always insecure, hierarchical structures, and the well-established situations and plot-lines, seem to generate a sense of permutative abundance." Connor sees two basic plots in academic fiction: "The one concerns the disruption of a closed world, and the gradual return of order and regularity to it, while the other concerns the passage through this closed world of a character who must in the end be allowed to escape its gravitational pull."
Janice Rossen thinks that the university novel is mainly about power, inclusion, and exclusion. "Like their counterparts in any other profession, academics delight in reinforcing this view of themselves as comprising circles which are closed to the uninitiated. They also tend to compete with each other within that realm for positions of power. Academic fiction almost always takes this competitiveness as part of its basis." Novels pull together "several disparate but related threads: the influence of the power structure within academe and in relation to the world outside, the constant dialectic between competitiveness and idealism-or, scholarship as a means to an end or as an end in itself-and the implications for the creative process of the novelist's choice of such a potentially limiting and problematic subject." And overall, "the more conflicting cross-currents a novelist is able to incorporate and contrast in a given work, the better the novel."
Those formulas seem rather cut-and-dried to me. The best academic novels experiment and play with the genre of fiction itself, comment on contemporary issues, satirize professorial stereotypes and educational trends, and convey the pain of intellectuals called upon to measure themselves against each other and against their internalized expectations of brilliance. Sanford Pinsker, who is American, thinks all English professors are frustrated novelists ourselves, attracted to fiction as a neat payback and a fast buck: "Which self-respecting lit professor hasn't thought—either out loud or in private—about knocking off a tale of the assorted troubles at his or her version of Eyesore U? After all, the formula seems simple enough: plant a sensitive young professor in a garden of academic vipers, add a fetching student here and a soused administrator there, and voila, yet another novel about higher education on the ropes." But Steven Connor, who is British, writes with more circumspection that the real attraction of the Professorroman to readers and writers is its double audience of insiders and outsiders: "The fact that most campus novels tend to be about English teachers or students ... is of course not very surprising even given the hostility to traffic or fraternization between the critical and creative realms characteristic of the teaching of English literature since the War. What is less often remarked is what this implies about the addressivity of such novels, which is to say their sense of their readership and the different attitudes to it that they may have."
I'm not exactly sure what Connor means by addressivity. Certainly British academic novelists have gone further than Americans in experimenting with double narratives and clever literary allusions. But I suppose one less exalted implication of the "addressivity" of the English-Professor-Novel could be the insider's gossipy pleasure in recognizing portraits, usually unflattering, of colleagues and friends. I think I may recognize a few in the pages of recent books I have enjoyed, but who among us can be sure we are immune from such treatment? Are we smiling at the gallery of fruits, not noticing that we ourselves are the dessiccated prune or the overripe grape?
Moreover, since we professors now live in the age of celebrity, publicity, and fame, being a character in a satiric academic novel, even a nasty one, may be a kind of distinction. Stanley Fish likes being identified with David Lodge's Morris Zapp; Laurie Taylor didn't mind being falsely thought to be the original History Man; and when Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote a parody of the academic world called Masterpiece Theater, more people were offended because they were excluded than because they were mocked.
I suppose one of the reasons I like academic novels is their similiarity to Victorian ones, which I taught for many years. The academic novel proper doesn't start until the 1950s, but there are nineteenth century precursors. Anthony Trollope's comic masterpiece Barchester Towers (1857) is the great ur-narrative of academic politics even if it is about the bickering of provincial Anglican clergy over preferment and evangelical reform. Trollope's wrangling, rivalrous Victorian clerics remind me of contemporary academics, with assistant professors, deans, and provosts standing in for curates, deacons, and bishops; and many authors of academic fiction, from C.P. Snow on, have been Trollope scholars. If I ever write an academic novel myself it will be called "Barchester University." The title of this book, Faculty Towers, is an amalgam of Barchester and the classic British TV sitcom of the dysfunctional and manic provincial hotel, Fawlty Towers, and its irascible manager, Basil Fawlty.
The supreme academic fiction remains Middlemarch (1872), and Eliot's Mr. Casaubon is the most haunting specter of the academic as grim pedagogue, the scholar as the spirit of all that is sterile, cold, and dark. Casaubon has no small talk, but only a large, sad, musty talk of dead things. "I live too much with the dead," he says of himself. His pleasures are of "the severer kind;" his house, Lowick, has "an air of autumnal decline"; his smile is like "pale wintry sunshine," he looks like "a death's head skinned over for the occasion." And yet Eliot has sympathy for " the despair that sometimes threatened him while toiling in the morass of authorship without seeming nearer to the goal." Casaubon uses all his meager energy is sustaining his self-esteem, in defending himself against the realization that his life's work of synthesis and theory, which Eliot in a stroke of prophetic insight titles the "Key to All Mythologies," is a hollow sham, and that his "hard intellectual labours" have led only to "a melancholy absence of passion in his efforts at achievement, and a passionate resistance to the confession that he had achieved nothing."
