Academic Novels for Real People

So much for the classics; time to break open the juicy stuff

Hadley Hooper for The Chronicle

July 03, 2016

Question (from "Hegelia"): All right, I’ve read some of the books on last month’s list of classic academic novels, filled with profs performing intellectually in their native habitats. But where are the juicy academic novels?

Answer: That depends on what you mean by "juicy." For some readers of academic novels, the scholarly in-jokes are the whole point of the genre. These are the sort of readers who chortle about the literary-theory tidbits in John L’Heureux’s The Handmaid of Desire, or claim to know the real-life inspiration for the pushy promoter of "Diana Studies" in Jennifer Vandever’s The Bronte Project.

Ms. Mentor, however, is a dedicated peasant who prefers academic novels written for all the people, with all the juicy things real people care about: power, money, love, sex, justice.

Rona Jaffe’s Class Reunion, for instance, follows four friends from Radcliffe College in the 1950s through a reunion 20 years later. Radcliffe was the "sister school" to Harvard, which had space, endowment, and endless prestige. While sometimes permitted to attend classes with Harvard "men," the Radcliffe "girls" were considered lesser (the term "micro-inequities" hadn’t yet been invented). Harvard men could come and go as they pleased; Radcliffe girls had dorm curfews and sign-out rules, including no opposite-sex visitors in their rooms. Ever.

Class Reunion is a page turner. The four "Cliffies" have intellectual ambitions — to be doctors, journalists, world-changers. They’re bright, lively, and distinctive. There’s one desperate-to-fit-in Jewish girl (Radcliffe had a quota), and one Southern debutante who is ostracized for being "promiscuous" (a good girl was supposed to save herself for marriage; most didn’t, really).

All of them are taught their place. The would-be physician is advised to be a social worker (more compatible with "normal" home life). The would-be journalist ekes out a living as a glorified proof reader. The others are also herded into limited lives that won’t use what they learned. Class Reunion is a vibrant and accurate picture of the simmering rage that fueled the women’s movement.

College women half a century later are the center of Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, another Big Juicy Book full of keen observations. His student characters are contemporary teens who worship the holy trinity of sex, sports, and alcohol. The women still critique each other’s behavior; cliques abound; and coed dorms can be hell for a sensitive student.

The life of the mind is only a small part of their college experience. Charlotte Simmons is a "clueless hillbilly" to her elite classmates, and she can’t protect herself from the frat boys who see her as prey. She finds intellectual excitement, but she’s also shamed for being conservative, for being an outsider, for not having the right clothes.

Class Reunion and I Am Charlotte Simmons are not chilly intellectual novels. They show the anxiety, joys, and vulnerability of student life. Ms. Mentor found them juicy — but also gripping and touching.

Few academic novels are actually Big Books. Most are medium books — oddball tales like Ian Flitcroft’s The Reluctant Cannibals, in which several Oxford dons like to get together as a club to eat the most exotic delicacies they can find. But the author empties his notebook, spewing all kinds of unnecessary college lore and medical information.

Ms. Mentor warns doctors, lawyers, professors, and other avid researchers who write fiction: Do not show off your field of expertise. Tell the damn story. Make each word do useful work. Use dialogue for drama and color, not for facts, especially at the beginning. Memorize Elmore Leonard’s rule: Leave out the boring parts that readers skip.

Ms. Mentor wonders which of the following opening lines would keep you reading:

But now, impatiently tapping her spoon, Ms. Mentor skips through The Reluctant Cannibals, past the Oxford dons, to the death of Arthur, one of the eating-club members. The others convene to hear his last will, in which he requires the club members to dine on a unique delicacy — to be dry-cured, preferably like Iberico or Parma ham.

It is Arthur’s left leg.

Ms. Mentor likes local color (academics do dwell outside New York and Oxford). Frankie Bow’s sprightly The Case of the Defunct Adjunct shows Hawaiian characters in muumuus, sometimes speaking pidgin and noshing on spam. One Hawaiian professor who studied in New York peppers her speech with apt but off-the-wall Yiddishisms. There’s a dead guy, too — somebody no one liked — but there’s also a tension fairly new to academic novels: Will the adjuncts keep their jobs?

In Alex Kudera’s Auggie’s Revenge, the adjunct loses his job and falls into a spiral of homelessness and crime. It’s about adjunct hell. Ms. Mentor found it vivid, moving, and sometimes shocking.

