• July 22, 2014

Novel Academic Novels: the Sequel

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question: I desperately crave your annual roundup of the Ackies, or academic novels of note. Please list again, as you did last summer.

Answer: Certainly. Ms. Mentor will even suggest two prequels from 2009 and 2010, before she was inspired to indulge in a bit of branding.

Ms. Mentor has been collecting academic novels since the genre began with Plato, whose "Socrates" is a great cuddly character, a bear with a heart of gold. (Ms. Mentor imagines John Goodman.) She also longs for a musical version of The Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer's Clerk might croon: "My clothes are threadbare/ because all I care/ about are books. In my attic, I'm an addict. I am a bibliophile!" (Ms. Mentor gives that a D plus.)

This year's Ackies, as in the past, are reader recommendations drafted by the judges listed below. The judges have also thoughtfully provided letter grades, which readers are welcome to dispute. Reports have been condensed by Ms. Mentor, for today's deplorably short attention spans. And now, without further ado, here are the 2012 Ackies (Academic Novel Awards), in order of grade:

  • Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. When a galaxy-spanning civilization collapses, a single planet-sized university is a bastion against the coming darkness. Subsequent administrators must cope with the onrush of barbarian hordes. Unbelievably timely. Grade: A+.
  • The Red Squad, by E.M. Broner. A literature professor of a certain age gets a mysterious package of documents from her 1960s life as an A.B.D., composition instructor, and antiwar activist—one of whose colleagues went underground, while another turned police informant. Self-important administrators and whining students are skewered, while moments of real teaching and learning are celebrated. Grade: A.
  • The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. In this sprawling, tragicomic story, Chip is a promising young assistant professor of "textual artifacts" whose life spirals out of control after a sexual adventure with a former student. Freed from academe, Chip is like a domestic animal released into the wild—who turns his rage into a biographical screenplay, borrows heaps of money, and gets swept up into an international money scam. Grade: A.
  • The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. At a college championship game, a superstar shortstop makes a devastatingly wild throw, leading to a crisis of confidence and faith. There are encounters with a charming dean, his errant daughter, and a stoic baseball captain, all in a closely knit small college. What seem to be clichés—mythic baseball history, allusions to Melville, and scandalous academic affairs—finally produce a coming-of-age soufflé light enough to be easy to read and rich enough to be satisfying. Grade: A.
  • Book, by Robert Grudin. Vicious academic feuds gestate and mutate, becoming ever more deadly and hysterical. Even the footnotes scale the margins in a bold gesture of defiance. Nothing is sacred. Grade: A-.
  • Waking the Moon, by Elizabeth Hand. In the 1970s, in an ancient Ivy League university, a freshman becomes embroiled in an occult fraternity—and in the resurgence of a female principle at odds with the clandestine brotherhood. This is Hecate versus Apollo, a feminine will to power. Outrageous, gorgeously written, and mesmerizing. Grade: A-.
  • The Small Room, by May Sarton. Enmeshed in a plagiarism case, a novice literature teacher at a small New England college has to confront classic questions about the goals and ethics of teaching. From the 1950s, this is an important book showing women's lives in an all-female educational environment. Some cloaked lesbian content. Grade: A-.
  • The Sleep of Reason, by E.M. Dadlez. An evil administrator seizes power over an English department. The agenda is to streamline the curriculum, eliminate departments, and replace required courses with pay-per-view, multiple-choice exams. The next step will be the outright sale of bachelor's degrees. Mean-spirited but entertaining academic farce. Grade: B+.
  • Obedience, by Will Lavender. A psychological thriller in which logic students are assigned to find out what has become of a hypothetical missing girl—before she is killed. Is this an exercise in critical reasoning, or something more sinister? Distinctions between fiction and reality become progressively more blurred. Pleasantly maddening. B+.
  • That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis. His academic horror novel captures the way that academics can (in this story, literally) go to the devil—by abandoning the love of knowledge in favor of power and promotion. Lewis lampoons scholars who build a facade of incoherence, trying to produce an air of profundity without meaning anything at all. Hate the way he deals with female characters. Love the way he pillories the academy. All his criticisms still apply. Grade: B+.
  • Joe College, by Tom Perrotta. A blue-collar wannabe gets a scholarship to Yale and tries to negotiate, without much grace, the radically incompatible and turbulent sides of his altered life. Wildly funny, in the most cringe-making possible ways. Grade: B+.
  • Blue Angel, by Francine Prose. Floridly neurotic writing professors and students collide in a caustic indictment of sexual-harassment politics. Brilliant on how truly bad bad writing can be. Politically annoying, agonizing, and hilarious by turns. Grade: A-/B+.
  • Matricide at St. Martha's, by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Jack Troutbeck, college bursar, is a cigar-smoking, gin-swilling woman who is rudely outspoken in a particularly hilarious British way. The institution is troubled; the men are afraid of Jack; and naturally, murder ensues. Many colorful, intrepid women characters. Grade: B.
  • The Whiff of Death, by Isaac Asimov. Chemists in academe—graduate students, stuck-in-place assistant professors—have to deal with a dictatorial, power-grabbing professor emeritus. The campus wars are brutal, petty, and inescapable. A murder ensues. Not memorable but fun to read. Grade: C+.
  • All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, by Lan Samantha Chang. The creative-writing workshops are supposed to be about literary art, but instead, they're deeply wounding power struggles. Two male students—one awkward and dreamy, the other handsome and cruel—hang on the words of a femme fatale teacher/poet. Elegant and cold-blooded story, sad without being fully engaging. Grade: C+.
  • A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness. Oxford scholars include witches, vampires, and daemons in their ranks. Interspecies romances ensue in the first episode of a suspense/fantasy trilogy. This is less an academic novel than an attempt to cash in on the sexy vampire trend in fiction. There's a satisfyingly convoluted mystery, but everyone is too good looking. Grade: C.

And now, you, Ms. Mentor's readers, may appeal these grades, seek extra credit, emit praise or hecklings, or devise good essay questions to test other readers. Or send the first sentence of your own academic novel.


Question: Despite heat or hail, are you already collecting nominations and reviews (three sentences and a letter grade) for next year's Ackies column?

Answer: Yes.


Sage readers: Ms. Mentor thanks this year's judges for their dedicated work, and encourages would-be future reviewers to find samples and inspiration on Schooled in Mystery, the best academic-mystery blog. The favorite subjects of academic novels will always be with us: sexual harassment, midlife crises, and homicide.

Ms. Mentor lauds the scholar judges for this year's Ackies: Andrew Banecker, Eva Dadlez, Andrea Estepa, Susan Koppelman, Melody Moskowitz, Mark Silcox, Jeffrey Swenson, and Evelyn Tracy.

Ms. Mentor invites queries, rants, and deeply felt answers to this question: Is malice in academe rare—or rife? She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always mingled promiscuously. If you think you recognize yourself or your colleagues in Ms. Mentor's column, your vocation is clear: You must write an academic novel. Now.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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