Longtime FSP readers know that I am interested in how academia is depicted in literature and other artistic venues, and that I have a particular interest in academic satire in novels. Although I generally disapprove of attempts to make academia and academics seem like bizarre, megalomaniacal control freaks who are entirely disconnected from the "real" world, I am not incapable of enjoying a good academic satire (hence my fondness of the novel Straight Man, by Richard Russo).
I even like the Indigo Girls' song, "Closer to Fine", despite this horrific set of anti-academic lyrics:
I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee.
He never did marry, or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance
He said he could see through me.
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper And I was free.
Give me a break.
Anyway, I was curious to read the recent novel "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" (Rebecca Goldstein), described in some reviews as a brilliant new example in the academic satire genre.
Washington Post (Ron Charles): The field of academic satire is crowded with such classics as "Lucky Jim" and "Straight Man," but "36 Arguments" sports so many spot-on episodes of cerebral pomposity that you've got to place this novel among the very funniest ever written.
New York Times (Janet Maslin): When Cass witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.
Cerebral pomposity? The absurdity of current academic thinking? Did these reviewers also spend their college years prostrate to bearded, Rasputin-loving higher minds?
Certainly there are pompous intellectuals in academia, and some research topics and methods seem quite absurd, but these are not the kinds of things I enjoy seeing parodied in novels and pilloried in reviews.
For me, the most clever and entertaining academic novels are the ones that show the absurdity of the weird-but-mundane rituals of academic life (professor-student interactions, faculty meetings, budgets, tenure) and that are a bit more subtle in their portrayal of classic personalities in academe.
Therefore, I am not particularly impressed by bizarre and disturbing characters such as the "Extreme Distinguished Professor" in 36 Arguments, and am much more entertained by a depiction of strangely recognizable people embroiled in the bizarre and disturbing rituals of a faculty search (as in Straight Man).
1 month ago