A pilgrim's progess report

December 18, 1998

Novelist and academic David Lodge is best known for his satires of life in universities on both sides of the Atlantic. With a distinguished career at Birmingham University behind him, he is also one of a handful of arts academics who havesuccessfully bridged the world of academe and the mass market. The 1980s saw television adaptations of two of his novels, Nice Work and Small World.

Modern Language Association president Elaine Showalter has made Nice Work a theme of the 1998 conference, taking up the novel's exploration of the cross-over between academic andcorporate work. Showalter suggests that big business, the corporate culture, isless 'demonic' than literature scholarslike to think.

A video interview between Elaine Showalter and David Lodge will accompany the MLA's screening of Nice Work. Edited extracts from the interview appear opposite

When the conference season is well and truly open, the whole academic world seems to be on the move. Half the passengers on transatlantic flights these days are university teachers.

Their luggage is heavier than average, weighed down with books and papersI clothes for lectures and clothes for the beachI For that's the attraction of the conference circuit, it's a way of converting work into playI at someone else's expense.

Write a paper and see the world. I'm Jane Austen, fly me. Or Shakespeare, or T. S. Eliot, or Hazlitt, all tickets to ride, to ride the jumbo jets. Wheee!" Extract from Small World, 1984.

Elaine Showalter: David, you've written so much about these academic conferences, like the Modern Language Association. In Nice Work, in Small World, you say the modern conference is like a medieval pilgrimage, but you also say it is a form of disguised work. Do you think the conference circuit is more of a pilgrimage or more of a business, and is academia itself more of a vocation or a business?

David Lodge: Small World is a novel set in 1979I I got the idea for it at the James Joyce symposium in Zurich, where scholars were converging from all over the world and meeting in the James Joyce Pub and making arrangements to go jogging. I thought this was an extraordinary phenomenon. I think it was still fresh then, still kind of a novelty to get in a jet and fly around the other side of the world and discuss things with your colleagues.

I think the pilgrimage analogy was that nominally you were there for spiritual reasons, you were cultivating your mind, meeting your colleagues to discuss scholarly matters. But it was also fun - this kind of party was going on.

In a way the same thing was true of the medieval pilgrimage, which started out as a very spiritual thing and then became a form of medieval tourism, as you can see from the Canterbury Tales, for instance.

My own perception is that now there is more a business element about academic conferences.

I get the impression that because the publish-or-perish syndrome has become more and more oppressive, the conference has become a machine for generating publication. A lot of conferences are just put on in a kind of entrepreneurial spirit for people to come and do their job and write their paper and get some credit for it. I think that's slightly taken away from the hedonism of the whole thing that I rather enjoyed.

ES: And, of course, the MLA was about the job market.

DL: Yes, the MLA always was rather different. It always did have this element of a "meat market'', we used to call it. The MLA is quite unique. It's different from any of the small specialist conferences, because its scope is so vast and there's a point at which quantity becomes quality. If you took each individual session of the MLA, a lot of it I think is rather boring and probably superfluous, but since it's all there and you can cruise around from one thing to another, it becomes something entirely different.

ES: In Nice Work in the 1980s you wrote that academe was rooted in Thatcher's Britain and the culture of cuts and in Darwinian survival, but even in Small World, universities are already a buyer's market. You know, this is what people are thinking now - that the business side of universities is overwhelming the spiritual side. Academe has always disguised the fact that it's always been in crisis, it's always been kind of a buyer's market.

DL: There were certain periods in England when academe was a seller's market. In the 1960s when the university system expanded suddenly, there was a shortage of teachers and you could walk into a job without even having a postgraduate degree finished. I know lots of people who did, but there haven't been many moments like that.

But now I would say, yes, academe has experienced this wave of capitalist laissez-faire economics that seems to have swept the world since the collapse of communism. Thatcher's Britain was a leader in this ideological movement - and although Thatcherism is gone, that legacy remains. The university is inevitably caught up in commercial, managerial, entrepreneurial processes that would have seemed very very bizarre to me when I entered the profession.

