Death of the Dons Quixote

February 21, 1997

Deprived of tenured dottiness and assailed by politicalcorrectness,is the hero with a licence to lecture becoming extinct? Adrian Mourby, with an extract from his campus novel (inset), examines the state of the academic in literature

Like it or not - and I suspect a lot of them secretly do - the university teacher is a frequent hero in fiction. Ever since Kingsley Amis breathed new life into a dusty old detective genre by depositing his don penniless and crimeless in a provincial university, the academic has fascinated some of this country's leading postwar writers. David Lodge, Frederic Raphael, Malcolm Bradbury, Michael Frayn, Tom Sharpe and Andrew Davies have all made heroes of the man with a licence to lecture.

Initially academic fact and fiction kept pace with each other because the writer was often a university teacher himself. Amis (Swansea) created a stir by accurately reflecting the intellectual and financial poverty of postwar academic life. Malcolm Bradbury (East Anglia) demonstrated how the ivory tower was very likely to be rife with internecine politics and David Lodge (Birmingham) reflected academia's need to forge lucrative links with industry. By the time Andrew Davies (Warwick) was writing his second series of Stephen Daker's adventures in A Very Peculiar Practice the accountants were not just at the portcullis, they were swarming all over the ivory tower and the spires were now concrete.

"Unfortunately," says Davies now, "A Very Peculiar Practice was very prophetic and things have got much worse since I wrote that. There's a general loss of nerve with tenure disappearing and even the most established old bastards having to take care that they're not toppled by PC. You can't even admit you're heterosexual these days in case it gives offence to homosexuals."

Nonacademics have also been attracted to the genre and they have helped glamorise the profession. Michael Frayn's The Trick Of It comprises a series of letters written by English lecturer Richard who has made a speciality of teaching a living author (known only as J. L.) whom he subsequently marries. Frayn uses the academic life as an opportunity to explore the relationship between creative artist and uncreative critic, in all its ultimate destructiveness. Although departmental politics intrude they mainly centre on the department's attempts to get Richard's new wife off the syllabus and he, for all his envy of J. L., remains a spokesman for the intellectual life. Suggest parallels between this and the struggles of an average academic today and s/he will snort with hysterical disbelief.

Similarly Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue and Vintage Stuff are books that hark back to a golden age of academic dottiness, of the kind that has all but disappeared since the 1940s when Sharpe himself was a student. Tenure, once considered vital for promoting and preserving academic freedom, is now a thing of the past and with it has gone much originality of thought - and eccentricity. One former tutor of mine told me, off the record, that putting university lecturers on short-term contracts has probably done more to change the character of university life than all the management directives and modularisation that have been heaped on them since.

Frederic Raphael's Glittering Prizes also looked back to an idealised academic life where wit and repartee were common currency. Although what strikes anyone rereading this book today are passages like Gavin Pope's exchange with one of his more politicised students at the new University of Staunton:

"It's absolutely disgusting,'' said Denise.

"Do you know, Denise,'' Gavin said, "that the foolish folk of Staunton might well, and in a deeply depressing majority, find it more disgusting that your delightful nipples are visible through your charming jersey?" You do not need to be a member of the SCR to recognise that no academic would ever get away with a line like that today. Given time political correctness may be the death of the academic novel. A certain amount of fun and/or outrage can be had at the expense of the worthy folk who seek to police our thoughts but there is a limit to how often this subject can be explored in fiction. David Mamet has already written Oleanna.

But academics complain most not of politics, budgetary constraints or intellectual myopia, but the sheer tedium of increasing bureaucracy. When I was researching my own academic novel, The Four Of Us, I was often told by university teachers: "I don't know why you want to write about us. All we do is fill in forms." Or use technology to get round bureaucratic measures like the research assessment exercise. Andrew Davies says lecturers are using the Internet to set up "citation cabals" where they promise to cite each other's work "because no one reads research any more, it's all about getting impact factors for being cited elsewhere". Another lecturer considered that it is the tone of academic novels that so often rings untrue. "The crucial thing is that a lot of these books were written by people who were students once and who are remembering their own youth, 20 or 30 years ago. No wonder they think university life is all about sex, drink and repartee. You don't get physics lecturers in Sheffield sitting round honing their bon mots, I can tell you."

Most significant of all is that all the lecturers I spoke to insisted that their views had to be reported anonymously. "I don't put my head above the parapet, ever,'' said one. Jim Dixon and Stephen Daker would never have said that. Neither would Frederic Raphael's Gavin Pope, Frayn's Richard or Bradbury's History Man. The tower is besieged and it sounds as if the defenders have got their heads well and truly down for the duration.

Adrian Mourby is a novelist and broadcaster. The Four of Us was published by Hodder Headline yesterday, Pounds 17.99.

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