STORIFYING THE ACADEMY: A PRIMER ON ACADEMIC FICTION
Back in September 2013 Inside Higher Ed published an article by Todd C. Ream about the show The Big Bang Theory and its depiction of tenure. I hadn’t watched the show before and didn’t even realize it was about professors. But I probably should have known about it. I study academic fiction – popular depictions of academia in novels and films and other creative forms – and I’ve tried to stay on top of the latest examples in the genre. That article prompted a brief exchange among some academics on Twitter about other depictions of higher education in popular culture, and some of them pondered whether there had been any critical analysis on the subject.
I’ve seen these conversations played out online many times before. Here’s how it usually goes: Someone posts a listicle on what they believe to be the Top 10 academic novels or the Top 10 academic films. Then a commenter comes along and writes, “Ooh, nice list, but what about [insert academic novel or film that they liked].” And then someone else comes along and says, “Yeah, and what about [insert other academic novels and films].” And on and on it goes.
In the interest of moving these conversations forward, I thought it might be helpful to take a look at the field of academic fiction criticism. Yes, there is such a thing. Several scholars have written books and articles analyzing these depictions of academia in popular culture.
When it comes to academic novels the best place to start would be John Kramer’s thorough bibliography The American College Novel: An Annotated Bibliography, first published in 1981 and updated in 2004. The updated version lists 648 novels ranging from major novels written by critically acclaimed novelists and published by big corporate publishing houses, to independently published first novels by minor authors. The bibliography is broken down into “student-centered” and “staff-centered” novels. Some critics in this field like to make a distinction between college novels which began to take form around the early 20th century, and which were mostly about the fleeting years of undergraduate life, and academic novels a genre that came about in the 1950s with books like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe. The latter novels tend to be about the “lifers” – grad students, professors and administrators, for whom academia is a career. The distinction can be helpful sometimes, but I’ve tried not to be too deterministic about it.
Kramer also published another annotated bibliography, Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction (first published in 1983, and expanded in 2000), which covers academic novels with mystery or detective plots set in academia, a sub-genre that includes one of the all-time greatest titles for any academic novel ever, Death in a Tenured Position (1986) written by Carolyn Heilbrun under her nom de plume Amanda Cross.
While the Kramer bibliographies focus on the United States, the academic novel really took form in England in the 19th century, and the earliest works were dominated by Oxford and Cambridge. John Dougill’s Oxford in English Literature: The Making and Undoing of the English Athens (1998) chronicles the many creative depictions of Oxford in novels, poetry, plays and films. Most critics agree that the first college novel in the U.S. was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe (1828) a book based on his experiences as a student at Bowdoin College in Maine. Early studies of the academic novel covered the genre in England and the U.S. and they included works such as Mortimer Proctor’s The English University Novel (1957) and John Lyons’s The College Novel in America (1963). Then came books such as Ian Carter’s Ancient Cultures of Conceit (1990), Janice Rossen’s The University in Modern Fiction (1993), Kenneth Womack’s Postwar Academic Fiction (2002) and Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents (2005), which have all added more theoretical approaches to the genre. There have also been some substantial critical articles on academic fiction such as “The Rise of the Academic Novel” a 2012 article in American Literary History by Jeffrey J. Williams in which he provides some statistical analysis of the growth of the academic novel, based in part on the data from the Kramer bibliographies. (As you can tell, there continues to be an Anglo-American bias at work here, and one of the biggest critiques of this body of literature is that it needs to be more global.)
The interest in academic novels remains strong. I’ve been astonished by the growing interest in the John Williams novel Stoner, a book I have written about before. It was first published in 1965, but recently reissued in The New York Review Books Classic series in 2003, and it has been tearing up the literary Internet over the last five years as more and more readers have discovered it, and assigned it in classes and blogged about it. There have been newer entries into the genre in recent years such as Mat Johnson’s Pym and Susan Choi’s My Education, not to mention a whole slew of self-published e-book romance novels and mystery novels set in academia. (I can’t say I know too many of them well right now, but I’m working my way there slowly.)
