THE END OF THE ACADEMIC NOVEL
Aug 4, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 46 • By J. BOTTUM
Two of America's most interesting novelists have recently produced books about the academic life: Richard Russo, author of the well-received working- class story Nobody's Fool, and Jon Hassler, author of the utterly charming Staggerford trilogy about a Minnesota schoolteacher's long- distance friendship with an Irish priest. In their competent and professional hands, the academic novel proves unexceptionable: funny where it can be, dramatic where it must be, clever, smooth, well constructed -- and such old, old news that even writers as capable as these two can find nothing new to say with it.
In Straight Man, Russo tells the story of William Henry Devereaux Jr. -- chairman of English at a Pennsylvania college and son of a famous literary critic -- who in the midst of various personal and professional difficulties announces on national television his desperate intention to kill a goose per day from the campus pond until his department gets its funding.
In The Dean's List, Hassler tells the story of Leland Edwards -- the hero of the earlier Rookery Blues, now the 58-year-old dean of his small school in Minnesota -- who tries desperately to shelter a visiting Robert Frost-like poet from his publishers, his fans, and the Internal Revenue Service.
The most significant thing about these books is something their authors could not possibly have intended: They reveal how utterly worn-out the academic novel has become in less than 50 years' time.
The notion of writing a novel entirely about university faculty never occurred to anyone before 1950. When it did appear, however, the idea seemed to dawn on everyone all at once, and the '50s and early '60s saw a spate of stories about academic life. For most of us today, Kingsley Amis's 1954 comedy Lucky Jim surrives as a classic in a way that C. P. Snow's 1951 drama The Masters does not, but what impressed readers at the time of their publication was how fresh the university setting of both these British novels seemed. And in America -- with the rapid publication of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin and Pale Fire, Bernard Malamud's A New Life, and, best of all, Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution -- a new genre seemed to have suddenly leapt forth full-grown.
In the 1960s and early '70s, the genre died down a bit, with significant publication only of John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, an allegory that portrays life as attendance at an American college (running from enrollment to graduation, with the constant danger of flunking out along the way), and Simon Raven's dyspeptic denunciation of rebellious British students in Places Where They Sing. But the academic novel roared back in the mid- '70s with four small classics: Tom Sharpe's brutal satire Porterhouse Blue; Malcolm Bradbury's anti-Marxist farce The History Man; Alison Lurie's leftist Vietnamera fable The War Between the Tates; and David Lodge's light-hearted comedy about Englishmen in America and Americans in England, Changing Places.
In the last two decades, the flow of academic novels has turned into a torrent, written mostly by actual academics as the rise of writing programs turned most of America's writers into college professors and the mockable turns of contemporary academia persuaded most of America's college professors to try their hands at satirical novels. But the humor of the revived genre became much more bitter. With some exceptions, the academic novels of the 1980s and '90s are caustic tales of unhappy people at work in an unfulfilling and unremunerative profession. Such works as Howard Jacobson's Coming From Behind (a British recasting of the typically American tale of the Jewish academic), David Benedictus's Floating Down to Camelot, Andrew Davies's A Very Peculiar Practice, and Jane Smiley's surprise 1996 bestseller Moo, are all marvelously telling books taken by themselves. Their combined effect, however, is to deplete the satirical possibilities of scholastic political correctness and find only pointlessness in the academic life. And in the much less enjoyable books that try to satirize or illustrate postmodem critical theory by playing postmodern narrative tricks -- David Caute's The Women's Hour, Christine Brooke-Rose's Textermination, and John L'Heureux's The Handmaid of Desire -- we encounter a cumulative denunciation of the entire life of the mind.