"Achieved nothing": It's every scholar's most feared epitaph. When I entered the academic profession, in the early years of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist academics read Middlemarch as a book about female ardor and longing for the epic life, and then announced themselves disillusioned by Eliot's compromises of her heroine Dorothea's ambition. "As I have moved away from what I now believe was an adolescent fantasy concerning the contents and implications of Middlemarch to what I hope is a more true understanding of the text's attitudes toward woman," wrote Lee Edwards in 1972, "I see that it can no longer be one of the books of my life." On the contrary, with every year that has passed since I got my Ph.D., Middlemarch has become more the canonical book of my academic life, the most eloquent of academic tragedies.
Another novel along the same lines, one that must have been influenced by Eliot, is Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925). Cather too writes about the mid-life crisis of a male academic, Godfrey St. Peter, burned-out although he is only fifty-two. Unlike Casaubon, St. Peter is a historian whose life-work, an eight-volume study of the Spanish Adventurers in North America, has won him acclaim, even the Oxford prize for history. But the meaning seems to have gone out of his life and his teaching; at the novel's conclusion, he is resigning himself to spending the remains of his days without delight: "Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may even be pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs. But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that."
Pretty dire introductions to the life of the mind, or at least the male life of the mind as seen by women novelists-the sacrifice of love to intellectual labor, the shriveling of unused emotions, the steady encroachment of a tumorous vanity. Its antitheses are not in great novels like these, but in popular fiction. Luckily I also read Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night (1936), set in Shrewsbury, a version of her own Oxford college, Somerville, revisited by her fictional detective Harriet Vane. Here, although there is vanity, greed, hypocrisy, and even murder in the female community of the college, the female dons are absorbed by their work and still alive to more worldly pleasures, including gossip, fashion, food and drink. To be sure, the first one of whom we hear is "a grizzled woman don crossing the turf with vague eyes, her thoughts riveted upon aspects of sixteenth-century philosophy, her sleeves floating" like some academic angel. But most of the women dons are brisk and open-minded in their interests. "We're not nearly such dried-up mummies as you think," the bright-eyed Dean tells Harriet, echoing a description of Casaubon in Middlemarch: "He is no better than a mummy!" However sexless, arid, and withered the male academic may be, Sayers proves that the female academic does not have to copy him.
When English professors, write novels, they tend to write about what they know best: other people's books. Even in some of the most celebrated and familiar academic satires, rewriting literary conventions is as important as mocking campus attitudes. Many of the best and most successful academic novels of the past fifty years have been rewritings of Victorian novels. In Nice Work, David Lodge rewrote the genre of the English industrial novel, particularly Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, to describe the tensions between the modern university and the world of business. Gail Godwin based her academic novel The Odd Woman on Gissing's masterpiece about Victorian feminism, The Odd Women. Joanne Dobson's wonderful series about feminist professor Karen Pelletier is based on the nineteenth-century American women's novels Dobson has written about as a scholar. James Hynes's Publish and Perish rewrites and updates the Victorian horror tale, and A. S. Byatt's Possession creates its own archive of Victorian poetry.
Novels about professors are set in academic time, which is organized and compartmentalized according to various grids and calendars, vacations and rituals. Some of the characters have names that allude to that system, such as Annie Callendar in The History Man. Traditionally, academics have been envied for their control of their time. "Of all professional people," Hazard Adams (not a fictional character) has observed, "the scholar in a major university has probably the greatest degree of personal freedom to organize his day, month, and year."
But as the costs of higher education rise, the scholar's use of time has come under increased external scrutiny and skepticism. Only two courses a semester? The summer off? What the hell do you people do? One of the classic genres of faculty prose is the account of a typical day in the life of a professor, usually published in the campus newspaper or alumni magazine and designed to impress deans, parents, and legislators with the single-minded diligence, seriousness, devotion to students, and sheer love of learning of the professor in question. These don's diaries are often infuriating to colleagues, who view them as highly competitive, inflated, self-important, and fictional. I remember a particularly notorious one in which the professor claimed to rise at 5:30 to prepare for his undergraduate seminar, and continue non-stop intellectual, pedagogical, and administrative labors through a long day punctuated only by wholesome snacks, personal intervals to answer vast amounts of international email, a recreational break to study Latin, and a meal out at a fine restaurant with wife and son and visiting dignitary. Female faculty sputtered over it for days.
