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.


The Training of an Artist

Biographies are tremendously fascinating, because we get to know about creative people’s lives and the truth about who they really are, rather than the stereotype or caricature or popular image. I watched a documentary on the fabulously prolific and talented Woody Allen, who is best known as the Icon of New York. Not too long ago, I watched a documentary on the legendary Carol Channing (who doesn’t love to mimic that voice? I certainly do!), who is still going strong even over 90 years old. And a few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Patti Smith speak, and once again, it was interesting to see the difference between the stringy-haired, unkempt, androgyne image and the cultured woman who seemed much warmer in person than her forbidding appearance in Mapplethorpe photos would suggest. I suppose I could say that lately, I have had a habit of learning about the biographies of various performers and artists, and it is probably one of the best kinds of training a budding artist can have.

To expand on the above—-Woody Allen is extremely versatile, a multi-talented artist who has mastered film, music (he plays jazz clarinet with a band weekly in Manhattan), screenwriting, fiction writing, and of course, comedy. It is interesting to chart his course as to how he became a filmmaker. He began with writing comedy, and then performing it. Performance was not easy for him, but I believe it gave him an understanding of acting and stage performance that later made him (according to many accounts) the ultimate actor’s director. His influences are varied, from classic literature to New York Jewish culture to music to, nowadays, a very youthful global sensibility. If we look strictly at his artistic work, we see a man who is extremely disciplined, dedicated, and hard working. He seems to put out a feature film almost every year, which is by no means an easy task: there has to be the script, the right cast, the production (sometimes they are on location in a variety of places overseas), the funding, et cetera. It is amazing how Allen always manages to synthesize a wide variety of influences and yet always keep the story focused on his unique and complex characters. He has his own voice; there’s really nobody else quite like him. He’s an artist who really trained himself, not having come from a formally educated background. His most recent films, in my opinion, have a certain freshness to them that some of the earlier ones lack; set in exotic locations or cities with younger and more numerous casts, they are less neurotic and repetitive than previous films. I happen to call it the Soon-Yi effect, but who knows.

Carol Channing is an extremely educated and cultured woman. She grew up in the liberal, diverse city of San Francisco (she herself had some African-American ancestry through her father’s side). She was trained in ballet as a girl. In her documentary, she talks of some Russian music that she liked. She studied at Bennington College (I believe French was her major) before embarking on her professional career. Her husbands were of different ethnic backgrounds. And despite being the object of much mimicry, she herself is an excellent mimic! She has performed everywhere, so her sense of peoples and audiences is vast. What we see on stage is a Broadway star, but the real woman reveals herself as an artist with a tremendous work ethic and great knowledge of culture beyond Broadway.

Patti Smith is another “surprise,” if I dare to use the word. The “Godmother of Punk” with a rather wild, bohemian past is also an autodidact who imbibed as much culture as possible when young. She would read French poets like Rimbaud and peruse books on great European painters. She lived in New York City, the world’s great cultural mecca, with a budding young photographer named Robert Mapplethorpe. She mingled with other artists and musicians, spent time in Paris, and played in bands. She is known primarily as a musician, but she is also a writer. When I heard her speak a few years ago upon the release of her award-winning memoir Just Kids, she talked about her discipline in writing. Smith also said she never feels a lack of inspiration, because she is always reading the work of other writers or seeing the work of other artists. She mentioned, with admiration, how bassist Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) warms up with Bach runs. Last year, I saw her exhibit, Camera Solo, which was a collection of photographs of places and objects she loved. The photographs themselves were not so extraordinary were striking; however, what was most fascinating was Patti’s canon—-her choice of subjects that she photographed that meant something to her. I must be clear, I am not so familiar with her music, but I find her extremely fascinating as an artist with such a vast knowledge of culture in all its facets. Apparently the French agree: they awarded her the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2005.

These are just 3 examples of artists whose paths and training I found inspiring and fascinating. There are so many more artists’ paths out there waiting to be discovered by young or new artists. It is my feeling that, ultimately, an artist must educate her/himself.