As far as film goes, John Conklin’s Campus Life in the Movies: A Critical Survey from the Silent Era to the Present (2008) is the best book-length survey of college films, identifying 681 films that feature college campuses in some form. The only beef I have with Conklin’s book is that he chose to exclude films about graduate students and professors in favor of movies about undergraduate life. It’s a minor quibble, but leaves out great films such as the 2003 adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, or the Mike Nichols directed 2001 HBO film Wit, based on the play by Margaret Edson and featuring Emma Thompson as John Donne scholar Vivian Bearing. Wit is a wonderful film, that I consider among the best depictions of the scholarly life. I’ve made a couple of feeble attempts at listing academic films on my own blog. At some point I hope to write about more recent additions to the genre, including the stellar Israeli film Footnote (2011) about a pair of father and son Talmud scholars involved in a painful academic award mix-up, and the less than stellar, but still interesting, 2013 Tina Fey comedy Admission, which is mostly worth seeing for Lily Tomlin’s performance.
So what’s the point of all this? For much of its history, the academic novel has been criticized as a trivial genre, a largely intramural body of literature only of interest to a limited, snobby world of academic elites and written by bitter professors who wanted to hash out petty disputes through thinly veiled caricatures of their institutions and colleagues. Indeed, most of these critics acknowledge that the field of academic fiction is cluttered with just such books. Nevertheless, these critics have also given us many reasons for why this genre deserves serious consideration, and have also proven that the settings of these stories are not as limited to elite spaces as they once were. The genre has evolved as the population of students at colleges and universities has grown. For me, the appeal of the academic novel is in the ancient practice of storytelling. I think people turn to academic novels and films because these works help us to understand the meaning of higher education by communicating what it feels like to be connected to these institutions. Academic fiction speaks to the aspirations, disappointments and triumphs that students and professors experience in their academic lives, and it links the travails of the individual student or professor to a bigger story about the history and origin and purpose of higher education.
Just as the website Storify helps Internet users to collect disparate digital material from across the web and organize it into a singular, digestible narrative, the academic novel also takes the disparate information of academic life – the statistics, the history, the anecdotes, the experiences, the impressions – and turns all of that information into a compelling narrative that communicates to other people what it means to be a part of these institutions.
When high school students select a college to attend, they not only look at the facilities and the rankings and the graphs showing salaries of recent graduates, but inevitably they want to have conversations with students at these schools to try to get a sense of what it feels like to go there. What they really want are the compelling stories about the institution, something beyond the data that will help them decide which school will be most fulfilling for them. Like many other graduates of black colleges the TV show A Different World inspired my own decision to attend an HBCU. And in the summer before I went to Morehouse I rented Spike Lee’s School Daze from the local Blockbuster and watched it several times over. (There’s been talk of a sequel to the film swirling around for years. We’ll see if anything comes of it.)
I realize my topic is ridiculously reflexive, making me some kind of an academic ourobouros or a Möbius strip – an academic writing about academics writing about academia. Yes, I’ve been asked before if I’ve considered writing an academic novel myself, and yes, it has occurred to me that it might be a head-trip to read an academic novel about a graduate student writing a dissertation on academic novels. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to it, but I’m not afraid to throw that out there as a challenge. If someone wants to scoop me on it, you’re welcome to it.
So has this subject really gone too far? Despite our claims about the critical importance of the academic novel, and its relevance to issues beyond the Ivory Tower, aren’t we critics of academic fiction and authors of academic novels, at the end of the day, really just a bunch of insular navel-gazers? Maybe. But I suspect that as long as people keep on going to college there will always be someone willing to tell her story about it, and someone else who will want to read it, and then maybe, just maybe, a curious critic will wander along later and find that book and feel an urge to read it, and write about it.