Sunday, August 27, 2006

Back to School

A couple of days ago, in a comment on one of BikeProf’s posts, I said that I had decided just not to think about the impending school year yet. I realize now that I was deluding myself. I’ve read three academic satires in as many weeks, and it can’t be a coincidence that I’m gravitating toward this sort of book at this time of year.

I began with David Lodge’s Changing Places and followed it up immediately with the sequel, Small World.

Regular readers of this blog will know that though I’m a great fan of Lodge’s essays, I got off to a rocky start with his fiction. In response to my critique of the opening chapter of Nice Work, Jenny D. wrote that she considers Lodge’s fiction to be of a kind that dates awfully quickly. I certainly found this to be true of Nice Work. I concede that it improved after the first chapter but it never really won me over. In it, Lodge paints the excesses of 1980s academic theory and politics so broadly that the novel read to me as clumsy parody rather than effective satire. He set himself too easy a target.

While Changing Places (set in 1969) and Small World (set in the early 1980s) are both very much creatures of their times as well, I wouldn’t level the same criticism at them. The satire of each is razor sharp and perfectly aimed. Lodge captures the times without being captured by them. Decades on, from the perspective of contemporary academia, the books retain their bite.

There were moments in each when I felt that Lodge was being just a bit too clever. Not in connection with the satire—I’m not sure that one can ever be too clever in satire—but formally speaking. He employed the odd postmodern trick that I found distracting. I hasten to add that I don’t make this criticism from the perspective of one hostile to postmodernism. Quite the opposite. What I objected to was not that he used these techniques but that he didn’t sustain them; hence my use of the term “trick.” It was as if he occasionally tossed something in because it was a clever idea that he wanted to try out, not because it contributed to the book as a whole. This is a minor quibble though. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed each of these books.

Next up was Jane Smiley’s Moo. My trajectory with Smiley so far is exactly the opposite of my trajectory with Lodge. In her case, I began with Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and found it so banal that I felt no desire to sample her fiction. This changed with Litlove’s recent enthusiastic post on Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I didn’t pick that one up because I don’t feel that I have the emotional fortitude to read a novel with incest at its centre at present. But given my current penchant for academic satire, Moo seemed just the thing. I’m only far enough along to have been introduced to Smiley’s extensive cast of characters, but I’m fascinated by each of them and very much looking forward to pursuing their individual storylines and to seeing how they intersect. I’ll report in again when I finish it.

I’ve lined up a few more to get me through the term: a couple of classics that I haven’t yet read: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe; and also Richard Russo’s Straight Man which I have read before, but once again an endorsement from Litlove has me hankering to reread it.

So long as I’m in the mood to make light of my chosen profession, any other recommendations of academic satires that you think I’d enjoy?


BikeProf said...

I agree with you about Lodge. I like him, but I do find that he plays little games that seem to go nowhere. Moo, though, is one of the best academic novels. I love the student in the creative writing class who writes complete crap but gradually becomes obsessed with perfecting his story--and he gets much better along the way. Amis's Lucky Jim is, I guess, one of the classics of academic satire. I forget the author, but Murder at the MLA, though clunky in its attempts to blend theory with murder, is entertaining. Joanne Dobson's murder mysteries are set in academia, so there's something satisfying about seeing the department jerk get killed at the end of chapter 1. Amanda Cross also writes academic mysteries. Francine Prose's Blue Angel is an academic novel, but is so loaded down by cliche that it falls apart as you read it. That's all I can think of at the moment.

LK said...

This probably won't count as strictly academic satire, but have you read Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys? I enjoyed it.

litlove said...

What a brilliantly sane way to approach the nightmare that is the new term! Another academic satire I'm very fond of is Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man - it IS dated, set in the 1970s, but very funny of its kind. I also enjoyed Ann Oakley's The Men's Room.

patricia said...

Kate, have you read the 2006 Atlantic Fiction issue? There's an interesting article in the mag, written by Megan Marshall, entitled "Academic Discourse and Adulterous Intercourse: What Campus Novels Can Teach Us". She provides a very diverse list of campus novels.

In the same issue I also read my first piece of fiction written by Richard Russo. What a talent! He's definitely a future must-read.

Re: Smiley and 'Moo'. I read it years ago, and found it to be average, nothing really amazing. I've also read A Thousand Acres and Good Faith and was not impressed with either of those, either. I must confess that I don't understand what's so good about Ms. Smiley's writing.... perhaps I'm missing something?

Annabooklover said...

Hi Kate
I share your feelings about Lodge. One suggestion is the very recent Zadie Smith , On beauty. It's not striclty academic satire but it falls inder the category campus novel

Kelly said...

Oh, yeah, I agree about "On Beauty." It's an academic novel at its core.

I really liked "Moo." But wasn't thrilled with "A Thousand Acres." It was more the Midwest element I hated than the incest. I'd even forgotten about the incest, but the Midwest isolation really upset me (funny how I live there/here now...)