Question: I want to do what my American idol, Walt Whitman, recommended for the summer: "loafe and invite my soul." Can Ms. Mentor suggest academic novels with which I, an academic fledgling, may most profitably loafe?
Answer: Ms. Mentor is charmed by your request. Obviously you also know your Horace, who told us that the purpose of literature is to delight and instruct. Novels about academics and academic life will do both.
You'll see, for instance, the spasms of self-loathing, Weltschmerz, and ennui that supposedly plague midlife professors. You'll get the impression that entrenched male professors all pant for nubile "coeds," while neglecting their long-suffering wives. You'll find that bright female professors routinely solve murders, especially ones committed at the Modern Language Association's annual conference.
In real life, academicians do have flashes of wit, and they love gossip. They're honest researchers and dedicated teachers, and some revel in committee work. They may even have romances and happily marry each other, despite their terrible fear of fun. They rarely kill anyone, even at MLA meetings. But they do love to write about themselves and about the classroom as a site for contested and resisted hermeneutical hegemonies.
The first academic novels may be Plato's dialogues, in which the tireless Socrates bullies pupils into recognizing his brilliance (The Truth). There are no grade appeals. Socrates himself is the victim of overly harsh assessments by outside authorities.
Ferocious intellectual dramas still flavor academic novels, especially British ones, in which verbal dexterity is prized. In American academic novels, a pompous professor often winds up silent, dead, or charged with sexual harassment.
Ms. Mentor has written previously about love and death, futility and revenge in academic novels, and encourages readers to do their homework and peruse her earlier pronouncements here and here before proceeding. (There may be a test.)
Ms. Mentor has also picked out half a dozen always-nominated novels as the first members of the Academy of Academic Novels Hall of Fame. They are Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis; The Lecturer's Tale and Publish and Perish, by James Hynes; Changing Places and Small World, by David Lodge; Straight Man, by Richard Russo; and Moo, by Jane Smiley.
Many of those novels seem dated now—set in times when being a professor was a noble calling and even a well-paid one, attracting outspoken leftists and lavish travel money. That world has changed, but less so in academic novels, where mega-universities and elite liberal-arts colleges are still the norm. One exception is Dorothy Bryant's Ella Price's Journal (1972), the story of an "older" (35ish) woman who enrolls in a community college. But it took nearly 40 years before anyone wrote a novel told consistently from the perspective of an adjunct: Alex Kudera's Fight for Your Long Day (2010).
Academic novels today also welcome the differently alive: space aliens, zombies. In real life, Ms. Mentor hears about "ghost students" who appear nowadays on class rosters around the United States but never materialize in classes. Maybe their stories are next.
Readers sometimes wonder if they—or their professors—"are" the characters in academic novels. Emeritus Professor Elaine Showalter, author of Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, claims that she appears as a "prudish, dumpy judgmental frump" in one novel and as a "voluptuous, promiscuous, drug-addicted bohemian" in another. A less cheerful recent writer to Ms. Mentor, in a missive composed on a manual typewriter, urges her to "discuss the ethics of novelists drawing upon readily identifiable faculty members, some at least being satirized for comic effect and without just cause."
Ms. Mentor invited her flock to nominate academic novels for summer reading, and over 50 tomes were presented as possible winners of the "Ackies"—the accolades given by Ms. Mentor's Academy of Academic Novels, starting this year. This year's 11 finalists were chosen by Ms. Mentor and a panel of expert judges (identified below). They give not only wisdom (excerpted here) but also letter grades. And now the chosen ones, in order of grade:
- Glyph, by Percival Everett. The hero, an off-the-charts genius infant, has absurd adventures while debunking academic careerism and the desire to "make meaning." Comic gold for those who know semiotics. Grade: A+ (for the intended audience).
- The Human Stain, by Philip Roth. A noncomic novel in which a slip of the tongue turns into accusations of racism, leading to a rumination on racial politics, identity, and knowing/not knowing. Grade: A.
- On Beauty, by Zadie Smith. Hilarious and provocative account of a bumbling art professor who can't see beauty in real life, while the women around him are the true visionaries in and out of the university subculture. Grade: A.
- Pym, by Mat Johnson. An African-American professor fired for refusing to be on the Diversity Committee winds up assembling a diverse, comical ensemble to seek out the Antarctic paradise described in Edgar Allan Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Weirdly satirical parody, also about the danger of falling prey to our own fictions. Grade: A-.
- Now Playing at Canterbury, by Vance Bourjaily. A witty, metatextual romp mocking scientists' explanations of life and artists' efforts to depict nature. Grade: B+.
- The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. Rich, self-absorbed classics majors prefer silk and elaborate dinner parties over T-shirts and "dressed to get screwed" parties—but one of their number is murdered anyway. Grade: B+.
- Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett. A school for wizards has a budget crisis and suddenly has to field a football team to get funds, while cutting back on the wizards' meals and perks. A polite young goblin stars in this satire of heroic sports tales, full of puns and silliness for the well-informed. Grade: B+.
- Death in a Tenured Position, by Amanda Cross. The first tenured female professor has her drink spiked, passes out in a bathtub in a compromising position, and worse happens—finally sorted out by intrepid Kate Fansler, a discerning critic of academic hierarchies and plots. Grade: B.
- White Noise, by Don DeLillo. An amusing period piece, covering "Hitler studies" and "Elvis studies," but moving away from ironic academia to sexual politics and stolen drugs. Grade: B.
- On Borrowed Wings, by Chandra Prasad. Superior social commentary and interesting story about a woman who, in 1940, disguises herself as her dead brother to receive an education at Yale. Grade: B-.
- Possession, by A.S. Byatt. A passionately told love story woven into a realistic portrait of the troublesome competitive world of academia. Grade: B-.
You, Ms. Mentor's readers, may appeal those grades and, if you like, vote for a single novel to get this year's supreme Ackie. Responders will get extra credit, and you may vote as sincerely and as often as you choose.
Or you may choose to loafe.
Question: Will you, Ms. Mentor, provide your clamoring readers with the list of nominated-but-not-chosen academic novels, to add to our reading and loafeing pleasure?
Sage readers: Ms. Mentor thanks all who nominated novels for this year's Ackies, and she hopes that many more wise, witty, and well-crafted works will delight and instruct future readers.
As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, gossip, and rants, including opinions about the ethics of portraying a real-life professor as your nemesis or love puppy in an academic novel. Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never swiftly. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always smudged in published columns. They will never know that that hellion, or that stallion, was originally you. They'll think you were the loafer.
(c) Emily Toth