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?