July 11, 2004

James Hynes and the Academic Novel

Posted by Ed

One of the most grievous failings of my education and my upbringing was that I never really learned to love reading literature or fiction: when I'm in need of a good book, it never occurs to me to go looking for a novel. (I find history books much more fun, after all!) As a result, I'm always pleasantly surprised when I happen upon a novel I enjoy--especially when I enjoy it so much that I feel the need to rush out and buy more of the author's books.

This week I discovered the works of the novelist James Hynes, whose books combine the subject matter of a David Lodge-style academic satire with the conventions of gothic horror stories. The first Hynes book I read, Publish and Perish, is a collection of three amusing novellas. In the first, "Queen of the Jungle," an untenured professor's career is destroyed by his malevolent (and supernatural?) cat; in the second, "99," an American cultural anthropologist on an ill-fated country jaunt learns about the occult practices of present-day England; the third, a recasting of an M.R. James story called "Casting the Runes," features a cranky old professor whose plagiarism is achieved through the black arts. All of these stories were witty and amusing, with lots of academic in-jokes, clever jabs at post-modern theorists, and creepy gothic touches. In fact, I was so amused byPublish and Perish that I rushed out to buy Hynes's second academic satire, The Lecturer's Tale. That novel's title character loses his finger in a freak accident on the very day he's fired as a visiting adjunct lecturer; when his finger is surgically reattached, he finds that it has given him the power to force people to do his bidding with the slightest touch of his hand. The Lecturer's Tale, in other words, can be described as "Lucky Jim meets the Invisible Adjunct," with a healthy mix of Poe thrown in for good measure.

I really enjoyed both books, though I think I preferred Publish and Perish: Hynes is more adept at crafting amusing situations than he is at developing his characters' personalities, and The Lecturer's Tale's greater length added very little to the story. (Most Hynes characters, like most figures in academic satires, aren't real people--they're representatives of basic personality types, like the crazy lesbian theorist, the crotchety defender of the canon, and the unhappy and untenured white male. The chapters of The Lecturer's Tale that explained the background of these characters never seemed especially amusing or interesting to me.) The novel also would have benefited from just a touch more subtlety: Hynes often gives his characters overly cute names (consider the post-colonial theorist Lester Antilles or the French critic Lorraine Alsace), and the book's conclusion was a little over-the-top for my tastes.

Don't get me wrong--the flaws I've just mentioned were minor blemishes on a pair of really entertaining books. The problem with writing this review, however, is that it's hard to give you a sense of how much fun the books are without spoiling the joke: suffice it to say that if you think these books sound amusing, you'll probably like them, and that the only thing stopping me from rushing out to buy Hynes's two other books is my meager grad student income.

I'm afraid I have two more caveats to make, however--comments that probably say more about the academic novel in general (or about me) than they do about the books James Hynes has written:

  • As much as I enjoy Hynes's work, there were times when I found it a little unnerving--and not because I was bothered by the thought of creepy occult rituals, ghostly cats, magic-wielding plagiarists, and mysterious white-clad figures dancing ominously in library towers. Sometimes Hynes's in-jokes and references to current academic debates seemed a little too self-congratulatory for my tastes--and, worse still, they forced me to ask how I, as a reader, was different from some of the less-appealing characters who populate Hynes's world. Are Hynes's books anything but an opportunity for annoying academics to read about their fictional counterparts?

    The second novella in Publish and Perish, for example, centers on Gregory Eyck, a cultural anthropologist from the prestigious University of the Midwest who finds himself investigating barrows in the English town of Sillsbury. Gregory is a master of academic jargon who effortlessly tosses around the names of leading theorists and can conjure up impressive-sounding new theories at will; nevertheless, we never get the sense that he has anything intelligent to say, and his pompous-sounding new theories always seem rather shallow.

    On one level, of course, Hynes's portrait of Gregory is a nice piece of satire: Hynes is skewering a type of academic that is surely familiar to many of the book's readers. At the same time, Eyck's behavior can sometimes seem eerily similar to my own experience of reading Hynes. To name one example, when Eyck enters a pub in Sillsbury and orders a ploughman's lunch ("the English meal that had been made up out of whole cloth by an advertising man on behalf of the British tourist board"), he concludes to himself, "Talk about your invented tradition!" He seems very proud of himself for his knowledge of the basic argument of a well-known history book, but it's not at all clear that he knows anything about history.

    Meanwhile, one of the small pleasures of reading Hynes arises when he slips in references to figures, debates, and arguments from academia. Anthony Pescecane, the English department chair at Midwestern, seems a lot like Stanley Fish (notice the etymology of his surname); his colleague Marko Kraljevic is reminiscent of Slavoj Zizek. Even Eyck's anthropological work on the voyages of Captain Cook seems kind of familiar: readers may be reminded of the debate between between Marshall Sahlins and Ganneth Obeyesekere. Real-life academics are sometimes referred to in the book, and Hynes takes it for granted that his readers know who they are. Sometimes Hynes's references to academic figures can be simultaneously subtle and over-the-top: when two characters get into a fight in the library, one of them fends off his opponent with a work of literary criticism, forcing his foe to utter the words "You de Man!" Is this a reference to everyone's favorite Nazi-tainted literary theorist? Still another Hynes character names her cats after the Bronte sisters.