But professorial time does seem both overloaded day-to-day, and painfully drawn out and Beckettish year-to-year. On the micro-level, it can be divided into lectures, office hours, and department meetings. As John Kenneth Galbraith writes, "lectures are our most flexible art form. Any idea, however slight, can be expanded to fill fifty-five minutes; any idea, however great, can also be condensed to that time." The achievements and disappointments of a career must be similarly be expressed in the form of the c.v., which leaves out all the personal vicissitudes of a real life and a real year, and which is also a flexible genre that can expand by listing talks to the local PTA. The c.v., updated annually for salary review, is an academic's diary or life record. "Sometimes I think that without a c.v. I could never reconstruct my life," writes Nancy Miller. "Having spent almost my entire life in school—first as a student, then as a teacher—I sometimes fear that my autobiography is my curriculum vitae."
On the macro-level, there is the sabbatical, and the division of academic life into seven-year chunks. Carol Shields and Alison Lurie are among those who have written about the sabbatical in novels, where it is usually a time of transformation and epiphany. But there is also the pressure of the seven-year apprenticeship of junior faculty, customarily described in the metaphor of the ticking tenure clock, but more of a great Poe-like pendulum. The confrontations of tenure competition haven't really received their psychological due in academic fiction, although being turned down for tenure is one of the most stressful and traumatic events of a professional life. This is so not only for the individual but for the group, the department or the college. For unlike the corporate world, the academy does not sever connections with its terminated faculty immediately. Assistant professors who are denied tenure don't clean out their desks and go home to stick pins in wax models of their colleagues.
What is peculiarly painful about the tenure process is its duration, its longue durée. The "terminated" assistant professor must linger for a year, or maybe two, continuing to carry out his duties looking for another job, among senior colleagues who may have voted against him. Because of the confidentiality of the process, the candidate doesn't know for sure how the vote went, but there will be plenty of rumors and gossip. Meanwhile he has to be polite, to wear an elaborate social mask until he can leave; but so will most of his colleagues, who are struggling with their own survivors' guilt, bad faith, hypocrisy, pity, or just the wish not to be confronted with human suffering.
But the most common temporal metaphor for academic life is that of the four seasons. According to Hazard Adams, "the solar cycle of academic life balances the linear progression of the academic career." He sees the academic year divided into three parts, like Northrop Frye's literary archetypes: "The fall quarter, or hope; the winter quarter, or endurance; and the spring quarter, or anticipation." Of course, some universities have semester systems, and many have summer sessions and summer programs like the School of Criticism and Theory, adding a fourth quarter (festival?) to the solar year.
In The Department (1968), Gerald Brace Warner gives a hauntingly medieval twist of fate to the image: "We go on doing the same things, going through the same yearly cycle; I think of it always as a great Ferris wheel, beginning its upward turn in September, and all of us in the one bucket, as it were, mounting and turning over the crest and falling toward the summer with the same inexorable pace as the revolving seasons. I even think of the week as a small wheel, climbing from the low point of Monday upward and then over into Friday and down through the week's end. Routines go on like fate. The oddities and interruptions, the personals deaths and disasters, are all irrelevant. Perhaps all human worlds revolve in cycles, like the cosmic spheres, but I think the academic world is more obviously geared that way than any other. It is half aware of its old, old machinery that dates back to some remote medieval age in Bologna or Oxford, it goes through familiar rituals without quite knowing why or wherefore, it sustains visions of ideal detachment, it believes that wisdom is without date or current alteration. Many of us come to depend wholly on the academic cycles, great and small, to evolve us safely from boyhood to death."
For academics, autumn is the beginning. "Despite the challenges of teaching," writes Jay Parini, "it's hard not to like a job where you can start over every September, shredding the previous year's failures and tossing them out the window like so much confetti." Time seems to stand still: "The slate is theoretically wiped clean in September, and one is given a fresh packet of chalk. The clock is rewound, and the faces before one never seem to age (except in faculty meetings, where only those who never question anything are without deep lines in their foreheads.)" Yet the renewal of fall seems unnatural: "The rhythm of education runs counter to natural grieving. According to the academic calendar, fall means starting over, springing into life after the torpid drowse of summer. There is, indeed, a vague sense of dislocation as classes begin and as the first faculty meetings occur against a backdrop of whirling leaves and days that seem woefully tinged at dusk."
