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We are all going extinct. But academic literary critics, Smallwood suggests, are going extinct a little faster.
I recalled this nightmare of bourgeois indignity while reading Christine Smallwood’s debut novel of academic precarity, The Life of the Mind (2021) — the book’s key theme is the production of waste, and the task of cleaning up afterward. Smallwood’s sendup of contemporary academic life follows Dorothy, an adjunct instructor in the English department of a private university in New York City. The novel opens with Dorothy on the toilet in the middle of a bowel movement. It ends with her dumping a sheaf of student essays, each marked with a desultory A-minus, one by one into the trash.
Along the way, Dorothy muses obsessively on what we might call the metaphysics of garbage. After staring at a bespectacled graduate student in the library doggedly making his way through Kant’s aesthetics, she walks out into the rain and imagines a mountain of broken umbrellas and discarded consumer goods — a vision of “the garbage sublime.” Reflecting on her failed writing samples, she laments “producing so much waste.” She weighs the respective merits of garbagemen and academics and concludes that while sanitation workers dispose of trash, all she does is move it around. She thinks of herself, finally, as “a janitor in the temple” who keeps sweeping not because she still believes in the gods but because she has nowhere else to go. The novel’s parade of rubbish marches toward an abrasive suggestion: Today’s academy is in the business of producing at best detritus, at worst excrement, all fated to be swept away.
Yet Smallwood’s critique of the academy is not so simple. When we meet Dorothy, she has just had a miscarriage of an accidental pregnancy. The novel’s most powerful image of waste, then, is not an abandoned manuscript; nor is it mucus or feces or vaginal blood or an exploding cyst (although all of these things are described in the text with an impassive candor that recalls Ottessa Moshfegh, as well as what Kristina Quynn has called the “disgusting” campus novel). It is a grainy photo Dorothy takes home from the gynecologist: a sonogram of an empty womb. Her pregnancy, like her intellectual career, is interrupted before it has a chance to develop. In this story of scholarly stagnation, what the academy wastes above all is human potential.
Everyone, it would seem. This minor tradition has quietly become one of contemporary American literature’s ruling genres. Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Zadie Smith, Francine Prose, and Jane Smiley are only a few of the eminent writers who have turned their hand to campus fiction. If we include allegories of academic life — such as Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), a novel about elevator inspectors who study at the Institute for Vertical Transport and quarrel about which texts belong in the elevator-studies canon — this list would be even longer. More recent works by Brandon Taylor, Susan Choi, and others suggest the endurance of the campus novel not as an oddity but as one of mainstream literature’s prestige forms.
The surprising dominance of the campus novel in the literary field is in part due to the academicization of literature. The proliferation of creative-writing programs, the role of college syllabi in canon-making, the degree to which the university functions as a patronage system for writers — all these are signs of literature’s close entanglement with the academy. Many novelists are, like scholars, academics writing for other academics.
But campus novels reflect more than these institutional facts. They reflect a broader cultural obsession with the institutions that serve as sorting mechanisms for America’s shrinking middle class. Historians of the future might be forgiven for thinking that in the early 21st century, our country’s colleges were more powerful, and more nefarious, than its military. Certainly the former gets more scrutiny and attention. Our media environment indicates that the taste for campus satire is strong. Some corners of the media are, in effect, sprawling, serialized campus novels, filled with discontinuous and never-ending tales of politically correct absurdities. For some right-wing outlets, academic culture is virtually the only topic. Campus satire has become the preferred genre of conservative journalism — although their mockery is laced with fear.
This situation is treacherous for the would-be academic satirist. On the one hand, the ubiquity of campus fiction has diluted its satirical acidity. The campus has become a default literary setting, not outlandish but ordinary. On the other hand, because conservatives now specialize in the task of ridiculing academic tastes, the satirist risks having her work mistaken for a reactionary attack. There is also the risk that making fun of academics may just be petty. Scholars, thin-skinned as a rule, have grown increasingly harried, bludgeoned by right-wing caricatures and, especially in the humanities, by a jobs crisis that portends the collapse of several academic fields and a marginal sphere of influence for the survivors.
These conditions have fed a Schmittian tendency among academics to class people as either with them or against them, with no gradations in between. The stance of the satirist observing her own tribe, however, requires a more ambivalent or detached relation between the individual and the group. The most penetrating satire arises from conflicted affection.
