The Academic Novel and My Current Writing Project

My current literary project is a collection of stories and novellas set at a fictitious research university.  The origins of this project are somewhat unexpected.  I had not set about to write a collection of stories, as I have always seen myself as a novelist.  However, the novel I had begun working on after my second round of graduate school had become too unwieldy; as much as I loved it and still do (it will be my next project that I complete, and I have returned to it from time to time), I knew I had to put it aside.

I had written a couple of short stories while working on the novel, and I felt that in order to do well at the novel, I had to master the shorter form.  There were things the shorter form could teach me (the act of completion, for one), such as technique and craft that were easier to see in a story.  I had also thought it would be fascinating to explore the emotional dilemmas of characters who are in different academic subjects were fields.  Where did emotion and the idea meet?  My reasons for doing this were indeed personal:  as a graduate student, I was more interested in a subjective response to “objective” questions.  Being in truth an artist, I always wanted to express my own ideas, and I found having to footnote and make citations frustrating and often derivative.  Just as an academic paper had to pose a research question and find an answer, I wondered why that couldn’t be done with an emotional question in a story.

So much of what I had seen, superficially, about academic novels involve a professor (usually male and often in the English department) in a midlife crisis and usually having an affair with a female colleague or graduate student.  Or, it involved a professor struggling with his career and marital problems.  To me, this seemed clichéd and the “been there, done that” of academic/campus novels.  Granted, I have only read a handful of books in this genre of writing, and have generally enjoyed these very much—-Lucky Jim, The Professor’s House (by my favorite author Willa Cather), the works of Jhumpa Lahiri (which often revolve around an academic setting), Lolita and Brideshead Revisited (which are nominally “academic”), and I believe I have even read Herzog.  I had begun McEwan’s Solar, as I enjoy his works very much, but somehow I was not able to get through it.  But I felt like there was something often unrepresented in this sub-genre.

Why couldn’t academia be used as a backdrop?  Didn’t academia have emotion to it?  At any given moment on any campus, I knew there were multiple personal questions, dilemmas, and emotions going on simultaneously. There might be an international student in the throes of a love affair with a fellow student, but who has to return home due to a visa’s limitations, while there is an associate professor up for promotion to full, but she is being blocked by colleagues, while there is a provost who has skeletons in his closet, while there is an economics professor who just won the Nobel Prize. Or, to continue the theme, there might be a student suffering from severe anorexia while a law student is deciding about dropping out while an entry-level administrator is having success as an artist.  Why wasn’t anyone writing about this? 

Given this current picture of academia, I felt that a lot of academic novels did not feel accurate:  they simply did not reflect the modern world as I saw it.  I am a member of the 1st post-civil rights/Title IX generation, which means that my generation is arguably the first to be integrated, gender-equal, and diverse.  Also, I have been fortunate to attend universities that are highly global.  My freshman dorm alone had students from Canada, Kuwait, Poland, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Spain, and Americans of every stripe and color.  Yes, it is entirely possible that my critics might say I am painting an elitist/ideal/atypical picture of college life in my book.  I can only be true to my own experience, which, I might add, involves coming from a very modest, middle/lower middle class college town.  To quote the funny cliché, “Well, it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it!”  American universities are very unique environments rich in a diversity of ideas, if not also types of people, and there is a reason they are renowned all over the world.

I wish to conclude with huge praise for one of my favorite short stories about a professor, which is by—-surprise!  Woody Allen—-called “The Kugelmass Episode,” about a professor of humanities who has an affair with Madame Bovary after being inserted into the novel by a magician.  Not only is it absolutely hilarious and brilliantly clever, but also it is also extremely well written, a good example of the arc of a short story.  So you see, I have had good models in learning how to write shorter pieces that merge academia and the form of the story.  There are always authors who remind us of the richness of the sub-genre of academic literature.


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