    Which leads me to the following question: how is Gregory's comment ("Talk about your invented tradition!") different from some of my own reactions to the book? ("This Marko Kraljevic sounds a lot like Slavoj Zizek!") How am I different from some of the less pleasant Hynes protagonists? The answer, I think, is that I'm not just reading the book for its semi-veiled references to academic figures and debates; Hynes's books are well-crafted stories that derive their humor from a lot of different sources, and not just from references to well-known professors and books. (I loved reading about how one character's sleep deprivation led him to produce an outline of the magnum opus My (M)other the Car: Difference and Memory in the Matriarchal Narrative.) Moreover, I like to think that my own academic interests are more significant than those of many Hynes characters...

  • I'm not as well-read in contemporary academic satires as I'd like, but I get the sense that academic novels can be a little limited in their subject matter: they often center around a clueless and marginal male protagonist, whose struggles for tenure and advancement are hilariously thwarted or miraculously achieved. There are plenty of other topics for an academic novel, however, since the quest for tenure isn't the only pressing story on university campuses today.

    So far, I think that Hynes's interest in the gothic has kept his work from becoming too trite or derivative, but if he continues writing academic novels, I hope he'll expand his focus a little. There are lots of good topics for gothic academic novels, after all--from student psych experiments gone horribly awry to the occult practices of unruly sororities. Nearly every college I'm familiar with requires it students to pass a swimming test--often, rumor says, because the son of a wealthy alumnus had tragically died of drowning. Why not center an academic satire around the ghost of the drowned student? I don't expect academic novels to be realistic--a realistic academic novel would involve too much committee work, after all--but it would be nice to see more academic novels on diverse themes.

    Why have academic novels developed this way? Part of the answer, I suspect, has to do with their history: ever since Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, lots of academic satires have centered on pathetic and marginalized white men. At the same time, another part of the answer has to do with what's happened outside the novel: the plight of adjunct lecturers has become far more difficult in recent years--see the now-defunct blog The Invisible Adjunct for evidence--and gender issues have taken on increased prominence in academia. (Just look at the work being done in the English departments in all of Hynes's books!) Add in Hynes's decidedly non-PC perspective, and the resulting books seem almost inevitable.

    At the same time, the basic plot conceit of most academic novels fits in with one of their most obvious characteristics: their cynicism about academia. Has any character in an academic novel actually written a book that's worth reading? Not that I know of... On one level, of course, I can't help but agree with this view of the world: there are times when I wonder how many dissertations in my own field offer anything of significance to non-specialists, or when I find myself seeking out interesting details in a dissertation but ignoring its central argument. Someday, however, I'd like to read an academic novel by someone with a higher opinion of academics. Someday, it would be wonderful to read an academic novel that actually takes ideas seriously. Such a novel could still be rather cynical, which is probably necessary for a satire--maybe the protagonist is a brilliant scholar, but the people around him are fools--but it would still be a delightful change of pace.

James Hynes isn't a great novelist--his books will never rock the world's literary circles, and he's most effective as a humorist and story-teller. But if you're a boring academic in need of a good read, then I'd strongly recommend his work.

Tangential Update: Writing this entry (and, in particular, its penultimate paragraph) has reminded me of one of my favorite passages from an academic satire. In Changing Places, David Lodge provides us with the following descriptions of the work of Morris Zapp:

Some years ago he had embarked with great enthusiasm on an ambitious critical project: a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them. The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it; so that when each commentary was written there would be simply nothing more to say about the novel in question. The object of the exercise, as he often had to explain with as much patience as he could muster, was not to enhance others' enjoyment and understanding of Jane Austen, still less to honor the novelist herself, but to put a definitive stop to the production of any further garbage on the subject.

If I recall correctly (it's been several years since I read the novel), my view of the world is very different from Morris Zapp's. There are still times when I wish that academics would just quit writing so many bad books, however!

Update #2: Looking back at what I've written, I wonder if I generalized a little too much about academic satires (given that there are lots well-known academic novels that I've never read.) Rejoinders from my readers are welcome: I'd be especially interested in hearing about academic satires that aren't completely negative about academics.

Posted by Ed at July 11, 2004 11:40 AM


Actually, I feel almost exactly as you do, and partially as a result I wrote an academic novel, The Grasshopper King, which takes the academic project extremely seriously--at least, I mean it to. It is about a pathetic and marginalized young white man, though; sorry about that.

That said, I'm not sure you'll find academic satires that aren't cynical about the work academics do, for definitional reasons: if they don't take this stance, they are probably novels that take place on campuses but which are not academic satires in the sense that Lucky Jim or the Lodge books are. It's a bit dim in my memory, but I think the characters in Wonder Boys are meant to be doing --or at least trying to do--something that matters. And The Human Stain and Disgrace are both novels whose protagonists are academics whose work is not, I think, played for yuks. Neither is what you'd call an academic satire, but both books use their campus setting as a vehicle to (among other things) attack the difficult question of how the old and the young can co-exist.

Posted by: J. Ellenberg at July 12, 2004 01:43 PM

I'll have to read your novel sometime; it sounds like an interesting book. And your point about why academic novels are cynical by definition is well taken. (I was thinking something along similar lines when I wrote that cynicism "is probably necessary for a satire," but your point is a nice elaboration of the same basic idea. Even so, it's arguably possible for a satire to be realistic about ideas while being cynical about academics.)

Posted by: Ed at July 12, 2004 03:23 PM

Hynes not only borrows from the _Lucky Jim_ tradition, but also from the ghost stories of M.R. James, and Fritz Leiber's _Conjure Wife_, which I reckon is the motherlode of the (admittedly small) genre of academic Gothic. It's worth tracking down (I think it's back in print as part of a double volume called Dark Ladies).

Posted by: Henry Farrell at July 14, 2004 11:31 AM
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