Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Summer Reading

Way back when, nearly 3 years ago, one of my first (perhaps even the very first) poll I did as FSP was to find out the favorite academic novels of my readers, who at that time numbered few.

Despite the low voter turn-out, the majority vote-getter was also my personal favorite, Straight Man. I was thinking about Straight Man the other day as I walked across campus with a colleague and I used the phrase "a goose a day", a literary allusion instantly recognizable by other SM fans such as my colleague.

Although not on my original list, another favorite of mine is White Noise (DeLillo), which is only partly an academic novel. I suppose this means I tend toward the absurdist sub-genre of academic novels.

I found this old (2000) list online when searching with the keywords "academic novels". There are 42 novels in the main part of the list. Another long list is here, and it's interesting to examine the differences in the lists (e.g. one contains Bellow, one does not). A recent but shorter list is here, but this includes some novels that I personally would not classify as academic novels.

In my professor-centric world, an academic novel is about faculty ± administrators and not "a chronicle of college sports, fraternities, drinking, coeds, and sex" (I am Charlotte Simmons, T Wolfe; a novel I read and kind of loathed). Those types of novels need another name, e.g. collegiate novel, or something like that.

I was thinking about the general topic of academic novels because I was looking for some books to read and was looking through the lists in the links above. And then I wondered: Why do I want to read an academic novel during the summer? Why do I want to read an academic novel at all? What is it that I like about (some of) them?

I don't know why I like (certain) academic novels so much. In general, my reading preferences tend toward international literary fiction, so in most other respects I am not inclined to 'read about myself' in my leisure reading. There is something very satisfying, however, about reading a really good parody of a faculty meeting or faculty-administrator interactions, even in the summer.

Instead of a poll today, I have a general question related to academic novels:

If you are an academic, do you like this genre of novel or is academia the last thing you want to read about in your leisure reading? Can academic readers be classified according to whether they love a scary-funny parody of a faculty meeting or whether reading about faculty meetings (however fictionalized) is a kind of torture?

47 comments:

John V said...

A good academic book is a pleasure, but of those listed, I only remember liking Moo, White Noise, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The rest came across as silly or pretentious.

Real life is more amusing than most books.

Susan B. Anthony said...

I'm so glad to hear someone else loathed I am Charlotte Simmons. A friend recommended it to me and I felt like I was obliged to finish it, even though I found it excruciating. Ugh.

I do like the genre of academic fiction you are talking about. Moo and Straight Man both rocked. Isn't summer the perfect time to laugh at all the petty annoyances of the academic year? I'll be mining the lists you linked to for more...

Susan B. Anthony said...

Oh: big thumbs up to Possession too.

Anne M. Archibald said...

Maybe this is too close to home, but this seems like a superset, or maybe just an overlapping category, with "Lab lit", some of which is quite fun.

I'm only a grad student, so reading about the petty infighting and drama of professors has a rather different character, some odd mixture of "look at all those crazy people" and "what am I getting myself into?"

Emma said...

Hello, I work in academia (I am an associate professor in France) and I enjoy academic novels a lot. I am especially found of Allison Lurie and David Lodge's novels.

Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

I enjoy academic novels because they feel relevant to my own life. I particularly like novels about academics (especially female academics) doing research: The Rosetti letter, and more recently, The Devlin Diary, by Christi Phillips; Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes; and the previously mentioned Possession by A.S. Byatt (other Byatt novels are good too). I get irritated when a novel includes a character that is an academic but the author clearly has no idea how academia works (e.g. Off the Menu by Christine Son, where a Ph.D. student is always writing her "paper" and then is given a faculty job without a job search).

Oak said...

I thought Tom Sharpes book "Wilt" (ISBN-10: 0330253603) was a riot, and certainly a good view of the period in the UK where all the polythecs were changed to Universities by decree. Very funny, with a scary feel, because my University at the time was gobbling up a Polytech campus and associated Departments, and some of the scenes described in the book came to mind. Also found that Richard Mitchells book, the Graves of Academe, insightful and provocative - was important for my career.

Alethea said...

I like them very much, indeed. David Lodge, Robertson Davies, and in particular, Alison Lurie. Ditto for IACS but I don't think we were the target audience.

Yes, real life is more amusing, but there were times I guffawed out loud nonetheless, even for the older novels.

Dr Spouse said...

I have read, and enjoyed, some of the British ones. I suspect it is to some degree more because I'm a child of a 60s academic than because I'm an academic myself in the noughties!

