Novel Academic Novels

Ms. Mentor Illustration CareersBrian Taylor

By Ms. Mentor

Question: I want to do what my American idol, Walt Whitman, recommended for the summer: "loafe and invite my soul." Can Ms. Mentor suggest academic novels with which I, an academic fledgling, may most profitably loafe?

Answer: Ms. Mentor is charmed by your request. Obviously you also know your Horace, who told us that the purpose of literature is to delight and instruct. Novels about academics and academic life will do both.

You’ll see, for instance, the spasms of self-loathing, Weltschmerz, and ennui that supposedly plague midlife professors. You’ll get the impression that entrenched male professors all pant for nubile "coeds," while neglecting their long-suffering wives. You’ll find that bright female professors routinely solve murders, especially ones committed at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference.

In real life, academicians do have flashes of wit, and they love gossip. They’re honest researchers and dedicated teachers, and some revel in committee work. They may even have romances and happily marry each other, despite their terrible fear of fun. They rarely kill anyone, even at MLA meetings. But they do love to write about themselves and about the classroom as a site for contested and resisted hermeneutical hegemonies.

The first academic novels may be Plato’s dialogues, in which the tireless Socrates bullies pupils into recognizing his brilliance (The Truth). There are no grade appeals. Socrates himself is the victim of overly harsh assessments by outside authorities.

Ferocious intellectual dramas still flavor academic novels, especially British ones, in which verbal dexterity is prized. In American academic novels, a pompous professor often winds up silent, dead, or charged with sexual harassment.

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