Through the vantage point of this listless heroine, Smallwood satirizes the protocols of English departments with a specificity that recalls the delicious Thatcher-era campus romps of David Lodge — especially Nice Work (1988), which, like this novel, scrutinizes the academy’s precarious working conditions. One gleefully ridiculous sequence is a flashback to Dorothy’s graduate-school years. She is sitting outside her adviser’s office, attempting to read Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction (1979). Dorothy’s rival Alexandra — later to win a tenure-track job at Berkeley — is meeting with the adviser they share. From inside the office, Dorothy hears her adviser make a pronouncement: Alexandra’s argument is “significant.”
Dorothy is shaken. Professors have described her work as “clever” or “promising,” yes. But “significant”? Never. Involuntarily stabbing holes in the pages of Bourdieu with her mechanical pencil, Dorothy jumps when Alexandra appears smirking over her shoulder. And then:
As Dorothy rose, Alexandra made a show of holding the door, which was already open. Dorothy interpreted this action of door-holding, which a stranger would have described, if they noticed it at all, as desultory politeness, as Alexandra’s way of drawing attention to the door itself, i.e., to herself, i.e., to Alexandra, because Alexandra’s research was about — doors.
Alexandra does not study the symbolic meanings attached to doors in the Victorian novel, as Dorothy first supposes, but instead the materiality of doors, who made them, what “power relations” doors indicate. This might seem farcical. But anyone who has inhabited an English department in the last decade will recognize it as not just plausible but familiar.
The Life of the Mind is filled with snippets of academic discourse. We have nods to Franco Moretti and Lauren Berlant, Silvan Tomkins and Mary Douglas; we have slogans about the radicality of “the episodic” and glimpses of the course Dorothy is teaching about apocalypse. But “ideas” enter the novel only superficially. We see little of the talent or passion that propelled Dorothy into academic life in the first place. Looking at her ultrasound at the doctor’s office (she likens her vaginal walls to Plato’s cave — a humorous reminder that “the life of the mind” cannot exist without the body), Dorothy thinks that the experience is “nothing like” her favorite scene in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), in which Hans Castorp has his X-ray taken. And Smallwood’s book, too, is “nothing like” Mann’s great novel of ideas. Compared with, say, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), this is an academic novel in which intellectual matters are hardly discussed. The novel thus responds in kind to an academic system inhibited by fads, careerism, and pointless factional disputes, in which real intellectual inquiry is all too rare. Smallwood spoofs the academy’s shallowness by setting a big scholarly conference in Las Vegas — an appropriate encapsulation of an academic system in which the job market has become a lottery.
In keeping with the novel’s deflation of the romance of intellectual life, Dorothy’s academic field — 19th-century British literature — is brought down to earth, made sordid. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner becomes a raving homeless man on the subway; Wilkie Collins’s woman in white appears in the waiting room of Dorothy’s ob-gyn. Dorothy is, by allusion, Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72); she is also “Dodo,” an awkward creature slated for extinction. (In contrast, the adviser who gives Dorothy this Eliotic pet name is likened to an ostrich — glamorous, fearsome, sinewy.)
The Victorian writer who serves as the novel’s presiding spirit, however, is Thomas Hardy. Dorothy wonders whether she is somehow superfluous. The novel underscores this fear by providing her with a series of substitutes or doubles: Alexandra, her adviser’s favorite, who gets the job Dorothy hoped for; her best friend Gaby, who sings the karaoke song Dorothy meant to sing. In Vegas, Dorothy gives her paper on Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure (1895), in which the problem of superfluous life is shockingly dramatized in English literature’s most famous suicide note: “Done because we are too menny.” Dorothy’s attitude toward her own apparent superfluity is, in the end, more apathetic. “It didn’t have to be her,” she reasons, “who did what could be done so well by someone else.”
We are all going extinct. But academic literary critics, Smallwood suggests, are going extinct a little faster. Can the campus novel survive the fall of the English department? The Life of the Mind suggests it can. Brooding on apocalypse, the novel depicts an academic world in which absurdities are unavoidable. Lacking an office, Dorothy hides out in toilet stalls and faces off against scornful librarians. (“Are professors not allowed in the library?” she challenges a librarian while having a meltdown in front of a broken printer.) The campus novel is in its classic form a novel of manners. That some of the most educated people in the society can also be some of the most childish has long served as grist for comedy. As academic institutions weaken further, we should expect manners to get worse, not better; disputes over whatever tiny allotment of power remains in the hands of academic humanists will no doubt become more bitter and sanctimonious. All this will be bad for scholars. Whether it will be good for novelists is another question.