Ms. Mentor on the Academic Novel

I don’t know how I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning the “Ms. Mentor” articles on academic novels that have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education for the past several years. I’ve certainly been aware of them, and have plucked a few novel reading recommendations from them since I’ve been working on this project.  The latest installation “Writing Academic Novels for Fun and (Little) Profit” was just published in The Chronicle on June 2. The column is ostensibly about how one might go about writing an academic novel, but it’s also a pretty good primer on some of the genre’s conventions, which, admittedly, are not always so fresh.

I also noticed this part: “Academic novels are no longer a rarefied genre, skewed a bit toward the Anglophile, as they were nearly 10 years ago, when Elaine Showalter wrote her elegant and witty survey, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents.” Well yeah, that’s pretty much what my whole dissertation was about. It’s not so much that the academics novels have changed. The change is that critics are now finding, reading and analyzing all those novels out there that are not just about Oxford, Cambridge, Yale or Harvard.

Ms. Mentor’s article ends with a list of suggested readings. To that list I would add my own bibliography of black academic novels. You might also check out the Schoolsville blog, which has running lists of  academic novels from various locations.

Over the summer, I’ll be posting more about academic novels, including Buchi Emecheta’s Double Yoke, a novel that I admit I overlooked in my dissertation. I think Emecheta’s work, (including Double Yoke and Second-Class Citizen, among others) is pressing and relevant now that the education of women in Nigeria has become a big topic in international news over the past several weeks.

I have a lot more thinking, reading and writing to do on Emecheta’s work before I feel up to posting something substantial here, but so far I can say that excluding her work in my dissertation was a major oversight on my part. And I think her writing could help to provide a critical link between the academic novel and the academic memoir, between the black American academy which was the focus of my own work, and the diaspora to which that work is connected. One of the big questions I struggled with in the dissertation is why are there so few academic novels by black women? One way I tried to answer that question is to point to the academic memoir as a genre that more women seem to have taken up in lieu of academic novels. Stephanie Evans’s book Black Women in the Ivory Tower looks at the memoirs written by black women academics such as Fanny Jackson Coppin, Mary Church Terrell, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Beatrice Morton, Rose Butler Brown, and Pauli Murray. In my initial proposal I also sketched out a chapter on Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, and that is another novel that I am working on including in the book project.

So between Ms. Mentor’s article and my own suggestions you should have plenty of academic novel reading options to choose from this summer.

You can check out the previous Ms. Mentor columns here:



Well, I figured it was about time I announced this on my blog (though now that I’ve added the Twitter widget to this site anyone could also have seen it there).  On Friday, April 4, 2014, I successfully defended the dissertation. Finally.  By Wednesday it will be deposited and I will officially have the rank of Ph.D.

I thought about doing some grandiose write-up about my experiences in this Ph.D. program, and the reasons why I did it, and the reasons why it turned out the way it did.  But then I remembered that I tend to avoid the graduate school advice conversations because I admit my reasons were not altogether financially and professionally sound or responsible.  And probably that’s because I don’t think that everything we do in life must be subjected to a cynical cost-benefit analysis.  And then I end up sounding like some kind of naive idealist, and who the hell needs those in today’s corporate education system?

So suffice to say, it is done, and I’m glad it is done.  For now my plans are to continue working on my topic and adding more content to this blog.  I am also working towards building a book on this subject, and I know that’s going to take a lot of time and effort over the next few months.

In the meantime, here’s the abstract:


The Over-Education of the Negro: Academic Novels, Higher Education and the Black Intellectual


A. Lavelle Porter

Advisor: Robert Reid-Pharr

This dissertation focuses on the academic novel – a literary genre which fictionalizes the lives of students and professors in institutions of higher education. In particular this project focuses on academic novels written by black writers and which address issues in black higher education. This dissertation has two concurrent objectives: 1) to examine the academic novel as a particular genre of literature, and to highlight some specific novels on black American identity within this genre, and 2) to illustrate the pedagogical value of academic fiction. Through the ancient practice of storytelling, academic novels link the travails of the individual student or professor to a bigger story about the history and origin and purpose of colleges and universities. The “Introduction” provides a basic overview of the academic novel, the black academic novel, and an analysis of the history of black higher education through discourses of over-education. Chapter One, “Toward a Theory of the Black Academic Novel,” provides a literature review of criticism on academic fiction and makes connections with black literary criticism in order to create a framework for reading black academic novels. This chapter also includes a historical survey of black academic fiction leading up to the three novels in the following chapters, which were written after the 1980s, and which are framed by discussions of culture wars and capitalism. Chapter Two, “Culture Warriors,” is an examination of Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring (1993) in the context of the “culture wars” and the development of multiculturalism in higher education. Chapter Three, “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong,” examines Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001) and the politics of authenticity in black literary and cultural production. Chapter Four, “Homo Academicus,” is an interpretation of Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man (1994:2002) as an academic novel, showing how the novel articulates a queer black intellectual practice as a challenge to discourses of respectability, particularly during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The “Conclusion” speculates on the future, and possible obsolescence, of the novel (including the black academic novel) as a literary form, and the role of black intellectuals in the digital humanities.