Novelists play on the ironic ambiguities of that autumnal start. Malcolm Bradbury begins The History Man with a report on the season: "Now it is the autumn again; the people are all coming back. The recess of summer is over, when holidays are taken, newspapers shrink, history itself seems momentarily to falter and stop. But the papers are thickening and filling again; things seem to be happening; back from Corfu and Sète, Positano and Leningrad, the people are parking their cars and campers in their drives and opening their diaries, and calling up other people on the telephone....The new autumn colors are in the boutiques; there is now on the market a fresh intra-uterine device, reckoned to be ninety-nine per cent safe. Everywhere there are new developments, new indignities; the intelligent people survey the autumn world, and liberal and radical hackles rise, and fresh faces are about, and the shine shines fitfully, and the telephones ring."
Winter in the university is different from winter elsewhere. Although it is a time of darkness, it also a time of respite and escape. In The History Man, "and now it is the winter again; the people, having come back, are going away again. The autumn, in which the passions rise, the tensions mount, the strikes accumulate, the newpapers fill with disaster, is over. Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat, and the papers getting thin; things are stopping happening. In the drives, the cars are being packed, and the people are ready, in relief to be off, to Postano or the Public Record Office, Moscow or mother, for the lapse of the festive season." In a certain kind of British, or anglophile, academic novel, such as Snow's The Masters, Byatt's Possession, or Donna Tartt's The Secret History, winter is a time of heightened privacy, inwardness, even eroticism. The Masters begins with a sensuous celebration of the pleasures of winter and solitary study (perhaps a novelist named Snow felt a natural affinity for the season): "The snow had only just stopped, and in the court below my rooms all sounds were dulled... . It was scorchingly hot in front of the fire, and warm, cozy, shielded, in the zone of the two armchairs and the sofa, which formed an island of comfort, round the fireplace. Outside that zone, as one went towards the walls of the lofty medieval room, the draughts were bitter...so that, on a night like this, one came to treat most of the room as the open air, and hurried back to the cozy island in front of the fireplace, the pool of light from the reading lamp on the mantelpiece, the radiance which was more pleasant because of the cold air which one has just escaped." It's a apt metaphor for the scholar's life.
But in spring, especially in American universities, this cozy exile is invaded, and there is trouble brewing for the faculty from the administration and the students. The administration is plotting: "April is the month of heightened paranoia for academics," writes Richard Russo, "not that their normal paranoia is insufficient to ruin a perfectly fine day in any season. But April is always the worst. Whatever dirt will be done to us is always planned in April, then executed over the summer, when we are dispersed."
The students are protesting, as Mary McCarthy explains: "The whole campus was, as usual, unsettled by the vernal influence and the prospect of Easter vacation: hitherto well-satisfied students came before the department wanting to change their major or their tutor and were dissuaded with the greatest difficulty: room-mates broke up; love affairs were blighted; girls wept in the wash-room; Miss Rejnev's Russian literature class sent her a petition that they had had enough of Dostoievsky."
The transition from spring to summer brings Commencement exercises, and class reunions; their juxtaposition must make the meanest professorial intellect reflect on time and mortality. At Princeton, the highlight of annual class reunions, which take place in early summer, just before graduation, is called the P-rade. Reunion classes march through the campus, dressed in orange and black blazers of different patterns, or orange and black costumes suggesting the cultural, or political themes of their graduation year-spacemen, soldiers, Arabs, hippies. They march in order of age, from the oldest to the youngest; at the head of the procession are the oldest living members of the class of whatever, riding in electric cars, gallantly waving to the cheering spectators. The procession is a hallowed literary metaphor but this one is especially resonant, like the mummers on the horizon of Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Behind the cheering alumni and the antique autos, I always imagine, should be death's winged chariot, with a tall figure in an orange and black hooded robe carrying a scythe.
Because of the importance of academic time, I have organized this book chronologically, by decades. Chronology is not a perfect organizational instrument for fiction, of course. Academic novels are rarely in synch with their decade of publication; most reflect the preceding decade's issues, crises, and changes. Some themes are so recurrent that I have treated them out of chronological order. But in general, reading academic novels from 1950 to the present gives a good overview of the way the academy and its scribes have has moved from hope to endurance to anticipation to cynicism and around to hope again.
Faculty Towers is also not intended to be a comprehensive history of the Anglo-American academic novel over the past fifty years. It's a personal take, and my selection reflects my preoccupations, particularly about feminism, as well as my occupation. I was always hoping to find stories of women professors, but such stories did not begin to appear until I no longer needed them, until I had tenure and knew enough answers to get by. Nonetheless, as a reader of Professorromane, I've been sharply aware of the women who appear in the background, as students, as eccentric dons and dames, and especially as faculty wives. This book is dedicated to them.