(But) I always thought of the American system as being much more entrepreneurial than the British. If you look at (my novel) Changing Places (1975), that's the sort of contrast that's made between the two systems: in Britain universities are sleepy, amateurish and bumbling, while the Americans seem much more competitive and cut throat.

I think now Britain's become more like America. The rewards aren't so great but the pressure is rather similar on people to compete and earn money. Tenure's been abolished in Britain, and it's much more like the hard world of commerce or business.

ES: That's what your (1988) novel Nice Work is partly about.

DL: It's about that transitional period when universities were being pushed or dragged, kicking and screaming into an entrepreneurial enterprise culture.

ES: The enterprise culture is not so terrible - it's not so demonic as academia likes to think.

DL: It's hard for me to make value judgements about this. I'm no longer a part of it now that I'm retired. Basically, the old British system was based on patronage: you got your first job, and you had it for life. In some ways that created a relaxed feeling, an atmosphere that tolerated eccentricity and allowed brilliant minds to get on with their work. It also allowed drones and dead wood to flourish without any interruption.

What's happened as a result of the entrepreneurial revolution is that there's much more scope for young people to get jobs - they don't have to kowtow so much to the professoriate as they used to. There's loss and gain as there is in most things.

Now that university education is a mass phenomenon, you can't run it like Oxford and Cambridge used to be run 50-odd years ago. There has to be some kind of management structure, some rationalisation. That brings with it the pressures we associate with "organisation man" - that are sometimes seen as hostile to academic values.

The basic problem is that nobody has worked out a way of rewarding merit in academia other than by (measuring) research publications. Everybody deplores the exercise, everybody says it produces a lot of useless and unloved and unlovable material but nobody can see any fair way of doing it otherwise. That is the dilemma facing academia at the moment. A certain amount of the fun has gone out of life there. That I regret. It's become a rather dour struggle.

ES: You were a novelist even when you were an undergraduateI and you combined (academic and writing) careers for a long time. Was it a struggle to keep a narrative voice, a public novelist's voice?

DL: Different people would cope in different ways. I created a schizophrenic existence for myself. I didn't operate in the university as a novelist, didn't discuss my novels or read my novels or teach creative writingI I impersonated a straight academic professor. Of course I knew my students were reading the novels, I knew my colleagues were reading them. That was the other David Lodge, another gentleman of the same name. That posture became more difficult to maintain as I became better known as a novelist, and as I became more senior as an academic.

There is a contradiction between the two roles. An academic has a kind of responsibility, a gravitas goes with the job, particularly in Britain. A novelist is basically anarchic in terms of organisations. His job is to look for contradictions and subvert professional mystiques and so on. That contradiction became more acute and I was actually glad to retire when I did. I finished Nice Work in retirement. I'm not sure I could have written it if I had gone on. I certainly couldn't have stood around the University of Birmingham campus and watched the film being made.

Some of my colleagues were more than a little hostile to the idea of the television film being made there. It was discussed in senate. The university did market research afterwards and established that the film was good for the university in spite of the satire, it formed a very positive view of the campus.

ES: You said the television version was more exciting than any novel you ever wrote. That was really the corporate world.

DL: Yes, although it was also an artistic world. It's because whatever the sense of solving problems in a novel, it's all private, you can't see the result of it until somebody reads it. But if you are working with a team on a television thing and some crisis comes and you need a new scene, a new bit of dialogue, and you sit down and do it and it works, then you get a kind of euphoria you don't get doing it all in your own head.

ES: In Small World, Euphoria is the name you give to the American university.

DL: Yes, it's something I associate with America generally. I find America brings out in me the appetite for pleasure and for intensity, packing things in, doing a lot of things. In Britain we are so naturally depressive and ironic and quiet.

The American academic of the Morris Zapp kind (Morris Zapp is the energetic American professor in Small World) intellectually personifies for me this quality of enjoyment and unabashed ambition, the wish to make things happen, that I find exhilarating. I probably would find it oppressive if I lived with it for long.

It's part of my generation. People who were children during the war remember America and the way it impinged on our consciousness through magazines as a place of infinite possibility.

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