Advice

Ms. Mentor's Annual Guide to Academic Novels

Spend at least part of your summer reading about fictional campus life

Ernesto De Quesada / Creative Commons

June 08, 2015

Question (from "Containing Multitudes"): O dear Ms. Mentor, we are languishing, awaiting your list of academic novels for us to peruse this summer. We yearn for Schadenfreude — along with frissons of recognition ("We must have the same provost!"). The worst academic novels excite our contempt or our "I could do better than that" feelings. The best inspire us. List on!

Answer: Ms. Mentor is happy to oblige. Her annual academic novel roundup gets her most vociferous reactions. It gets kudos; it gets barbs. Perhaps it appeals to some twisted combination of narcissism and self-loathing in the academic soul. Readers can peruse her lists from previous years: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Academic novels used to be the playground of an elite — written by and for highly educated people, usually in the Northeast, and featuring fictional characters who amused everyone "in the know." Scholars bragged: "I know who that handsome French philosopher really is. And what a brouhaha he incited at the Theory of Anosognosia Conference." Academic romans à clef used to be carefully vetted, sometimes by lawyers as well as editors. There was notoriety, and there were profits. Ms. Mentor knows one novelist who sold his book to the movies, quit teaching, and vowed, "As God is my witness, I’ll never grade papers again." He threw out all the red pens in his house.

Now, though, publishing is thoroughly a democracy. Thanks to e-books, everyone loses money, and anyone can publish anything — which leads to a gaudy, hilarious, horrifying array of academic novels for Ms. Mentor to peruse each year. This year she does have a Golden Ackie Winner — and a lot of, well, runners-up.

Some of them she will pass over in silence, with the hope that their authors will learn grammar, spelling, and the difference between who’s and whose. Some are just tacky. But most have a colorful, entertaining variety of strategies for depicting the realities of academic life in our era. Unlike the characters in classic academic novels, those in the current crop can be felonious, sexy, or wildly foul-mouthed. (Ms. Mentor tut-tuts and chortles at the behavior of Baroness "Jack," the outlandish, loud, cigar-smoking heroine of Ruth Dudley Edwards’s novels, including Murdering Americans.)

Some recent academic novels wallow in student drug culture; others leave the campus for Denmark, Israel, or outer space. Some are escape fantasies. In Jason Martin’s Voluptua, a professor quits her university career to pursue Amazonian shamanism. In Steve Games’s The Naked Professor, the title character inadvertently becomes a Superman kind of hero whenever there’s a crisis — after which he is returned to the real world, totally naked. (This is a classic academic anxiety dream, Ms. Mentor notes: You find yourself naked in front of a class, wearing nothing but egg on your face.)

Some authors eschew ordinary plotting. One "novel" is an author’s memoir about religion (John D. Barbour’s Renunciation), while another is a "philosophical satire" about a machine that is supposed to overcome the laws of nature (Duronimus Karlof’s Critical Mass). A third is a "dystopian satire" set in the country of Militaria, where a guerrilla movement is called The Visible Hand (Steven Lukes, The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat).

There are tender passions in academic novels. There is a meet-cute in Lian Dolan’s Elizabeth the First Wife, wherein a Shakespeare professor’s class is invaded by a drop-dead-gorgeous actor — who is also the prof’s ex-husband. There’s a strange meetup in Lesley A. Diehl’s Murder Is Academic, in which a psychology professor is canoeing when she finds both a dead body (her college president) and a hard body (a nearby biker). She takes one of them home with her.

Some academic novels are sex-obsessed. In Chloe Does Yale by Natalie Krinsky, the undergraduate heroine writes about her sex life for the Yale newspaper and promotes her philosophy of life: "All those Nietzsche-reading girls should have picked up some Nair before the party."

The undergraduate heroine in Volume 5 of My Hot Teacher by Isabella Johns does not have ideas or read books. She bemoans bad hookups: The dudes had bad manners or panic attacks or preferred Fruit Ninja. But her new English professor is "mega-hot." She lusts silently, then pounces after class — and he does not give her the expected "back-off, perv" look. (At that point the Kindle free sample ends.)

In The Professor’s Pet (A BDSM Romance Novel) by Tara Crescent, a new Ph.D. who’s just passed her dissertation defense meets an arrogantly handsome math professor in a coffee shop. He finds the erotica on her Kindle and invites her to do better than all those "Fifty-Shades-of-Grey poseurs who thought they knew what dominance and submission was because they owned a pair of handcuffs and a blindfold."

Hmm, a new kind of postdoc, Ms. Mentor muses.