Some novels, spanning the worlds of adjunct and tenure-track, show truths universally acknowledged — such as the deep melancholy one feels after a bad class. "I wasn’t sure if it was this particular crop of students or this year’s freshmen in general," muses the part-time sessional lecturer in Janice MacDonald’s Sticks and Stones. Usually she could "jolly the class into a semi-sullen respect for what they were studying." But this time, at her university in Edmonton, the students stay lumpish except for a few "keeners" (Canadian slang for nerdy showoffs). Her "pristinely boring" life only perks up once there’s a murder, and the policeman turns out to be a "very good looking fellow" with a degree in sociology.

Most adjuncts don’t find a prince.

Readers can find more raw juiciness in the growing field of self-published academic novels. Students, teachers, and occasional walk-ons all get down in books like Stella Chance’s The Campus Baller: A Sports Romance. (Chance’s protagonist has a passion for "marshal arts.") These characters don’t spend their time making coffee or talking about the meaning of life. They play sports, hang out in bars, and sometimes even go to class. But their minds are mostly on one thing.

Academic erotic novels are never leisurely strolls. A typical opener: "Carly was a good student, attentive and always present, even if it seemed like her professor picked on her a little more than anyone else; she didn’t care, she may not have many friends but she did have an excellent sex life, the professor made a fantastic lover!" That’s the beginning of Taboo: Professor Wants Me Pregnant, by Lauren Fremont. (Warning: Intrepid academic readers who check out the Kindle version of this book may be immediately scared off by the punctuation horror on its title page, which reads: Professor Want’s Me Pregnant.)

Some academic erotic novels actually have plots. In The Score (Off Campus Book 3) by Elle Kennedy, the woman is an ambitious theater major and the man is a star hockey player. Their struggle is about love and work — the classic theme of countless novels and plays. The Score even spent a week on The New York Times best-seller list.

But courtship in academic romance novels is nothing like Jane Austen. It’s more like a reality show. In Lucy McConnell’s The Academic Bride (Billionaire Marriage Brokers, Book One), the central character is an impoverished grad student in anthropology who has just lost financial aid because of "stupid university funding issues." The campus budget was diverted to sports. So the heroine gets a different job: She’ll be paid to stay married to a man for a year, other duties unspecified. There’s a steep learning curve, with techniques and tension. It takes some time before she learns all she needs to know One might call it a Bildungsroman, a novel of education — but Ms. Mentor thinks that’s stretching it.

These descriptions may leave readers wondering: Does Ms. Mentor often quit an academic novel before she finishes reading it? Or is she, mostly, that quintessential academic nerd who loyally reads every word?

Well, no. She is enough of a snob that she can’t abide ignorant misspellings and grammatical atrocities. She likes humor, nice as well as snarky, and at first she enjoyed the crude eccentricities in Cow Country by Adrian Jones Pearson. The hero is hired by a mysterious "cow college" where faculty never last, and where his job is to be the special projects coordinator and "conduct an assessment of the effectiveness of the assessments that are used to assess the assessment practices of assessed teaching faculty and this too will be assessed using rigorous assessment tools and best practices in assessment."

The college activities are a parody, or maybe just an exaggeration, of real life in academe today. But then the inexperienced new faculty are assigned to a "team building activity." They are supposed to get together and castrate a defenseless little calf. With a pocket knife.

Ms. Mentor, horrified, closed the book.


Question: May we have this column’s list of books, to file in our perfumed memory books with Ms. Mentor’s other academic novel columns?

Answer: Certainly (see below).

Sage readers: Here is this month’s shortlist of contemporary academic novels:

  • Frankie Bow, The Case of the Defunct Adjunct
  • Stella Chance, The Campus Baller: A Sports Romance
  • Ian Flitcroft, The Reluctant Cannibals
  • Lauren Fremont, Taboo: Professor Wants Me Pregnant
  • Rona Jaffe, Class Reunion
  • Elle Kennedy, The Score (Off-Campus Book 3)
  • Alex Kudera, Auggie’s Revenge
  • John L’Heureux, The Handmaid of Desire
  • Janice MacDonald, Sticks and Stones
  • Lucy McConnell, The Academic Bride (Billionaire Marriage Brokers)
  • Adrian Jones Pearson, Cow Country
  • John Van der Kiste, Always There
  • Jennifer Vandever, The Bronte Project
  • Chris Wallace, Heads: A Campus Novel
  • Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons: A Novel

Ms. Mentor thanks those loyal readers who nominated academic novels, especially the weirder ones she might have missed. She invites nominations for next year’s column, especially novels with classroom scenes to comfort new teachers. We’ve all imagined ourselves naked, with egg on our faces.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, rants, and gossip. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, details are smudged, and anonymity is guaranteed. Ms. Mentor knows that you are writing The Academic Novel to End All Academic Novels — but she won’t tell.

© Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is