I can't really read much Tom Sharpe, though - my father was an academic on a modern campus university, at a time when the boundaries between sciences and arts were more blurred - not surprisingly most of the writers are in the arts/humanities, and it seems the worlds are more distinct now.

Anonymous said...

I randomly picked up and read Moo back when I was in high school, but had no idea there was a literary genre of such novels! :) I'll have to check out a couple of the highest rated. Should be more interesting now that I'm a grad student.

cookingwithsolvents said...

"The Measure of All Things" by Ken Alder.

http://www.amazon.com/Measure-All-Things-Seven-Year-Transformed/dp/074321675X

2 guys go out to measure the world for the meter. The french revolution happens, one guy cooks his data (or rather modern science would consider it that), and hilarity ensues when no one wants to adopt the meter (metric time, anyone?).

Ironically, Gauss used their data to come up with standard deviation.

It's a fantastic tale that everyone should know, scientists and laypeople alike.

mixlamalice said...

I am surprised you don't mention here Alison Lurie (Foreign Affair, I think is her most famous book) who writes academic novels "à la" David Lodge (a writer I like a lot).
I didn't know Straight man, so thanks for the tip.

Sam said...

found MOO at the salvation army for 2dollars last week and picked it up with plans to read it this summer. Will add Straight Man as well.

I enjoy academic books as long as they don't gush with pretentiosity (not a real word, but sounds fitting).

ScienceWoman said...

I think your sample is highly biased because you are polling readers of an academic blog. Obviously we like reading about faculty meetings et al. or we wouldn't be here! That said, I don't think I've read more than one academic novel (The Small Room), but now I'll have to go check out the lists.

Patchi said...

Intuition, by Allegra Goodman is set in a academic research lab. I really enjoyed it.

DrDoyenne said...

I think people do like to read about themselves (or people and situations they know well).

For people in my science field, the novels by Carl Hiaasen often contain characters and situations we know well (biologists, wildlife officers, environmentalists, eco-terrorists, developers, crooked politicians, The Everglades). These are not intellectually stimulating books, but great fun.

Most of my colleagues love to read about Hiaasen's characters and events. In fact, a science society I belong to invited Hiaasen to be keynote speaker at our last conference. He was hilarious.

It was especially interesting to see the reaction of one of the scientists in the audience who is the basis of a character in one of his novels--a "bio-stitute" (who purportedly sold out to a special interest group).

Fiction meets Reality.

Ms.PhD said...

I think I'm with John V on this one. I also like those three.

Haven't read Straight Man, I guess I should.

Could not get through Intuition (don't know if it's on the list- it's about researchers who work in a lab, some intrigue about possibly faked data).

Much too much like real life, it was actually stressful to read, so I had to stop. Maybe someday I will try to pick it up again.

Ms.PhD said...

p.s. almost all of these novels were written by men.

Maybe you should write one!

Matt Leifer said...

I like them if they are comedies because it makes the real life version of academia seem a little less screwed up, and hence they make me feel better about my present situation.

Principle Investigator said...

I loved Possession, too. Hmm, surprised to see that Zadie Smith's On Beauty was omitted...

The vast majority of these novels seems to be about (and probably written by) humanities professors. What about recommendations for fiction about academic scientists (although I supposed one might include The Double Helix in this category ;))? There's Allegra Goodman's Intuition, but that centers on postdoctoral rather than professorial life.

aurora said...

Thanks for the summer reading suggestion. I just went over to Amazon.com and read the first three pages of Straight Man and couldn't stop laughing. I have got to get it!

Drugmonkey said...

Moo. This is not even a novel, this is career advice.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moo_(novel)

Pagan Topologist said...

I won't turn down a novel because it is academic in setting, but I would not seek it out for that reason either. Of course, my fiction reading is mostly fantasy and science fiction. Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Steven Barnes, Neil Gaiman,

I did read Dan Brown's big bestseller...does it count as an academic novel?

Mary Ann said...

I really loved "Intuition" by Allegra Goodman. Not deep, but a great yarn about life in a lab.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Intuition by Allegra Goodman. No faculty meetings that I can remember, but there is a romance between postdocs.

Anonymous said...

Another one I like a lot (but on none of the lists):
Intuition by Allegra Goodman

Scott said...

I enjoy satiric academic novels, like Straight Man and A Tenured Professor.

Field Notes said...

Definitely the last thing I want to do. Moo was recommended to years ago but I still have not read it. I just can't get that excited about it...
but maybe I am missing something, eh? My former advisor swears it's about my alma mater.