Even at the highest university level, there are libidos. Costly Affair: Loves, Lies, and Liaisons is Les Cochran’s third novel about a university president who is a superstar fund raiser. He is also a secret sex addict. Ms. Mentor imagines an exam question: Are you more enticed by this character’s struggles for curriculum revision and shared governance — or by the flailings of a man in the throes of sex addiction? (She welcomes readers’ answers.)

Some of Ms. Mentor’s favorites draw on the ever-present Impostor Syndrome, an occupational hazard. The soused, burned-out professor in Brian D. Meeks’s Underwood, Scotch, and Wry fakes it through a lecture on social media (he doesn’t even own a computer) — and is so witty and charismatic that the students give him a standing ovation.

More often, though, novel protagonists show nerdiness, the essential academic quality. In Rebecca Harrington’s Penelope, the heroine is a Harvard freshman "of average height and lank hair" whose every move is a gaffe. She even dreams of being eaten by a huge car seat. In Christopher Meeks’s Love at Absolute Zero, the physics professor-hero decides to find a wife in three days (he can’t spare more time), and flubs his way through speed dating, smiling through the parsley clogging his teeth. In Robert C. Noble’s Deception by Design, a hapless assistant professor passes out and doesn’t realize he’s been used as a sperm donor.

This year’s protagonists include more adjuncts, who describe their working conditions accurately in novels like Lowell Mick White’s Professed: "a debt slave, a serf. I was teaching two sections of ‘Intro to Literature’ and a section of ‘Composition and Rhetoric’ at the university, and three sections of comp at the community college. I was tending bar three nights a week." When a tenured professor taps this adjunct to trek out to her house to feed her cat while she’s away, she doesn’t even offer to pay him.

Most of the protagonists in academic novels, for this year and others, are male. Shadow Campus by Kathleen Kelley Reardon starts with a tenure-track researcher whose enemies try to hang her — but the book is mostly about her brother’s search for the would-be killers.

Among the trends Ms. Mentor has spotted in this year’s crop of academic novels:

  • Right now the favorite character name is "Brad," but there are stronger female characters than in past years. There are fewer undergraduate "love interests," and more female professors of biology and psychology.
  • The favorite crime, as always, is murder. The victims include a German literature professor felled by poisoned candy (Shelley Kirilenko, ABD: An Academic Mystery), and a biologist who appears to be killed by creationists (in Victoria Grossack’s Academic Assassination).
  • The favorite murder victims are deans. Why the Dean Is Dead is William Urban’s third novel in a series about deanicide (after The Dean Is Dead and The Dean Is Still Dead). In Shirley S. Allen’s Academic Body, the murder victim was … well, you know. Ms. Mentor rather likes deans, and wishes them better health in real life.
  • Most of the authors seem to be white, except for Jon Woodson, whose novel Endowed is the most surreal in the group. Unlike the most common beginning — trite descriptions of verdant campus greenery and rolling hills — Endowed starts with strangers on a train. When a belligerent passenger insists on talking in the "quiet car," our humanities professor-hero kicks the talker in the jaw and seizes his lady friend’s handbag, which contains a Bible, a Smurfette phone, and a sex toy catalogue. Soon our hero has become a fraudulent fund raiser for a historically black college.

Ms. Mentor does like new, improved beginnings. Some novels still start with greenery, Old Main, sparkling stadiums, and funky cow barns — but nowadays they also show the dilapidated, toxically leaking liberal-arts buildings. The English department adjuncts have the worst offices, in the dank basements where toilets overflow.

Some academic novels meander, and Ms. Mentor becomes impatient. She doesn’t want weather (she hates weather); she loathes rocks and rills. One novel takes three chapters of transportation (plane, car, truck) to get to the action. Ms. Mentor prefers a fast story, with a hook, with a mystery, with something to be learned or someone to be smited. There shouldn’t be sagging middles, and the author should be upping the stakes — piling on dangers, complications and cliff-hanging chapter endings. Lori Rader-Day’s The Black Hour starts with a terrified professor, recovering from a shooting, who’s visited by a strange graduate student — whose presence becomes more ominous.

Real-world novelists often throw in gratuitous sex, but academic writers rarely do. (Here Ms. Mentor encourages you to theorize.)

And now, before she confers her prize award, Ms. Mentor has some words for this year’s also-rans.

Some of you who’ve moved from writing academic prose need to loosen up your language. Don’t say "discursive" or "hegemony." Real people don’t use those words in conversation, unless you want them to come across as pompous asses (perhaps you do).

