Writing Academic Novels for Fun and (Little) Profit

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

Lauren Rolwing for The Chronicle

June 02, 2014

Question: May I write an academic novel and make big bucks?

Answer: You may indeed write the novel, and Ms. Mentor will tell you how. But if you want to be rich, well, she’ll get to that sad topic later.

Academic novels—those set on college campuses and featuring professors, adjuncts, and staff—seem to be hot nowadays. Jeffrey J. Williams’s 2012 study of "The Rise of the Academic Novel" shows more than 200 published in recent decades.

Academic novels are no longer a rarefied genre, skewed a bit toward the Anglophile, as they were nearly 10 years ago, when Elaine Showalter wrote her elegant and witty survey, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents. When Showalter was at the start of her career, academic novels were entertaining and instructive. But the books in her sample were written before the humanities job market thoroughly imploded.

New Ph.D.’s in today’s novels are not likely to be the high-flying superstars portrayed in David Lodge’s Small World. A reader of recent academic novels would glean that academe is full of chicanery, violence, and odd sex education, as in Will Forest’s Co-Ed Naked Philosophy and Jon Michael Miller’s Photo Sessions: Penn State Calendar Girls.

In her commitment to public service, Ms. Mentor Googled and checked Amazon for "academic novels" and "campus novels" (those featuring student life)—and got hundreds of hits. She started out to read all the recent novels she found, including the ones with "Trash" and "Zombies" in their titles. If you are thinking, "I could write something like this," Ms. Mentor knows you’re right.

You’ll start, naturally, with the terror of the blank screen. Never tell yourself, "I am going to commit an act of literature." That can paralyze you. Instead, try: "I am going to write a horrendously awful first draft." That’ll get you started. Setting yourself a daily writing quota is helpful. It can be time (an hour a day) or words (500 words a day).

Ms. Mentor presumes you have something in mind for your academic novel. Perhaps there’s a character you want to create—a struggling adjunct, an aggrieved graduate student, a free spirit who says the-hell-with-it-all. Probably you want some kind of revenge.

First let Ms. Mentor tell you what not to do in writing your masterpiece—at least if you want her to approve of your final product.

  • Do not go slowly into your story. Ms. Mentor loathes weather and nature as starters, unless your victim is going to be struck by lightning and left writhing in a piranha-filled campus fish pond. "It was sunny and birds sang merrily" makes her turn off her e-reader. Life is short.
  • Do not use tedious quotidian details. Each time your character enters Old Main, leaves Old Main, makes coffee, drinks coffee, plows, mows, or trudges, Ms. Mentor is tap-tap-tapping with boredom and impatience. Focus on the people: the nasty professors, the saintly staff members, the pre-med grade grubbers.
  • Do not linger on your characters’ looks. Ms. Mentor finds many a police-blotter-like description: height, weight, facial scars, mobile or immobile mouths. Unless your character’s looks matter—wildly handsome, or nasty, brutish, and short—leave out the clumsy descriptions. Let readers imagine.
  • Do not write about the midlife crisis of a male professor who’s undone by an evil undergraduate temptress. These novels are embarrassingly common, in every sense of the word. Yes, some are famous, such as Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. They’ve even spawned novels about professors seeking hookups (A.C. Roberts’s While Herding Cats) or being blackmailed by call girls (Alicia Stone’s Murder Most Academic). But there’s also a backlash, as in Nancy Mary’s Carnal Academy: On the Trail of an Academic Predator.
  • Do not ignore the classroom. Ms. Mentor lives for that kind of drama. Show what your characters do for a living. Show the emotional highs and lows of teaching, and don’t leave out the sublime moment when a student asks, "Do we have to know that for the test?"
  • Don’t forget to be an intellectual. Show your characters using their minds and showing off their esoteric knowledge. Too many campus novels announce what they’re about in the first chapter: "PARTY." Or weirder ones drop everything for debauchery, as in Mary Smetley’s Lorenzostein: A Bizarre Tale of the Depravity of a Young Academic.
  • Don’t make your characters sound as if they’re in books. Read their conversations aloud. Do they sound like real people, or pompous asses? (Yes, there is sometimes an overlap.)

Now we can proceed to what you should do in writing your academic novel (in no particular order):

  • Satirize the jargon. "Shakespeare is both clitoral and phallic," claims a student in Lennard Davis’s The Sonnets. His "attempt to get the phallus lets him become a woman." Another student insists that the single key to interpreting Shakespeare is much simpler: "lemurs."
  • Use sparkling dialogue, and treat yourself to smart, rhetorically balanced sentences, as in Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe: "To a man of superior intellect, the idea that he has been weak or a fool in comparison with an inferior adversary is fraught with moral comedy and sardonic philosophic applications."
  • Show, don’t tell. Lawrence S. Wittner, in What’s Going On at UAardvark?, doesn’t say "corporatization" or even "pecking order," but lists the names of sponsored campus units. They include the Fox News School of Communications, the Ajax Porta Potty Department of Philosophy, and the Hilda’s Beauty Salon Department of Women’s Studies.
  • Create hybrid genres. Patricia S. Bowne in Advice From Pigeons mixes academe and fantasy, with an irresistible first sentence about a hero who, in an hour, will be "either successful or dismembered." Lesley Wheeler’s The Receptionist and Other Tales is a "speculative feminist academic novella in terza rima." The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion, describes an Asperger-ish fellow’s search for a bride, in a mashup of Cinderella and Pygmalion.
  • Allow middle-aged academic women to be sexy. Besides showing gay men enjoying love, William G. Tierney’s Academic Affairs has a woman of a certain age as its sexiest female character. She is a provost.
  • Be up to date on technology. Ms. Mentor was startled to see typewriters in several current novels. She much prefers Victoria Bradley’s Tenure Track, in which a professor’s allegedly perfect marriage is trashed by compromising photos on Facebook. He’s then given a crude and salacious nickname that becomes a meme and goes viral. Everyone on Twitter titters.
  • Get somebody murdered. There is always someone with powerful enemies who want him (it’s usually a him) dead. Professor-­sleuths, such as Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler and Joanne Dobson’s Karen Pelletier, are clever literary decoders. Many victims, such as the Egyptologist in Betty Younis’s Poison and Papyrus, are ingeniously offed.
  • Reveal useful truths, as in Joel Shatzky’s Option Three: "If you were against something happening, it was much easier to get it not done if you were on a committee."
  • Allow some characters to be sincere and idealistic, as in David Nicholls’s A Question of Attraction: "I want to possess radical but humane and well-informed political ideals, and I want to hold passionate but reasoned debates, saying things like ‘Define your terms!’ and ‘Your premise is patently specious!’"

