From David Lodge to David Brent?

September 9, 2005

Elaine Showalter, a proud member of the Sabbatical Generation, casts a nostalgic eye over the faculty novel and asks if it is time to bring this classic genre into the noughties

On the eve of my retirement from Princeton University in 2003, I was invited by the University of Pennsylvania Press to contribute to a series of short books about professorial obsessions called Personal Takes.

Mine was a celebration of my favourite genre, the Anglo-American academic novel dealing with the faculty rather than the students. Students are transients at universities, and their stories are about coming of age and moving on. The faculty novel is mainly about the contradictions between the lofty ethics and pure intellectual aspirations of the university and the petty, material or brutal realities of those who compete for status and survival within it. Professors who believe they have been called to live the life of the mind find themselves grappling with far more worldly dilemmas, and this irony generates a wide range of plots, from the campus election stories of the 1950s to the sexual harassment sagas of the present.

Over the past 50 years, the faculty novel, or Professorroman, has offered a social history of the university as well as a spiritual, political and psychological guide to its professional culture. I called my personal take Faculty Towers , in reference both to Trollope's Barchester Towers , the archetypal Victorian clerical novel; and to the archetypal TV series Fawlty Towers , about an irascible and deluded hotel owner. Now Faculty Towers , revised for British readers, is being published by Oxford University Press.

I've taught or lectured in several places that have been fictionalised in academic novels, and I've even appeared as a character. But Faculty Towers is not a memoir. Rather, it's a nostalgic survey of the works that served me as guidebooks, from the late 1950s when I scoured them looking for clues to the pursuit of a vocation and lifestyle; to the 1960s and 1970s, when I read them for information about how to juggle my roles as a woman in the university; through the long, dark tunnel of theory in the 1980s, until the struggles over academic industrialisation, multiculturalism, political correctness and disciplinary chaos in the 1990s.

The Anglo-American aspect reflected my experience, too. I was part of what Malcolm Bradbury called "the Sabbatical Generation" of the 1960s and 1970s, "the brand-new breed of scholars, students, critics, journalists, poets and novelists who used to gather on each side of the Atlantic every late summer to exchange themselves for their counterparts on the other, passing each other in mid-Atlantic". In David Lodge's comic classic Changing Places (1969), Philip Swallow from the University of Rummidge (Birmingham?) switched with Morris Zapp from the State University of Euphoria (Berkeley?) in a six-month exchange of offices, jobs and even wives; and both are liberated by the experience. I've never changed places, although I've spent summers and sabbaticals in London since 1972. I love Zapp, one of academic fiction's most hilarious and revolutionary characters, a professor who unabashedly aims for financial and sexual success, loves power and is not despised or punished for being crass, sexist, competitive, hedonistic and horny. My only objection is that I can't imagine his female equivalent. A woman professor this confident, aggressive and self-promoting would be bumped off, and in many academic mystery novels, the victim is a female professor or department chair.

Indeed, some of the most significant changes that took place in literary studies during my academic era were the impact of feminism and the addition of women to faculties. When I started reading academic novels, I was looking for helpful information about women on the faculty, but although one of my early favourites, Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (1952), had many, I found very few other examples until the 1970s, when I had tenure and didn't need them as much. Women featured in academic novels primarily as faculty wives, and although I too was a faculty wife, that role was pretty clearly defined, while the role of the woman professor was much more uncertain. But finding a novel about a woman professor who struggles to juggle teaching, research, a husband and children - the basic dilemma of the modern professional woman - has always been difficult. Most female professors in fiction are in mystery novels. But even those, as well as the heroines of more analytic novels such as Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman (1974) and Lodge's Nice Work (1988), are single. There is a lot of harsh satiric writing about feminist literary critics in universities, by women as well as men. Leonora Stern, the pushy American women's studies professor in A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990), is a particularly gruesome example.

Carolyn Heilbrun's detective heroine, English professor Kate Fansler, is one of the first positive role models, although Heilbrun's best-known book, Death in a Tenured Position (1981), is far from encouraging to feminist faculty or even anti-feminist faculty. There are token women, such as her dead protagonist Janet Mandelbaum, a Harvard University English professor.

Women in the academic novel just can't win. In contrast, the rise and decline of literary theory has been fully explored in the academic novel.