Many of you need to read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, especially his chapters on "Simplicity" and "Clutter." Get rid of useless words and phrases (replace "due to the fact that" with "because"). Don’t end sentences with dead tails ("or so it seemed at that point in time, all things being equal"). Don’t use clumsy foreshadowing ("Much later, he was to learn that Dean Wise had been very astute.") Leave out wasted motion that doesn’t advance the plot, such as making coffee, filing papers, or driving around Pittsburgh.

Ms. Mentor would like to see more older academic novels revived as e-books. Daniel Curzon’s Among the Carnivores, originally published in 1978, is now a valuable historical document. Its hero, a closeted English professor, is a magnet and a victim.

Ms. Mentor would like to see more teachers at work in academic novels. She enjoys unpredictable classroom scenes. She likes intellectual excitement, gossip, and humor, and notes that hardly any characters in this year’s group ever grade papers, except the heroine in Stephanie Fournet’s Fall Semester. Maybe the world should see just how painful it can be?

But even worse, for many academics, is the endless parade of letters of recommendation to write — which brings Ms. Mentor to The Winner, the academic novel justly nominated by scads of readers.

Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is a gem. She has revived the tradition of the epistolary novel — the letters being e-mails sent, and sometimes received, by a beleaguered English professor who finds his life consumed by writing recommendations. His letters are recognizable: funny, exasperated, laudatory, desperate. He recommends writers for grants; he recommends students for woeful entry-level jobs at places like a paintball emporium.

Around him, meanwhile, the walls are crumbling. There’s a building renovation going on, and he is — of course — stationed next to the overflowing men’s bathroom. He’s also negotiating with his ex-wife, and with a newly ex-girlfriend — "ex" because he revealed some intimate things when he accidentally hit the "reply all" button for something that was supposed to be very, very private.

Schumacher captures exactly the deadline frenzy of academe and the feeling that "My work is never done." She gets the humor and the horror, including a student writer’s six-figure book advance for a coming-of-age novel about a hybrid human and cheetah. Ms. Mentor laughed, cried, winced, and shrieked, "Eureka!"

And so Julie Schumacher wins the first Golden Ackie, the highest accolade for academic novels. Ms. Mentor hails Julie Schumacher. Long may she write, delight, and instruct us all.

Ms. Mentor hopes she gets the memo.


Question: Since we desperately fear a pop quiz, can you provide us with a complete list of this year’s Academic Novels?

Answer: Yes. Scroll down.


Sage readers: Ms. Mentor thanks the readers who nominated academic novels this year, and invites precocious nominations for next time. She has no date restrictions and no secret methodology for finding the novels. She relies on the generosity of her flock, on Amazon, and on sundry academic web sites (one of which disappeared after last year’s column on academic novels. She did not kill that site. She did not.)

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. 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, anonymity is guaranteed, and if you recognize yourself in particular academic novels, you are not alone. Your office mate is the narcissist. You are merely paranoid.


This Year’s Crop of Academic Novel Nominees

Allen, Shirley S. Academic Body
Barbour, John D. Renunciation: A Novel
Buckner, Bailey. The Well-Meaning Professor: A Novel
Cochran, Les. Costly Affair: Loves, Lies, and Liaisons
Crescent, Tara. The Professor’s Pet (A BDSM Romance Novel)
Curzon, Daniel. Among the Carnivores
Diehl, Lesley A. Murder Is Academic
Dolan, Lian. Elizabeth the First Wife
Edwards, Ruth Dudley. Murdering Americans
Fournet, Stephanie. Fall Semester
Games, Steve. The Naked Professor
Gold, Nora. Fields of Exile
Grossack, Victoria. Academic Assassination
Harrington, Rebecca. Penelope
Houck, C.K. The University
Johns, Isabella. My Hot Teacher (Volume 5)
Karlof, Duronimus. Critical Mass
Kirilenko, Shelley. ABD: An Academic Mystery
Krinsky, Natalie. Chloe Does Yale: A Novel
Lipsyte, Sam. The Ask: A Novel
Lukes, Steven. The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat
Markovic, Matthew. Book Thieves: a ‘college mystery’ novel
Martin, Jason. Voluptua: a novel
Meeks, Brian D. Underwood, Scotch, and Wry
Meeks, Christopher. Love at Absolute Zero
Noble, Robert C. Deception by Design: A Novel of Misconduct in Medical Research
Perkins, Ronald. Tenure to Die For: An Ivory Tower Murder Mystery
Philbrick-DeBrava, Valerie. The Gathering: An Academic Novel
Rader-Day, Lori. The Black Hour
Reardon, Kathleen Kelley. Shadow Campus
Rosenthal, D.W. Purely Academic
Urban, William. Why the Dean Is Dead
White, Lowell Mick. Professed
Woodson, Jon. Endowed: a comic novel

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 e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.