Anonymous said...

intuition, by Allegra Goodman. Set in a research lab, focuses on experiments & ethics more than academics. But I liked it.
In general I prefer not to read academic novels though....

Thomas Nephew said...

Just visiting from Chad Orzel's blog. I rarely read academic novels, but can recommend the satire "The Lecturer's Tale" by James Hynes, about an English lecturer who acquires the ability to make people do whatever he wants by touching them. I guess if I were an academic, I'd say I don't read this genre much, but you could add me to the "scary funny parody" group.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Principal Investigator, Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" should be on the list. Awfully good.

Sara said...

Less fictional, but a fascinating read--Of Moths and Men: The Untold Story of Science and the Peppered Moth, Judith Hooper. Read before you teach intro genetics again!

Rainbow Scientist said...

I like non-fiction reading more then novels these days, but will check some of the books from your list. Thanks for some reading suggestions for summer. If you like real life fiction, I will recommend "A life decoded" by J. Craig Venter, it is full with drama about politics between scientists.

Anonymous said...

I'm so burned out right now that the LAST thing I want to read is a novel about academia. I just finished my 7th year, during which I went up for and did not get tenure (got extra year after becoming a mom). I need a break, like a sabbatical, but instead I have to start back on the TT.

amy said...

I've got a couple of older ones: Charlotte Bronte's Villette and The Professor are both magnificent. A very different academic world, but the themes are timeless. Also, one of my favorite portrayals of a professor is in a movie rather than a book: Wit, with Emma Thompson. Just an amazing movie.

Chelonian said...

I love well-characterized lablit!

Anonymous said...

Bradbury's History Man

AcademicLurker said...

Moo, The History Man, Small World, The Rebel Angels and Possession are all good.

I also enjoyed the collection of longish short stories "Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror".

I notice that most academic novels focus on the humanities. Other than Intuition are there any that focus on science?

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you mentioned these books. I was looking for a book to read, and turns out these are in our library. Happy me :)

average professor said...

Big giant ditto to Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things. It's not academic literature in the same way that Moo is - the only one on the lists that I've read), but it's kind of science-adventure non-fiction.

(I did not enjoy Moo at all.)

hkukbilingualidiot said...

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. I don't know if this would be classed as academic fiction as I honestly have no idea where it laid when I read it. It was strongly steeped in the quest of truth from the background of history, kind of like an historic take on the story of Dracula, but it's the quest for truth that gripped me the most.

No'am Newman said...

I recommend "Timescape" by Gregory Benford. Whilst being nominally science fiction, it has a large amount of the book set in the physics department of UC-La Jolla.
Benford is a professor of physics.

I also recommend David Lodge's books, including one which is not on the original list - "Thinks".

Narya said...

Loved "Straight Man," but the other novels by Russo are at least as good; "Nobody's Fool" is one of my all-time favorite novels. (And, hey, one of the characters is a professor.)

Cannot stand Tom Wolfe & won't read him any more; "bonfire of the Vanities" was a throw-it-against-the-wall kind of hate, so there's nothing to make me pick up the Charlotte one.

Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" isn't an academic novel, per se, but one of the characters is kind of an escapee from academe. Plus, it's a great read. And the new one, "Anathem," is academic in its own way.

Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

Ooh, I forgot one - Mendel's Dwarf, by Simon Mawer. It's about genetics. Easter Island, which I mentioned earlier, is about a (female) palynologist.

Anonymous said...

I love Connie Willis' writings, and she has a great academia short story called "In the Late Cretaceous." It's in the collection of her short stories called Impossible Things. Many of her other books are centered on research and academia, and in particular Doomsday Book, which is a multiple award winner. She is fabulous!

Haven't read Straight Man but will check it out.

Zuska said...

Yes, Easter Island is an excellent sciency/academic novel. It is a fantastic novel on its own and its depiction of scientific work, gender issues, and relationships in science is just amazing. Andrea Barrett's stuff is also very good in this genre (lablit, relationships, gender issues): Servants of the Map, Ship Fever, Voyage of the Narwhal, Middle Kingdom...a lot of her stuff could also be classed as historical novels but there are also works that deal with more present day stuff.

Academic in Oz said...

I love anything by James Hynes: "Publish and perish" and "The lecturer's tale" mostly play out in an academic setting. His most recent one, "Kings of infinite space", picks up one of the characters from "Publish and perish". He's out of a job and doing admin work, but things get very... strange. Of course, Russo's "Straight man" is one of the funniest books ever.