Even though many of the grand European masters had gone to rock and roll heaven by 1984 when Lodge published his satire Small World , the book continued to play a significant role in professional advancement, and literary theorists featured in many academic novels as the villain. If theorists did not actually hate literature, as some anti-theorists contended, they certainly did not seem to value it in comparison with the infinite complexities of comment upon it. As late as 2001, in the mammoth Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory , those academics who "advocate a return to studying literature for itself" are forced into the editors' binary world as "antitheorists", a band of heretics as quaint as Anabaptists.

But the academic novel tells a different, and truer, story about the decline of theory and the impact of that decline on those who had committed themselves to it. Nelson, in James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale , tries to conform to academic fashion; he had wanted to write his dissertation on "Guilt and Predestination in the Works of James Hogg", but is bullied into writing an unpublishable thesis called "The Transgendered Calvinist: James Hogg in Butlerian Perspective", loses his marginal teaching job, and gives up scholarship in despair. In Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (2001), Chip Lambert teaches theory as an assistant professor of textual artifacts but loses his job in a sexual harassment case, and then faces the market corrections that affect academic as well as Wall Street investors. Finally, having maxed out all his credit cards and exhausted even his sister's generosity, Chip is forced to sell his academic library. All he has left are "his beloved cultural historians and his complete hardcover Arden Shakespeare" so "he piled his Foucault and Greenblatt and hooks and Poovey into shopping bags and sold them all for $115". Fact now follows fiction; on a litcrit blog in August, a young professor described seeing the classics of theory piled up in his local bookstore as "litcrap".

In the 21st century, the genre of faculty fiction attracted some big names - John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, J. M. Coetzee - who represent disillusion and frustration with the academic career in general through the metaphor of sexual harassment. Why so? Of course, sex sells better than philosophy or accounts of the job market; and the notion of the professor seducing the student or vice versa goes back to Abelard and Heloise. But there is also something about the sexual harassment plot, with its metaphors of recaptured youth and potency (Roth's Coleman Silk in The Human Stain is taking Viagra); intellectual and spiritual renewal; and even victimisation and martyrdom that seems to appeal to many contemporary male writers. The sexual harassment story is a fable about academic crisis, the loss of academic faith and power and a metaphor for personal unhappiness, professional disappointment and intellectual regret. In the standard plot, a well-meaning and dedicated teacher is entrapped by a scheming young student, and his downfall is manipulated by a feminist ideologue. The man's life work, or even his life, is tragically destroyed by these women and by the failures of the university community to defend them. For these victims, the ivory towers have become fragile fortresses with glassy walls.

Nonetheless, these sexual harassment novels, often written by non-academics, are very unrealistic. In the US, at least, the accused harassers are usually not being victimised by sultry undergraduates or disgruntled female colleagues, and they do not resign or have guilty breakdowns, but hire tough lawyers and get huge settlements. Moreover, the most complex and lasting effects of sexual harassment cases are their traumatic impact on the department and the community, effects that no novelist has yet satisfactorily explored.

The more profound and unwritten story, I think, is about finding intellectual and creative renewal in the course of a long academic career.

In fiction, and in life, male professors often solve this problem indirectly by shedding the first "faculty" wife (who, of course, is not really part of the faculty) and acquiring a younger "graduate student" wife (who is potentially part of the faculty), a new young family and a new job.

Sometimes this buys the man extra time; but sometimes, ironically, the second wife turns into an uncanny replica of the first one, and the cycle has to be repeated. In either case, this strategy is unavailable to female professors, and I would like to read (or perhaps write) a novel that took up the question of renewal, what we might call the academic crisis of faith, more broadly and directly.

If the academic novel survives into the 21st century, there are many more themes which would make great subjects. I'd enjoy reading a novel that begins with the search for the new president - an elaborate, Pope-crowning sort of event - then brings in a president who rapidly becomes a news-maker, hatchet-man and clumsy legislator of controversial ideas, someone whose corporate philosophy and brash style clashes with the treasured traditions and history of the institution and directly offends segments of it.

This would update the campus-election plot created by C. P. Snow but bring it into connection with the management styles of the 21st-century university. As Lodge commented recently on Changing Places , the differences between American and English higher education are no longer as stark and funny as they were in the 1960s: "The two systems have drawn closer together: American universities have become less euphoric places, English universities more competitive, as have the countries to which they belong." But those changes could also be subjects of a new academic fiction, even if the common room now resembles The Office and assistant professors are as cutthroat as the contestants in The Apprentice .

Elaine Showalter is emeritus professor of the humanities and English at Princeton University. Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents is published by Oxford University Press, £12.99.

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