Cuts by Malcolm Bradbury


Bradbury, Malcolm. Cuts.  Picador, 1987.

A few months ago I read the short novel Cuts by Malcolm Bradbury.  The book immediately caught my attention with its emphasis on budget cuts as a recurring theme.  The novella is a critique of Thatcherite Britain in the 1980s, and for me it immediately resonated with our current moment of austerity in higher education, with talk of slashing budgets, reducing staff and dissolving academic departments.

I have to say upfront that I haven’t yet read the more important Bradbury academic novels, namely Eating People is Wrong (1959) and The History Man (1975).  So I admit that Cuts may be an odd book to write about, and I can’t say that it is necessarily representative of Bradbury’s body of work.  That said, I did find the book interesting enough to jot down a few notes about it after I finished it.

In Cuts, all of the budget trimming is juxtaposed against the extravagant and wasteful spending of the TV and film industry.  Supposedly this book was based on Bradbury’s experience working on the televised adaptation of The History Man.

Henry Babbacombe is a lecturer and obscure novelist who unexpectedly ends up being courted to help write a television drama, though he had never written for television before.  Later, he finds out he got hired for the gig because his literary agent was sleeping with a network executive, and she had goaded the executive into getting one of her writers hired for the job.

The novel works well as a satire of the entertainment industry and it is filled with images of the coarseness of people who work in an industry obsessed with only the most immediately profitable ideas.  (Even when those very ideas are so looney that it is obvious they will never even make a profit).

In this case Babbacombe finds out that writing for television involves little writing at all.  He is constantly bombarded with so many phone calls and couriers and trips that he barely even gets the script started.  He’s called into London to meet with the producer when he only has a skeleton of the script started.  When he gets there he realizes they are not interested in “writing” at all, but in trying to build a show based on marketing and on whatever big name actors they can convince to star in it.

Bradbury shows the disconnect between the isolated writing that a novelist does and the writing-by-committee that happens in TV and film production.  As an academic novel it is interesting in the way that the main character tries to understand the place of literature in a media saturated world.  It brought to mind Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s study The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, a book that deals with the influence of media on literature.  Fitzpatrick actually argues in favor of engagement with new forms of media and she questions whether the discourse of obsolescence (in literary fiction at least) is partly driven by fears that women and minorities and the lower classes are encroaching on the authority and influence once wielded by a few esteemed and well-connected white male writers.

Appropriately enough, I recently watched a documentary about screenwriting called Tales from the Script which included some similar observations that Bradbury makes in Cuts. The film is composed of conversations with several screenwriters who have successfully had screenplays produced in Hollywood.   One of the screenwriters talked about this being a “post-content” era.  Fewer films are being made from stories or scripts composed by writers.  Instead they are often  cobbled together from focus groups, market research, and imitations of previous films that have been successful at the box office.

When Babbacombe is first hired to write the script, he goes back to the small university where he has been teaching evening literature classes and he asks the department chair for an impromptu leave of absence.  He intends to keep teaching there, but knows he will need time away given the demands that the producers are asking from him. The chair bristles at his request and informs Babbacombe that because of budget concerns they were looking to axe a couple of people anyway.  Babbacombe had just made it easier for the chair to cut him since the chair could use Babbacombe’s new gig to justify that he didn’t really need the teaching job anyway.

The novel ends with a ridiculous scene on the set of the production in Zurich, Switzerland.  Babbacombe’s script is hardly a script at all, and he has just been swept along in the mad swirl of activity around the production.

As a brief tale about the state of education in a chaotic age dominated by entertainment and profit, Bradbury’s Cuts provides a rather perceptive look at what it means to be an academic and a writer amid the noise and rancor of the 21st century.