If you follow Ms. Mentor’s advice, will you get rich from your academic novel? Not likely. Trade publishers’ royalties are now about 15 percent of the cover price; the average university­-press book sells 300 to 400 copies. A large percentage of Ms. Mentor’s sample are self-published, meaning the author paid to publish the book. Promoting a self-published book is a full-time job, as shown in Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne R. Allen’s How to Be a Writer in the E-Age.

A few academic novels are sold to the movies—Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admission—but others seem written as vanity projects. Some academic-novel writers are parading their fantasies: fame, tenure, the love of beautiful women. But the most common motive seems to be schadenfreude—the universal pleasure in seeing one’s rivals suffer. You have the urge to punish them and say, "I’ll show you."

Ms. Mentor hopes you will.

Question: Is it annoying that so many academic novels mention yoga and yogurt? Would you prefer a more diverse and colorful panoply of play and food?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor thanks the many generous souls who nominated academic novels for this year’s Ackies (academic-novel recognitions). They know who they are, and Ms. Mentor gives everyone permission to brag.

Ms. Mentor also thanks those readers who commented on her recent retirement-related column. One blamed Ms. Mentor for not fixing the deplorable situation of adjuncts today. Others praised retirement as the best stage in an academic career, or advised finding an absolutely different passion to pursue, or said, "Wherever you are, quit while you’re ahead." Ms. Mentor was also informed, "You are not Stephen Colbert."

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries, including summer musings. 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 identifying details are changed. No one will know about the novel that you (and 138 others) are writing about the people who do not appreciate your unique merits and unparalleled beauty. They’ll be surprised. It will serve them right.

Academic Novels: A Summer Reading List

Allin, Lou. A Little Learning Is a Murderous Thing

Anderson, Diane S. Death Is Academic

Baker, JoJo. Trashy Novel: Four College Girls on a Path

Blattberg, Charles. The Adventurous Young Philosopher Theo Hoshen of Toronto

Bowne, Patricia S. Advice From Pigeons

Bradley, Victoria. Tenure Track

Bunn, Curtis. Homecoming Weekend: A Novel

Carlson, P.M. Murder Is Academic

Chabon, Michael. Wonder Boys: A Novel

Choi, Susan. My Education: A Novel

Cochran, Les. Signature Affair: Loves, Lies and Liaisons

Cross, Amanda. Death in a Tenured Position

Davis, Lennard. The Sonnets: A Novel

Dobson, Joanne. Death Without Tenure

Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Marriage Plot: A Novel

Forest, Will. Co-Ed Naked Philosophy

Goodman, Carol. The Sonnet Lover: A Novel

Harrison, Stephen. AcaPolitics: A Novel About College A Cappella

Illsley, John Sherwood. Scholars and Gentlemen

Jarrell, Randall. Pictures From an Institution: A Comedy

Jules, C. The Freshman Fifteen

Korelitz, Jean Hanff. Admission

Lavender, Will. Obedience: A Novel

L’Heureux, John. Handmaid of Desire

Littell, Robert. The Visiting Professor: A Novel of Chaos

Lorello, Elisa. Faking It

Lodge, David. Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses

Lodge, Davis. Small World: An Academic Romance

Maremaa, Tom. Rule of Law: A Novel

Maron, Margaret. One Coffee With

Mary, Nancy L. Carnal Academy: On the Trail of an Academic Predator

McCarthy, Mary. The Groves of Academe

Miller, Jon Michael. Photo Sessions: Penn State Calendar Girls

Moore, Lorrie. A Gate at the Stairs

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin

Nicholls, David. A Question of Attraction: A Novel

Nordengren, Fritz. Concealed

O’Brien, Tim. July, July

Prose, Francine. Blue Angel: A Novel

Qureshi, Hazel. Academic Passions

Roberts, A.C. While Herding Cats

Russo, Richard. Straight Man

Schine, Cathleen. Rameau’s Niece

Shatzky, Joel. Option Three
Simsion, Graeme. The Rosie Project: A Novel

Smetley, Mary. Lorenzostein: A Bizarre Tale of the Depravity of a Young Academic

Smiley, Jane. Moo

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty

Stone, Alicia. Murder Most Academic

Thompson, B. Alex. Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls vs. Zombies

Tierney, William G. Academic Affairs: A Love Story

Walsh, Alice. Analyzing Sylvia Plath: An Academic Mystery

Wheeler, Lesley. The Receptionist and Other Tales

Wittner, Lawrence S. What’s Going On at UAardvark?

Younis, Betty. Poison and Papyrus

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of 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