The Magazine


Aug 4, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 46 • By J. BOTTUM
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The importance of British university faculty found some recognition in the Anglican "Oxford Movement" novels from J. A. Froude's The Nemesis of Faith to Mrs. Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere (perhaps the bestselling novel of the Victorian age). But the closest 19th-century equivalent to the modern academic tale may be less the open campuses of the undergraduate novel than the confined cathedral closes of bishops, deans, and archdeacons in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, and the claustrophobic world of London's intellectual journalists in George Gissing's New Grub Street -- each the site of actual grown-ups fighting in very tight spaces for very small rewards.

For the most part, mystery writers were the first -- even before Amis, Snow, and the rest of the 1950s authors -- to notice the uses to which the narrow college settings and welldefined faculty formalities could be put: Dorothy Sayers published her one college mystery, Gaudy Night, in 1936; and J. I. M. Stewart, author of over 20 campus mysteries, produced under the pseudonym " Michael Innes" his archetypal Death at the President's Lodging in 1936.

Though the faculty murder mystery remains a recognizable publishing category, little real distinction between it and the mainstream academic novel now remains. With the increased respectability of mystery writing, and especially with the increased brutality of the academic novel after its revival in the mid-1970s, the various subgenres have all blurred together, and even such comic British redbrick-university tales as Tom Sharpe's Wilt can now include murders, while such mysteries as the British traditionalist Jocelyn Davey's Murder in Paradise and the American feminist Susan Kenney's Graves in Academe contain what is at least intended as serious social criticism.

It's difficult to say quite why the modern academic novel -- essentially, the story of squabbling college teachers -- emerged so suddenly from this stew of schoolboy stories, undergraduate novels, murder mysteries, ancient legends of pedants and bookworms, chronicles of cathedral closes, and tales of journalistic struggles. It may derive from little more than the growing presence of faculty women and the aging in fiction of legitimate sexual desire that no longer requires love stories to be about 19-year-olds.

Or it may originate simply in the 20th-century rise of a middleclass professoriate to perform that most middle-class of activities, the writing of novels. Certainly it owes a great deal to the growth of the universities after World War II and the increase in both faculty and graduates as interested audiences. It may even have something to do with the acceptance of fiction and critical theory as proper subjects for university scholarship and the consequent development of the novel that refers back to the study of other novels. (Though it's hard now to remember, there was a time when fiction was thought by serious scholars to be as inappropriate a subject for a college curriculum as, say, movies and television programs were until recently.)

Perhaps the most important cause of the academic novel, however, is the appearance of writers in professional writing programs. It was for a reason that McCarthy, Nabokov, and Jarrell began to write their scholastic stories at the same time that they began making semester-long star appearances on college campuses. In the case of Richard Russo's Straight Man and Jon Hassler's The Dean's List, the result is entirely destructive: a pair of engaging novelists-turned-writingprofessors who have used up their old stock of experiences and observations and now have nothing left to write about but their own collegiate lives.

The ancient gibes at intellectuals have at least this much truth in them: It is dangerous to leave anything entirely in the hands of academics. In 1713, J. B. Mencken wrote The Charlatanry of the Learned, a pair of commencement addresses at Leipzig that let the graduating students in on faculty humor, cataloging the funny stories professors tell about themselves.

As his descendant H. L. Mencken pointed out when he prepared a new edition in the 1930s, the little book became an instance of its own joke as generation after generation of scholars overwhelmed the text with scholia, squeezing into footnotes all their own favorite anecdotes and quips.

But the hundreds of college professors busily writing since the 1950s have at last played out that mine of academic waggery. And as they became more and more outrageous in their search for something new to say, they brought the entire academic project into disrepute -- scholarship denounced by scholars as trivial, the life of the mind rejected by intellectuals as meaningless, the university faculty proclaimed by the faculty themselves to be hateful.

And so we have come to the end of the academic novel in English. All its plots have grown stale, all its jokes have gone fiat, and all its possible narrative devices have been exhausted in the 400 academic burlesques, melodramas, and murder mysteries published in the last five years -- in the nearly 2,000 published since 1950. The time has come to shut it down.

Contributing editor J. Bottum, our fiction critic, is associate editor of First Things.