Thursday, December 23, 2010

Laughing at Us: Academic Novels

Randall Stephens

"Why is the academic novel my favorite genre?" asks American literary critic Elaine Showalter in Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). "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." Of the genre itself, Showalter writes that it "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" (Showalter, 1). In the academic novel one finds the "tribal rites" of the profession, the weird quirks of tweedy academics, and stories of professional dread. (I'm guessing it should be a boom time for academic novels, given all the Cassandras wailing about the decline of the humanities.) When Showalter was an undergad, such books filled "a novice's need to fit into the culture" (2).

I like academic novels mostly because they make me laugh.

I'm reading, for the first time, novelist Kingsley Amis's Luck Jim (1954), a university sendup about a hapless history lecturer. At his provincial English university, James Dixon, an utterly uncommitted medievalist, weaves a web of ridiculous deceptions, while preparing to deliver a lecture on "Merrie England." (Let's just say the lecture does not go well.) Fretting about his love life and his teaching prospects for the next year, Jim schemes to make things right. Yet, no matter how hard he tries, this déclassé son of working class parents just can't win.

The book fits into that classic English schadenfreude, black humor tradition, evident today in British TV shows like The Office and Worst Week of My Life.

A few fun history-related passages:

Jim rides in the car with his dry-as-dust, scatter-brained senior colleague, Welch, and frets over his work-in-progress article.

Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. It wasn't the double-exposure effect of the last half-minute's talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he'd written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article's niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. "In considering this strangely neglected topic," it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His
thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself only more of a hypocrite and fool (14-15).

Jim Prepares to proctor an exam and thinks about the hideousness of the Middle Ages.

The examinations were now in progress, and Dixon had nothing to do that morning but turn up at the Assembly Hall at twelve-thirty to collect some scripts. They would contain answers to questions he'd set about the Middle Ages. As he approached the Common Room he thought briefly about the Middle Ages. Those who professed themselves unable to
believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kaishek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they'd been in the Middle Age - Margaret's way of referring to the Middle Ages? He grinned at this last thought, then stopped doing that on entering the Common Room . . . (87).

A real pleasure read. I'm now looking out for similar so-called campus novels. (Any suggestions? I've not read David Lodge, Vladimir Nabokov, or Zadie Smith's contributions to the genre.) The 2009 indie film Tenure, starring Luke Wilson, brings the genre back to the silver screen. (Watch it in full on Netflix.)

I'm still on the lookout for Ian McGuire's Incredible Bodies (2006). The Bloomsbury website describes McGuire's higher ed farce: "Coketown University, also known as the ‘plughole of England’, is where thirty-something Morris Gutman has achieved the mighty heights of temporary lecturer. . . . Now Morris is hoping to negotiate a permanent department job under the noses of smarter and better candidates by being obsequious, cheap and willing to do anything."

I can picture it clearly enough.


Jonathan Dresner said...

I don't think of the academic novel as a recent development, because the academic novel was among the first wave of modern novels written in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. Natsume Soseki's Kokoro and Botchan are both centered on the experience of university students and graduates. The former is a tragedy, the latter a comedy, but even Kokoro's commentary on the academic enterprise is wry and detached.

hcr said...

And then there's the whole genre of trashy novels written by academics under pen names. I love those... and wish we could get some of that plotline and colorful narrative into more serious scholarship.

Unknown said...

Stoner by John Williams is excellent. Richard Russo wrote another excellent one.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Love Russo. And I also embarrassingly love pedestrian mystery novels that feature academics. I assume/hope we're always making fun of ourselves. Hadn't heard of the Luke Wilson film. That looks like good times. Yes, I think sometimes we turn to novels because we're spending our life blood writing things that maybe 9 people will read. I'd love to write something that my family would spend/waste some time reading. v. jealous.